How does SEL improve academic outcomes?

February 24, 2022

The main goal of schooling is for students to grow and learn. However, it’s incredibly difficult to do if there are emotional and environmental difficulties in a child’s life, and they don’t have the mechanisms to approach and manage them. Experiencing and not knowing how to deal with negative emotions (or just a lot of emotions) can encapsulate the brain, leaving little room for engagement in academia. A key example of these difficulties translated into reality is in a situation of poverty.

The effect of poverty on the physical structure of the brain is significant and alarming, and largely contributes to the achievement gap between different levels of socioeconomic status. A child in poverty experiences physical shrinking of the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center), due to difficult living situations, continuous stress, and negative relationships. In turn, this leads to a lack of ability to learn and retain information, directly feeding into academic decline. However, there is a scientifically proven fix: nurturing relationships. If a child has someone in their life that brings them safety and love regardless of circumstance, it is possible for the shrinking to physically reverse, bringing the child up to par with other students. SEL in this way can provide both families, educators, and students with tools to foster these healthy relationships and successful learning amongst students.

Fostering healthy relationships is a key aspect to the positive effects of SEL on academics. However, SEL’s additional ability to help children manage stress, identify and understand emotions, and successfully handle social situations has led to significant academic improvements. According to CASEL, SEL interventions boosted academic performance by 11 percentile points, displaying the effect that emotional and social skills can have on intellectual capability.