Social and emotional learning as a tool for preventing ESL

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Ana Kozina

Social and emotional learning plays an important role in preventing ESL through several mechanisms. When implemented in schools, social and emotional learning prevents ESL directly by promoting school connectedness, commitment and positive attitudes to school, teachers and peers and, indirectly, by enhancing educational success.

The paper presents the role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in ESL with a theoretical review and the development of policy guidelines. SEL is a process through which students learn to recognise and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop a positive relationship and avoid negative behaviours (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, 2003). The literature review showed the positive impact of SEL on preventing ESL directly by promoting school connectedness, commitment…. Hawkins, Smith, & Catalano (2004) revealed that by enhancing school bonding schools can decrease ESL, and positive attitudes to school, teachers and peers and, indirectly, by enhancing educational success. Wilson and colleagues (Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001) conducted a meta-analysis of 165 published studies of the outcomes of school-based SEL prevention programmes that ranged from individually focused counselling through to broad school-wide efforts in changing the way schools are managed. One of their findings is that programmes which focus on SEL resulted in improving outcomes related to ESL and truancy. Unfortunately, many students lack social-emotional skills and become less connected to school as they progress from basic to upper secondary school, and this lack of connection negatively affects their academic outcome, behaviour and health (Blum & Libbey, 2004). Based on the literature review and the topic’s established importance for preventing ESL, the possibilities of enhancing social and emotional skills on the national and European levels are discussed. The paper demonstrates that social and emotional skills and SEL are an innovative strategic solution in addressing the EU’s strategic goal of preventing ESL.

[1School-level factors (also a microsystem) and factors from the exosystem are examined in two separate articles.


SEL is the process of acquiring fundamental emotional and social skills: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, successful management of relationships and responsible decision-making (Ragozzino, Resnik, Utne-O’Brien, & Weissberg, 2003). Self-awareness encompasses familiarity with one’s own emotions and feelings, a realistic assessment of one’s own competencies, skills and self-concept. Self-regulation relates to the regulation of one’s own emotions in such a way that these emotions foster activity, the ability to forgo a reward for the sake of following one’s own goals, and perseverance in spite of failure, standstill or regression. Social awareness includes the perception of other people’s emotions and feelings, the ability to view things from other people’s perspective, a positive attitude towards and active participation in different groups. Successful management of relationships includes the efficient regulation of emotions and relationships, establishing and maintaining good relationships based on cooperation, opposition when it comes to unsuitable social pressure, use of negotiation as a means of resolving conflicts and enlisting help whenever necessary. Responsible decision-making encompasses correct risk assessment, taking decisions based on a consideration of all important factors and the most probable consequences of various actions, respect for others and assuming personal responsibility for one’s own decisions (Ragozzino et al., 2003). Among these, in relation to the school environment, Ellias et al. (1997, in Durlak et al., 2011) highlight emotional recognition and regulation, setting and achieving positive goals, taking other people’s perspectives into consideration, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, dealing with interpersonal conflicts in a constructive way and taking responsible decisions.

Learning and teaching are two processes that include both the cognitive as well as the emotional and social aspects of individuals’ functioning (Zins, Bloodworth, Weisseberg, & Walberg, 2004). In this article we focus on fostering the emotional and social aspects. Research (Humphrey, 2013) has shown that, without developed emotional and social competencies, students establish a lower level of connection with school, which negatively impacts their academic achievement, behaviour and health (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Humphrey, 2013) and can lead to ESL. Students at risk of ESL experience alienation from school, with low bonding, low engagement and frequently low academic achievement (Ellias & Haynes, 2008; Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013). Social and emotional competencies are the ones that differentiate students at risk who succeed in school and students at risk who do not (Blum & Libbey, 2004).


The literature review entailed use of a scientific literature search (database PychArticles (EBSCO-HOST)) with the key words social and emotional learning (in the title) and early school leaving (anywhere in the text): 0 results; social and emotional learning (anywhere in the text) and early school leaving (anywhere in the text): 0 results. Social and emotional learning (in the title) and drop-out (anywhere in the text): 1 article; social and emotional learning (in the title) school (anywhere in the text): the result was 7 articles. We used articles combining social and emotional learning and academic achievement and relevant scientific monographs and handbooks on the topic of social and emotional learning (also through a backward search).

SEL in school and its role in ESL

The literature on the relationship between SEL and academic achievement in recent years cannot go without the meta-analysis conducted by Durlak et al. (2011). This meta-analysis included 213 selective and school-based universal SEL programmes and (among other things) its impact on pupils’ and students’ academic achievement. The researchers established the significant positive impacts of these types of programmes on targeted emotional-social competencies, attitude towards self, others and school. Also relevant to ESL prevention are positive attitudes to school (related to school connectedness and school engagement) and an increase in academic achievement. In the meta-analysis, only 16% of all studies considered academic achievement data. They reported an 11-percentile-point gain (on average) in academic achievement. This meta-analysis is therefore considered a starting point for many others (e.g. Schonfeld et al., 2015; Rimm-Kaufmann et al., 2014) following this direction and focusing more specifically on the relationship between SEL and academic achievement. The studies that followed (Schonfeld et al., 2015; Rimm-Kaufmann et al., 2014) confirmed that SEL enhances students’ connection to school, classroom behaviour and academic achievement also when controlling for cognitive abilities (Teo, Carlson, Mathieu, Regeland, & Sroufe, 1996, in Malecki & Elliot, 2002) which is all related to ESL prevention.

Wilson, Gottfredson and Najaka (2001) similarly compared the efficacy of various school SEL prevention programmes in a meta-analysis of 165 studies (ranging from individual counselling to behaviour modification programmes). The main finding of their study was that school-based prevention programmes (including programmes based on SEL, especially social competency promotion) are effective in reducing ESL (among other positive outcomes). They also established that prevention programmes (SEL programmes included) are even more effective in high-at-risk groups compared to low-at-risk groups of students (Bierman, Coie, Dodge, Lochman, McManon, & Pinderhughes, 2010; Ellias & Haynes, 2008). This is common finding of school-level intervention programmes (Humphrey, 2013). And since ESL is present to a larger extent in low socio-economic status (SES) students (also minorities and migrants) (Reys, Ellias, Parker, & Rosenblatt, 2014) , this is an important starting point for prevention and intervention. Even though the decrease in school connectedness is normative (40%–60% of students in upper secondary education have a low level of connection with school (Klem & Connell, 2004)), it is present to a greater extent in high-risk groups – SES and migrants (Castro-Olivo, 2014). A study by Rosenblatt and Maurice (2008) revealed a possible solution for ESL in the form of SEL. They monitored the effects of various SEL programmes on academic achievement in the transition from lower secondary to upper secondary education and established that, even though students are generally characterised by lower achievement in the transition stage, the decline is less noticeable in students who were exposed to more intense SEL programmes (the initial level of social and emotional skills was controlled) in comparison with the decline of learning achievement in students who were either exposed to less intense SEL programmes or not exposed to them at all.

Schools are especially suitable for SEL as they encompass the majority of students, without further exposing individuals at risk (Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2009).

Mechanisms linking SEL and ESL

There are several explanations of the connections between SEL and ESL. The first set of explanations considers changes within an individual due to participation in SEL programmes. Changes within individual are related to higher academic achievement, increased social competence (students successful in school have greater social competencies) (Cook, Gresham, Kern, Barreras, & Crews, 2008), increased emotional competence, enhanced self-efficacy and also decreased mental health problems (which can undermine the pursuit of academic activities ).

In SEL, social competencies are related to: social awareness, relationship management skills, responsible decision-making and emotional competencies through to self-awareness and self-regulation (Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, Bandura, & Zimbardo, 2000; Gresham, Bao Van, & Cook 2006; Mallecki & Elliot, 2002). Even though there is strong support for bi-directional effects (social competencies influencing academic achievement and academic achievement influencing social competencies), there is evidence that this influence is somewhat stronger in the direction social competencies influencing academic achievement (Malecki & Elliot, 2002; Vidmar, 2011). In school, students with better social competencies are more active in the classroom, express their opinions and points of view more clearly, integrate, evaluate and accept other people’s opinions, have better relationships with their peers and teachers (Cook et al., 2008; Ragozzino et al., 2003; Elliot, Frey, & Davies, 2015; Mallecki & Elliot, 2002) and ask for help when necessary. The latter is especially important since academic development is socially situated and relies strongly on interpersonal support (Caprara et al., 2000). The knowledge of solving interpersonal problems (identifying a problem, setting goals to address the problem, generating an appropriate response and evaluating the outcome) can also be easily transferred to solving academic problems. Teaching social skills in class usually includes: (i) modelling correct behaviour; (ii) eliciting an imitative response; (iii) providing corrective feedback and reinforcement; and (iv) arranging opportunities to practise the new skill (Elliot et al., 2015).

Even though social competencies and emotional competencies cannot be separated (Saarni, 2007, in: Ellias & Haynes, 2008), emotional competencies have their own independent role in the learning process (Ellias et al. 1997, in Durlak et al., 2011) in the form of stress regulation (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). Emotions are a response to life events that are seen as important and as such form part of everyday school life. In the school environment, learning achievement is, in particular, related to a number of emotions that can be positive activating, positive deactivating, negative activating and negative deactivating (Pekrun, 2009). Positive emotions aid in setting learning objectives and are a basis for self-regulation mechanisms that lead to higher academic achievement (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999). On the other hand, negative emotions are linked to a decrease in achievement in school and may lead to ESL (Zeidner, 1998). In the absence of adequate coping skills, a student’s attention will be directed to responding to emotional stressors at the expense of academic learning. The link between emotional stressors and academic performance is especially evident in periods of transitions. Periods of transitions are characterised by navigating a new social structure, forming new friendships, managing increased academic demands with new expectations for independence and personal responsibility (Rosenblatt & Ellias, 2008).

Besides targeting social and emotional competencies, SEL influences students’ metacognition and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is particularly important since it is directly related to behaviour in academic tasks (e.g. effort, persistence in tasks despite obstacles and challenges) (Maddux, 2014; Ragozzino et al., 2003; Mottin-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013). High perceived self-efficacy for self-regulated learning (related to high metacognitive abilities) contributes to better learning outcomes and increases the likelihood of remaining in school (Caprara, Fida, Vecchione, Del Bove, Veccio, & Barbaranelli, 2008). Students with a high sense of efficacy to regulate their learning activities are likely to do better in school and are less prone to ESL (Caprara et al., 2008). Self-efficacy and self-regulation help prevent ESL independently of academic achievement (Caprara et al., 2008) and are therefore an important tool to be considered for stopping ESL. Ellias and colleagues (1997, in Durlak et al., 2011) additionally highlighted setting and achieving positive goals and taking responsible decisions as relevant skills for enhancing academic achievement.

SEL also fosters academic achievement by changing the characteristics of the environment (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Hawkins et al., 2004). When teachers either implement an SEL programme or integrate SEL into their curriculum this also affects the classroom climate. The characteristics of the classroom climate linked to SEL and academic achievements are: (i) peer and adult norms that encourage high expectations and support academic achievement; (ii) good interpersonal relationships between the students and teacher, which encourage thefeeling of belonging to a certain class and school; (iii) cooperative learning; and (iv) providing a safe and organised learning environment. The most commonly mentioned example of fostering SEL within the classroom is cooperative learning (Malecki & Elliot, 2002), also supported by the theories of Vygotsky (zone of proximal development) and Bandura (social cognition theory) (Malecky & Elliot, 2002).

The best possible combination entails changes at both the individual and school level, which lead to instant (for instance, a decrease in aggressive behaviour, emotional difficulties) and long-term positive consequences (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2002), including for the prevention of ESL.

Putting SEL into practice

At the school level we can implement SEL by either creating a safe and encouraging learning environment or by administering already developed SEL programmes. The creation of a safe and encouraging classroom environment includes the integration of peers and parents into the building of a positive classroom and social climate (Hawkins et al., 2004). At this level, the importance of informing the school leader about the means of creating and maintaining a stimulating school climate needs to be highlighted (Rimm-Kaufman, 2014; Kozina, Rožman, Vršnik Perše, & Rutar Leban, 2012). The second way includes structured SEL programmes. Through systematic teaching in SEL programmes students are able to learn social and emotional competencies in such a way that they can easily apply them to different situations and use them in everyday life (Zins & Ellias, 2006).

The finding by Durlak et al. (2011) that the school staff (and not only professional help from outside the school) is also efficient in delivering SEL programmes is important for school implementation. For instance, teachers could implement them during their regular class activities or integrate them into the curriculum. This means that such programmes are easy to integrate into regular school work. When administered by the teacher this also improves their relationships with students. In more detail, SEL intervention can improve low academic performance (and ESL) in two ways: (i) through the professional development of educators; and (ii) by encouraging students to change their behaviour in such a way that they are able to persist in difficult academic tasks and elicit greater support from educators. When receiving support to teach social and emotional skills to their students, teachers are given the same lessons and frequently apply them to themselves, thereby preventing burn out and helping them self-regulate more efficiently (Kres & Ellias, 2012).

When implementing a programme, the first and most important condition is that it is high in quality. Zins and colleagues (2004) defined the qualities of good SEL programmes that foster academic achievement: (i) a theoretical basis and empirically proven efficacy; (ii) learning emotional and social skills that are useful in everyday life; (iii) an orientation to the emotional and social components of learning; (iv) control, integration, unity of the programme in relation to academic achievement; (v) added instructions for efficient learning of emotional and social skills; (vi) participation of parents and the wider environment; and (vii) the presence of sustainable development, evaluations and result dissemination. The programmes also need to be evaluated and tested in different cultural settings. Europe-based research is (compared to research based in the USA) in need of a randomised controlled trial in a longitudinal setting and multi-year programmes integrated into the school curriculum (Bierman et al., 2010). A bottom-up approach (similar to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) initiative in the USA) is advised in order to obtain an evidence-based platform of programmes that works in the EU. Based on this platform, good practice (high quality SEL programmes) could be disseminated across EU member states.

The implementation of SEL is nevertheless not a straightforward process of teachers simply administering unit after unit of an SEL programme, but needs cooperation on multiple levels (students, teachers, principals, parents). The implementation process and its quality assurance is stressed across all the research literature with the focus of research shifting from the pure effect of an SEL programme on academic achievement to how we can successfully implement the programme and sustain the effects (Kres & Ellias, 2012). In the school setting, it is advised to focus on the link between programme developers and the ones actually implementing it by stressing the importance of monitoring and supporting teachers during the implementation process (Kres & Ellias, 2012). Successful implementation should: (i) create systems that allow integration of the intervention at multiple levels of the school and across risks (e.g. being successful for high-, medium- and low-risk students); (ii) develop infrastructure for monitoring progress; and (iii) ongoing support systems or professional development that often includes coaches external to the school systems. Moreover, the interventions need to be culturally adapted to be most efficient (Castro-Olivo, 2014).

For the purpose of fostering students’ comprehensive development, it is advisable to integrate efficient SEL programmes in all schools within primary, lower secondary and upper secondary education (and preschools). Since upper secondary schools have been pointed out as the most problematic (a general decline in academic achievement and school bonding has been perceived in the transition from lower secondary to upper secondary education), when it comes to ESL (Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013), the implementation of SEL programmes is most advised there. But, in the long run and taking the theoretical discussions and empirical research results into consideration, the earlier we start the more beneficial it will be.


There is a common fear that focussing on social and emotional skills will take time away from pure academic learning. Here it is necessary to point out that SEL does not deter schools from the fundamental teaching and learning processes and the acquisition of basic knowledge, but enables better quality and more efficient teaching and learning within schools. As far as ESL is concerned, an SEL intervention is a strong tool with effects on school connectedness, commitment and positive attitudes to school, teachers and peers and, nevertheless, also educational success. The school setting is perfect for implementing these programmes since they are less time-consuming for schools and students, while their efficiency is supported by several empirical studies regarding both the functioning of students and the functioning of the school as a whole. Most importantly, the effects (also on ESL) are largest and long term when the whole school approach is adopted, namely, when the students, their teachers and other school staff actively participate in SEL.

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