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Research Based Practice

The Emotional Well-Being of Our Nation's Youth and the Promise of Social–Emotional Learning

By Philip J. Lazarus & Michael L. Sulkowski

A recent study by the World Health Organization indicates that mental health problems account for nearly half of all disabilities among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 (Gore et al., 2011). In the United States, about 17% of children suffer from mental illness (Roberts, Attkisson, & Rosenblatt, 1998), and approximately 5% to 9% meet eligibility criteria for serious emotional disturbance (New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003). Many of these children with emotional and mental health problems will experience serious life impairments. According to the Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health (U.S. Public Health Service, 2001), one in ten U.S.-born children suffers from a mental disorder severe enough to limit daily functioning in family, community, and school settings.

In response to this growing public health crisis, President Bush's New Freedom Commission (2003) recommends that all “Federal, State, and local child-servicing agencies fully recognize and address the mental health needs of youth in the educational system” (p. 62). Additionally, the Commission states that schools “must be active partners in the mental health care of our children” (p. 58) because of the “important interplay between emotional health and school success” (p. 58). However, despite recognizing the importance of addressing students' mental health needs, a significant discrepancy exists between these needs and the provision of needed services.

Millions of children do not receive mental health services, are poorly bonded to supportive educational communities, and fail to develop important social and emotional competencies. About 7.5 million children have an unmet mental health need and only 6% to 8% of U.S. children receive adequate mental health services (Kataoka, Zhang, & Wells, 2002). Furthermore, fewer than half of students (19% to 45%) develop competence in important social and emotional competencies such as empathetic responding, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills upon graduation (Klem & Connell, 2004), and less than a third (29%) of 12th graders report that their school provides a caring and encouraging learning environment (Benson, 2006). Clearly, a public health crisis is looming in our schools.

Supporting Students' Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being

Considering the aforementioned problems, many of which relate to students' school functioning, efforts are needed to support students' mental health needs and emotional well-being. Fortunately, schools may be an optimal environment to tackle this initiative. Most (95%) youth spend at least 40 hours a week in school (Resnicow, Cross, Wynder, 1993) and utilization rates for school-based intervention programs are higher than they are for clinics due to the familiarity of the school setting and reduced transportation obstacles that often are associated with service delivery in other settings (Ginsburg, Becker, Newman-Kingery, & Nichols, 2008). Furthermore, research suggests that disparities in mental health service delivery are reduced in educational settings (Cummings, Ponce, & Mays, 2010), and schools can be prime locations to reach youth who traditionally underuse mental health services (Ginsburg et al., 2008).

Prevention and early intervention. In addition to addressing students' mental health needs, schools also must work toward actively preventing mental health problems through supporting students' healthy development and emotional well-being. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine (2009) highlights the importance of promoting healthy self-esteem, social–emotional competence, and social inclusion as important aspects of preventing and treating emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders. Although the importance of targeting these objectives may seem obvious to mental health professionals, this report represents a gradual yet essential shift in focus as the Institute previously failed to establish mental health promotion as an effective preventative intervention in 1994 (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Schellinger, & Taylor, 2011). Among other roles and in collaboration with allied professionals, school psychologists can become key stakeholders in prevention and intervention efforts aimed at helping improve students' mental health (Sulkowski, Wingfield, Jones, & Coulter, 2011). For example, school psychologists can help develop, implement, and shape systems-wide prevention programs such as positive behavioral intervention supports (PBIS) that many states require.

Social–emotional learning. As a broad approach oriented toward supporting student needs, efforts to promote social and emotional learning (SEL) display promise in enhancing student success in school and life in general (Zins & Elias, 2006). These approaches aim to mitigate risk factors while supporting resiliency and protective factors in youth (Guerra & Bradshaw, 2008). Elias et al. (1997) define SEL as the process of recognizing and managing emotions, establishing and maintaining positive interpersonal relationships, identifying and appreciating multiple perspectives, setting and pursuing positive goals, making responsible decisions, and effectively managing interpersonal conflicts. More recently, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has defined the goal of SEL as fostering the development of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking (CASEL, 2005). Collectively, these SEL definitions highlight the importance of facilitating children's abilities to internalize important skills that allow them to govern their behavior better in response to external events (Bear & Watkins, 2006).

Social–emotional learning programs employ a two-pronged approach toward improving students' educational performance and emotional well-being. The first involves teaching, modeling, and practicing social and emotional skills in a variety of situations to facilitate the internalization of these skills. The second involves establishing safe, supportive, and caring learning environments to support students' connectedness to the school environment and the acquisition of social–emotional skills. The latter may involve establishing home–school collaborative efforts, supporting effective instruction, improving classroom management, and implementing school-wide community-building activities. Collectively, SEL learning objectives aim to promote the use of personal and environmental resources to allow students to feel safe and secure, emotionally supported, respected and valued at school, enthusiastic about learning, and concerned about the betterment of the school community (Greenberg et al., 2003).

In implementing SEL programs, Elias (2011) suggests these recommendations to guide policy. First, each student should receive a minimum of one-half hour of explicit instruction per week in skills related to social–emotional and character development as part of a comprehensive pre-K–12 scope and sequence. Second, every teacher, student support provider, and administrator should have demonstrated competence in implementing SEL programming and positive climate promotion.

Empirical support for programs. Empirical research that links students' academic achievement, mental health, and emotional well-being has grown over the past decade (Durlak et al., 2011). The promotion of social–emotional competencies is associated with greater well-being in students and improvements in overall school performance, whereas a failure to achieve competence in these domains is associated with impairment in academic, social, and family functioning (Greenburg et al., 2003; Guerra & Bradshaw, 2008; Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). For example, research suggests that SEL programs reduce antisocial and aggressive behavior (Lösel & Beelman, 2003; Wilson & Lipsey, 2007), substance abuse (Tobler et al., 2000), depression (Horowitz & Garber, 2007), and disruptive behavior problems in school settings (Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001).

As a prime illustration of the widespread benefits of SEL programs, a recent metaanalysis by Durlak et al. (2011) included 213 school-based SEL programs and involved 270,034 K–12 students. Results of this investigation suggest that SEL programs are effective at all educational levels (e.g., elementary, middle, high school) and across different types of communities (e.g., urban, suburban, rural). Compared to controls, students participating in SEL programs displayed an 11-percentile-point gain in academic achievement as well as improvements in social–emotional skills, attitudes about school, and school behavior. Additionally, SEL programs helped buffer against school and student problems such as conduct problems and internalizing psychopathology. Lastly, Durlak et al. (2011) found that regular school staff (e.g., general education teachers, pupil appraisal members) effectively implemented SEL programs, which suggests that these programs can be incorporated into regular school practice and do not require employing additional staff to set up and run.

Importance of increasing program implementation. Programs that aim to improve students' mental health and emotional well-being may be effective for a number of reasons. These programs may increase students' self-efficacy, self-awareness, and confidence in their learning abilities in the face of challenges, which may then encourage them to persist in the face of academic and social challenges (Durlak et al., 2011). These programs also may increase students' problem-solving abilities, which can help them face academic challenges and better navigate interpersonal conflicts at school (Zins & Elias, 2006). Lastly, programs that target students' mental health and emotional wellbeing may improve teacher–student relationships and the general school climate—two factors that are associated with improved student outcomes (Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Jennings & Greenberg, 2009).

Even if the processes by which these programs improve student outcomes need further elucidation, greater use of programs to address students' mental health needs and emotional well-being can benefit countless more students and other members of the educational community. These programs may be particularly valuable to schools that are under pressure to improve students' educational performance under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top due to their role in increasing academic achievement (Durlak et al., 2011).

Perhaps awareness of the widespread benefits of these programs is increasing. A review of educational practices in U.S. schools found that the majority (59%) of K–12 schools report having some type of program or practice to address students' emotional needs (Foster et al., 2005). However, the degree to which these programs are research-based or follow established practices is unclear. To improve the implementation of effective programs to address students' mental health and emotional wellbeing, the Illinois State Board of Education has included SEL skills as part of the state's student learning standards. Specifically, the Board of Education emphasizes the development of self-awareness and self-management skills, and the use of social awareness and interpersonal skills, decision-making skills, and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts (see http://www.isbe.state.il.us/ils/social_emotional/ standards.htm). Additionally, Illinois recently became the first state to require every school district to develop a plan for the district-wide implementation of SEL, and a similar initiative is underway in New York State (Durlak et al., 2011).

The NASP Connection

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has partnered with CASEL to foster initiatives to promote social–emotional learning in schools. At the July 2011 George Washington University/NASP Public Policy Institute, the theme was “Learning and Social–Emotional Supports for Vulnerable Students: Directions for the Nation,” and participants were briefed about the latest research on the impact of SEL curricula. They also met with members of the House and Senate or their aides to support legislation that promoted children's academic and social–emotional well-being. In addition, the 2012 NASP convention theme is “Advocating for the Emotional Well-Being of Our Nation's Youth,” and implementing universal interventions that foster children's emotional competence, such as SEL programs, will be highlighted as a presidential strand.

Moreover, NASP is supporting legislative acts in the 112th Congress. These relate to implementing social–emotional learning and school-wide positive behavioral interventions in our nation's schools with a focus on academic achievement. These include:

  • Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act of 2011 S. 919. Assists states in developing and implementing comprehensive programs and strategies to foster positive conditions for learning in public schools in order to increase academic achievement for all students.
  • Reducing Barriers to Learning Act H. R. 1995. Establishes an Office of Specialized Instructional Support Services in the Department of Education and provides grants to state education agencies to provide leadership and supports to reduce barriers to learning, including any social, emotional, behavioral, physical, environmental, or academic factors that substantially interfere with a student's ability to achieve academically.
  • Achievement Through Prevention Act S. 541. Amends ESEA of 1965 and mandates all state educational agencies, local educational agencies, and schools to increase implementation of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports and early intervening services in order to improve student academic achievement and reduce disciplinary problems in schools.
  • Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act H. R. 4223. Authorizes the Secretary of Education to award a 5-year grant to establish a National Technical Assistance and Training Center for Social and Emotional Learning that provides technical assistance and training to states, local educational agencies, and community- based organizations to identify, promote, and support evidence-based SEL standards and programming in elementary and secondary schools.


Students face a range of challenges—both internal and external—that impact their mental health and emotional well-being. Within the past few decades, programs have been developed and implemented to address these challenges as well as support student needs. However, much more needs to be done to support the mental health and emotional well-being of all children. In addition, efforts to increase students' academic and psychosocial functioning can no longer be seen as separate. This is not a liberal agenda but a pragmatic one. As the conservative columnist David Brooks (2007) noted in the New York Times:

One thing is clear: It's crazy to have educational policies that, in effect, chop up children's brains into the rational cortex, which the government ministers to in schools, and the emotional limbic system, which the government ignores. In nature, there is no neat division. Emotional engagement is the essence of information processing and learning.

Social–emotional learning programs that nurture the healthy growth and development of the whole child may then be the answer to the misguided dichotomization of rational and social–emotional learning.

In addition to demonstrating the efficacy of SEL programs, Durlak et al. (2011) highlight the importance of illustrating the costs and benefits of programs that target mental health problems and emotional well-being. One study suggests that SEL programs are a good financial investment (e.g., Hawkins, Smith, & Catalano, 2004). However, research is needed to demonstrate how SEL programs can reduce student problems, increase student outcomes, and save schools money concomitantly. Furthermore, research establishing a link between SEL education and reduced dropout risk would better establish the cost effectiveness as well as general benefit of these programs to society. For example, research by Rouse (2005) shows that each school dropout costs the nation approximately $260,000. Unless schools dramatically increase their retention rates, more than 12 million students will drop out during the next decade and the resultant loss to our nation will be $3 trillion. In this regard, a meta-analysis by Wilson et al. (2001) examined prevention programs aimed at reducing school dropouts. Results of this investigation suggest that social competency promotion instruction as well as noninstructional programs using cognitive–behavioral interventions display promise even though effect sizes for interventions were not large in magnitude.

Consequently, as professionals with a background in supporting students' mental health and well-being, the onus is on school psychologists to assume positions of leadership in helping schools implement SEL programs and to illustrate the benefits of these programs to key stakeholders. Moreover, school psychologists can work with legislators to develop legislative initiatives that mandate districts to incorporate SEL in the schools. If for no other reason than increasing students' academic achievement, SEL must move from the fringe to the core of educational policy and practice.

Great dividends can result if SEL programs are implemented with integrity and fidelity in schools all across the nation. These benefits include a population of students who possess better social–emotional skills, increased academic proficiency, improved mental health and emotional well-being, and schools that function as safe, supportive, and nurturing learning environments. In addition, if SEL programs can decrease major social problems such as the school dropout rate, then they may save society billions of dollars and mitigate incalculable suffering among our nation's youth.

Philip J. Lazarus, PhD, is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists and the director of the school psychology training program at Florida International University (currently on leave). Michael L. Sulkowski, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rothman Center for Pediatric Neuropsychiatry in the Department of Pediatrics and the University of South Florida.


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