Wayfinder Blog

Enhancing School Culture Through SEL: A Research-Backed Approach

5 Sep

Over the past few decades, there's been a growing talk about social-emotional learning (SEL). Because of its relative newness to the education field, though, not all educators are equally excited to invest the time, effort, and resources required to add SEL to the long list of priorities schools and districts already set for student achievement. 

However, research shows that SEL doesn't just help with understanding emotions; it is directly linked to academic and life-long success. SEL is all about helping students manage their emotions, work well with others, and make responsible choices—all qualities of successful students. 

Study after study on the impact of social-emotional learning have made it increasingly clear that SEL isn't just a nice addition to an academic curriculum but a critical game-changing part of K-12 education. Following are a few of the research-backed benefits of introducing SEL to schools.

1. Improved Relationships

The past years of disrupted learning spotlighted the importance of relationships in driving positive outcomes for students, staff, and the broader school community. Students’ learning potential diminishes when they feel disconnected from their school environments. Similarly, when staff don’t feel connected to their work, they leave. For schools focused on rebuilding school culture, the relational foundation of SEL can be a key lever for change.

A study by Jennings and Greenberg (2009) demonstrated that SEL programs positively impact teacher-student relationships, leading to a more positive school environment. SEL's focus on empathy, compassion, and collaboration encourages students and teachers to understand and respond to one another's emotional needs. This enhanced connection builds a stronger sense of community and mutual respect and creates a more supportive learning atmosphere where students feel safe and nurtured. Cultivating such an environment is foundational for academic growth, as it promotes engagement, reduces conflicts, and helps students feel more invested in their education. The ripple effect of these positive teacher-student relationships extends beyond the classroom, contributing to a healthier and more cohesive school culture.

2. Enhanced Academic Performance 

A common concern with SEL, especially at the high school level, is that it takes time away from essential academic learning. However, research has shown time and time again that investment in SEL actually improves academic performance in addition to personal well-being. 

The landmark study by Durlak et al. (2011)  presented compelling evidence that SEL is not only about cultivating emotional intelligence but also plays an integral role in academic achievement. The study revealed that students engaged in quality SEL programs outperformed their peers who were not exposed to SEL academically by an average of 11 percentile points. This success is attributed to how SEL encourages the development of essential life skills like goal-setting, self-monitoring, and self-discipline. By weaving these skills into daily learning, SEL helps students build the resilience, focus, and motivation they need to excel academically. In essence, SEL's integration of emotional and cognitive growth lays a strong foundation for a well-rounded education, fostering personal development and academic excellence.

Using adult-appropriate SEL with your staff isn’t just about making them more comfortable with facilitating SEL either. Benefits of SEL—including improved communication skills, stronger self-awareness, greater capacity for empathy, and more—are also features of a well-functioning staff ready to build a healthy school culture among themselves and their students.

3. Behavioral Problem Reduction

Since returning from distance learning, schools have seen a notable uptick in challenging behaviors from students at all levels—particularly in middle schools. The disruption of the pandemic delayed social development for students, created a disconnect between them and their learning communities, and created more opportunities for developing habits that are disadvantageous to learning and a safe and supportive school environment. 

Sklad et al. (2012) found that SEL programs effectively reduce behavioral problems, including aggression and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Through SEL, students are taught crucial skills like managing emotions and recognizing the triggers for impulsive reactions. This encourages more thoughtful and controlled responses and helps students understand the consequences of their actions. The enhanced self-awareness that comes with SEL encourages a deeper reflection on behavior and promotes more responsible decision-making. Ultimately, these benefits translate into a more harmonious classroom environment, where disciplinary issues are minimized and respectful interactions become the norm.

4. Teacher Well-Being Supports

Teaching has long been a challenging profession, and many have reported that the recent years have been some of the toughest in modern education. This has left many schools and districts scrambling for ideas to ensure teachers feel resourced and supported daily. 

SEL is often seen as a student-centered approach, but its benefits stretch beyond the student body. Roffey's 2012 study highlighted the profound impact of SEL on educators. The research underscored that SEL interventions improve teacher well-being and significantly alleviate stress. When SEL principles are adopted holistically across a school, they pave the way for a nurturing and supportive environment for the teaching staff. This supportive backdrop is a buffer against burnout and paves the path for heightened job satisfaction. Overall, SEL enhances student outcomes and fosters a more resilient and contented teaching community.

5. Fostering Belonging

Students’ feelings of belonging on campus are key to a healthy and supportive learning environment, but recent studies have shown that students have grown increasingly disconnected from their schools. The fallout from this disconnection can be seen in startling reports on students’ declining mental health as well as many issues already discussed here: decline in academic performance, students acting out, and strained student-teacher relationships. 

The research by Brackett et al. (2012) underlines an essential aspect of SEL that often goes unnoticed: its role in promoting belonging and inclusivity. By centering on empathy and social awareness, SEL programs equip students with the tools to see beyond their own experiences and perspectives. This fosters a genuine appreciation for the range of backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints within a school community. Through SEL, students learn to celebrate differences rather than fear them, nurturing an inclusive environment where all individuals feel valued and respected. In an increasingly interconnected world, SEL's role in embracing diversity becomes indispensable for preparing students to be compassionate global citizens.

The evidence is clear: SEL isn't just an added bonus to the school experience. It's central to crafting a school culture that’s inclusive, positive, and primed for success—truly a transformative tool for the entirety of school life.

For schools aiming to blend academic achievement with emotional intelligence, empathy, and overall well-being, SEL stands out as the key. When schools adopt SEL, they’re uniting the efforts of educators, parents, and the wider community in a comprehensive learning approach that promises to yield profound results for years to come.