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Social-Emotional Learning Approaches

In addition to prevention, screening and individual interventions, researchers are looking at the effects of entire curricula that reinforce good citizenship and behavior. Big-picture changes can be the ideal backdrop for individual improvement.

An emerging approach to encouraging positive mental health and behavior in young people is to adopt social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula in schools. A wide variety of models and interventions have been developed to explicitly teach these skills and decrease problems in emotional regulation and interpersonal interactions.

A meta-analysis of 213 studies including more than 270,000 students suggests that SEL programs and interventions have a broad positive effect. Students in SEL programs showed:³⁹

  • 22% improvement in SEL skills
  • 10% increase in “positive social behaviors”
  • 10% decrease in “emotional distress”
  • 11% improvement in academic performance

The Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies Curriculum (PATHS) is administered by Head Start teachers over the course of nine months. Like other SEL interventions, it is based on explicit instruction in SEL curricula. Teachers rate children who have completed PATHS as:

  • more cooperative
  • more emotionally aware
  • more interpersonally skilled⁴⁰

The intervention shows:

  • Significant increase in emotional vocabulary
  • Reduction in false attribution of negative emotions

Like other universal interventions, it has not been shown to have a significant effect on more clinical symptoms like lack of inhibitory control or attention deficit.

³⁷ Guzmán, J., Kessler, R.C., Squicciarini, A.M., George, M., Baer, L., Canenguez, K.M., Abel, M.R., McCarthy, A., Jellinek, M.S., Murphy, J.M. (2015). Evidence for the effectiveness of a national school-based mental health program in Chile. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(10): 799-807. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2015.07.005.

³⁸ Bradshaw, C.P., Waasdorp, T.E., & Leaf, P.J. (2012). Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on child behavior problems. Pediatrics, 130(5). doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-0243