Two students working together in a classroom

Social-emotional learning (often called SEL) is not an “add-on” or something that is nice to get around to when you are done with the real business of teaching and learning.  Instead, it is at the core of good teaching.  Over the past decade there has been a surge in research on how SEL affects academic learning.  What lessons from that research are important for your students?

  1. Work on positive, rather than negative, student behaviors. Great SEL interventions emphasize increasing prosocial behavior (e.g., kindness, cooperation, helping), rather than just decreasing antisocial misbehavior (e.g., bullying).  Great SEL interventions help students be “other” focused rather than “self” focused. Even if your school enacts a program that successfully reduces antisocial behavior, it does not mean that prosocial behavior will increase. Yet, the reverse is true. When you increase prosocial behavior, you are likely to reduce antisocial behavior – and increase achievement.  Research shows that the presence of prosocial behavior better predicts school success than the absence of negative behaviors.
  2. Students learn more in positive, upbeat classrooms. When teachers help students behave more prosocially, the students’ grades and test scores rise even when there is not an academic component to the intervention. Why does this happen? Prosocial behavior promotes positive emotions, social connection through better teacher-student and student-student relationships, and engagement in learning. Teachers are less stressed and students are happier in classrooms characterized by kindness, politeness, honesty and cooperation. When students feel happier and cared for in the classroom, they become more creative, work harder, persist through challenges, pay attention, follow class rules, cooperate, and take learning risks. As a result, they learn more.
  3. SEL may narrow the achievement gap. While all students benefit from a positive classroom, your students who are at risk for academic failure tend to benefit most.  At-risk students who are in positive classrooms are less likely to be retained or develop behavior problems and have higher achievement. A positive school climate may even mitigate the negative effect of poverty on achievement. For example, in a large study, it took both good teaching practices and a prosocial class climate to narrow the achievement gap, but students’ grades were more strongly predicted by the friendliness of classmates than their teachers’ good teaching practices.
  4. SEL is for all age groups. The outcomes described above have been found in studies from preschool through high school. Yet, some secondary principals think SEL is for younger students.  They believe that students “have it down” by the time they reach high school.  Actually, the opposite is true.  Elementary through high school students report that prosocial behavior is not as frequent as you would like it to be, but it is least frequent in secondary schools. This suggests there is room for improvement in SEL at all grade levels.

For more on this topic, read “The Pros of Prosocial” by Dr. Bergin and her colleague Sara Prewett in the Sept/Oct 2020 edition of “Principal” published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).

Dr. Christi Bergin is associate dean of research and innovation at the University of Missouri College of Education. She is a co-founder of the Network for Educator Effectiveness.


The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.