When school and district planning teams oversee the careful selection and effective implementation of evidence-based social and emotional learning programs, the students they serve benefit socially, emotionally, and academically. This page links to guidelines SEL teams can follow to ensure they ultimately adopt the best programs for their particular school community.
To begin, three key principles support the effective selection, implementation, impact, and sustainability of evidence-based SEL programs.
Principle 1: School and district teams—rather than an individual—should engage diverse stakeholders in the program adoption process to identify shared priorities.
Principle 2: Implementing evidence-based SEL programs within systemic, ongoing district and school planning, programming, and evaluation leads to better practice and more positive outcomes for students.
Principle 3: It is critical to consider local contextual factors (e.g., student characteristics, programs already in place) when using the CASEL Guide and gathering additional information in order to make the most effective decisions about which programs to implement.
Some schools may prefer to develop their own approach to SEL, rather than adopting one of the evidence-based SELect programs identified in this Guide. We believe it is better to start from a foundation that is evidence-based. A SELect program can serve as a base from which to coordinate schoolwide SEL, school-family partnerships, and community programming. The benefits of using programs that embody years of scientific program development, evaluation, and evidence are worth the effort.
Selecting an Evidence-Based SEL Program
Within the context of the three principles above, we have organized the following steps for selecting an evidence-based program based on research and practice.
Step 1: Use the SELect Tables to identify program candidates.
Step 2: Review the program descriptions of each of the possible candidates you identify to narrow your search.
Step 3: Gather additional information about your top program candidates.
Step 4: Assess the cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program.
Step 5: Contact and visit schools using the program(s) you are considering.
Step 6: Completing the selection process and beyond.
Step 1. Use the SELect Tables to identify program candidates.
The 2015 Guide presents SELect middle school and high school programs separately. Review the ratings on the three tables (“Program Design” “Implementation Support” and “Evidence of Effectiveness”) that correspond to the grade levels for which you want to select a program. Click on “Learn about Review Methods” at the top right of each table to learn more about what the ratings mean and how to interpret them.
As you scan the list of programs, look first to see if you recognize any programs that are already being implemented in your district or school. If the program your school or district is using is a SELect program, well-received by your school community, and beneficial for students, you will be ahead of the game. On the other hand, many districts or schools currently implement programs that CASEL has not identified as SELect. If this is the case in your school or district, it’s a cause for reflection but not necessarily for concern. We have also identified complementary programs that can help support a broad plan for SEL. A program you are familiar with may not be listed as SELect or Complementary for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that we have not yet reviewed it.
If your district or school has programs that are not on either list, we recommend several courses of action. First, align your program to the CASEL SELect criteria so you have a better sense of whether it appears to be well-designed, offers adequate training and support, and provides evidence of its impact and effectiveness. Second, contact the program provider to get a direct report on the extent to which the program meets our criteria. Third, please contact CASEL to inform us about the program. We will continually update the Guide, and we want to be sure we are reviewing all the programs schools may be thinking about.
When using the Program Design Table, here are some considerations to guide your discussions and decisions about program adoption:
- Grade range covered. Some teams will prefer to select programs that cover every grade level their school serves so the school community aligns around a unified framework and set of activities. Other teams may believe they already have certain grades covered effectively. In these instances it will be important to determine how newly adopted programs can best be coordinated with programs that are already in place.
- Approaches to Promote SEL. If you want to use a program that has free-standing lessons for SEL, it will be necessary to identify a few times per week when this can happen. If instead your staff wants to develop greater expertise in providing pedagogies that develop SEL, you will want to pay particular attention to programs that infuse SEL in teaching practices. Other schools and school systems may have curriculum areas where SEL could be integrated. If so, you will want to look for programs that are infused in an academic curriculum. Finally, if you want to infuse SEL systemically, you will want to pay careful attention to programs that provide structures and guidance for doing that.
- Number of SEL Lessons. Programs that provide free-standing lessons assume that schools can devote a certain amount of class time to the process. If your school is looking for a program that provides free-standing instruction in SEL, we encourage teams to review some programs that require fewer versus more lessons to gain a sense for how different models operate.
- Settings (that promote and reinforce SEL). SEL is more powerful when it is reinforced across all the settings where students spend their time. Districts and schools wishing to implement systemic SEL programming may choose to adopt programs that provide guidance and strategies for classroom-wide, schoolwide, and family programming. Other teams may prefer to begin with a more narrowly focused classroom program.
When using the “Implementation Support” Table, here are some factors to consider as your team reviews program.
- Recommended Training Model. Consider whether the recommended training model would provide your teachers and staff with sufficient training and support, and whether it is feasible.
- Format. Given the context of your school or district, consider whether the available formats for training would meet your needs. If not, you may want to discuss with program providers whether they would have other ways of accommodating your school or district.
- Technical Assistance and Implementation Supports. Does each program you are considering provide administrative supports, ongoing coaching, and opportunities to participate in professional learning communities? Does each program provide tools for monitoring implementation that are specifically aligned with the program and that will allow you to collect information to enhance the quality of implementation?
- Train the Trainer. In terms of ultimately sustaining the approach to SEL you choose to adopt, you may be interested in knowing whether the program offers a train the trainer model.
As you look at the Evidence of Effectiveness Table, consider the following:
- Study Demographics. When judging the strength of the research base for particular programs, consider whether they have been evaluated with samples that are similar to the students in your school. Research has indicated that SEL programs do not seem to have better effects for some student subgroups over others (Durlak et al., 2011), so if you are considering a program and the populations evaluated do not match your student population, it may still be worth considering.
- Study Design. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are generally more rigorous than quasi-experimental designs. It is likely that programs with more studies and more RCTs have stronger research foundations.
- Outcomes Demonstrating Effects. Many SELect programs have documented beneficial effects on students’ problem behaviors at the secondary level. Assessments of program effects on academic performance, positive social behavior, or emotional distress are less common. Many programs also show effects on SEL skills and attitudes. You may also be interested in knowing that a program was shown to have effects on teaching practices. Yet most program evaluations do not systematically collect data across all of these domains. If a program does not report gains in a particular area, it may be that their evaluation did not examine that area.
Step 2. Review program descriptions to narrow your search
Use the program descriptions to learn more about the specific programs that interest you. These descriptions provide detailed information about each program including the full range of grade levels for which the program is designed and the skills the program teaches. The summaries include an overview of each program followed by a grid with the findings in Tables 1 to 6. Also included is a link to the program’s own website, where you will be able to find additional information.
Because social and emotional competence is ultimately dependent on one’s culture, the cultural relevance of SEL programs is an important factor to consider. Although all the programs we reviewed made efforts to be neutral and respectful to different cultures, we note in the program description if a program made specific efforts to adapt to particular cultural contexts, or if there is content within the program to help teachers implement or adapt activities based on the cultures or linguistic needs of their students.
Based on your review of the descriptions of the top candidates, you should narrow your search to three or four programs you will explore more deeply.
Step 3. Gather additional information about your top program candidates
Once your team has settled on three or four programs that appear to meet your needs and support the goals of your SEL plan, you will need to explore these programs more deeply and gather information related to your particular situation. Consider contacting the program provider at this point. Key issues to discuss include program costs, training and other implementation supports such as on-site coaching and consultation, available guidance and tools for monitoring implementation and evaluating student outcomes, and the extent to which the program is culturally and linguistically appropriate for your student population. Following are questions you may want to ask in exploring each of these issues.
- Program costs. Some programs separate costs for training and costs for materials. Others combine these costs. Costs will also depend on unique circumstances in your district, such as whether the district has the capacity to support training of trainers and how much training in SEL your staff has already experienced. Questions to determine what the cost would be in your school or district include:
- What is the cost of standard program materials? Are there recurring costs? Are there ways to save on costs?
- What is the cost of training in our situation? Are there ways of saving on the cost of training?
- Is there training for trainers or training for coaches? If so, what is the cost?
- What are the differences in cost based on location of training?
- Training and support for implementation. Initial training in implementing a particular SEL program is essential. Ongoing training and support is highly desirable. Questions to ask with regard to training include:
- How much training will our staff need? How much time is required? Who should attend the training?
- Are there any prerequisites for participating in training?
- Does the training include opportunities for participants to practice using classroom materials and receive feedback? To develop a plan with colleagues for implementing the program? To use strategies such as morning meetings or a buddy system to establish a supportive classroom learning environment?
- After the initial staff development workshop and a period of implementation, does the program offer on-site consultation to schools to observe teachers using the program and offer feedback, facilitate group discussions about the program, and/or facilitate teachers coaching one another?
- Continuing evaluation of the program. A process for regularly evaluating the program’s impact on students should be in place from the beginning. Question to ask include:
- Does the program provide school districts with on-site assistance in designing an evaluation to determine the program’s impact on students?
- Does the program provide on-site assistance in collecting and analyzing evaluation data?
- Does the program provide assistance in interpreting evaluation data and making appropriate recommendations?
- Review materials. No program should be adopted without a careful review of the materials. Most of the SEL program providers will allow schools to preview materials free of charge and will send sample lessons. Questions to ask include:
- Are program materials available for review?
- How long can we keep the materials if we receive them in the mail?
- Is there a cost for review materials?
- How much of the program and its materials can be viewed directly on the program developer’s website?
- Information about others who have experience with the program. Interacting with other districts and schools that have experience with the program, preferably in person, is highly desirable. Many programs will provide potential adopters with a list of schools or districts in their region that have used the program. Ideally the schools or districts you contact will be similar to your own in terms of size and student population and located close enough so you can visit and observe the program being implemented. Questions to ask include:
- Can colleagues who are using the program be contacted directly?
- Is it possible to see the program in action?
Step 4. Assess the cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program
Research in social and emotional learning, and in child and adolescent development more broadly, has consistently found that young people learn best when education is relevant and appropriate to their cultural and linguistic context. The same is true and with regard to materials and programming for families and caregivers. This creates special challenges when selecting programs, since many schools are multicultural, with unique combinations of different cultures and with different levels of acculturation.
Your colleagues, parents, and students are the experts on the cultures and languages represented in your school or district. Questions you will want to ask related to a program’s cultural and linguistic appropriateness include:
- How does the program ensure that the language, content, and activities are appropriate for the kind of community where participating schools are located?
- Has the program been evaluated with populations similar to the one in our school?
- Are there program evaluations that might provide additional information about the cultural and linguistic appropriateness of this program for different groups of students?
- Are there schools using the program in communities similar to ours in terms of culture and languages? Can the program provider identify contacts in those schools?
To further help you select a program that meets your community’s needs, we also recommend:
- As you identify possible candidates from the CASEL SELect list, consider our comments about cultural and linguistic sensitivity in the descriptions of each program’s design, when available. In addition, review the evaluation table to determine whether programs have been evaluated in settings with a similar population to the one in your school.
- Think about the community where your school is located. What cultures and ethnicities are represented among the students and their families? What languages are spoken by families served by your school? How will you make decisions about SEL programs in a way that honors and celebrates different cultures and contexts in which your students live and learn? Who are the people in your school community who can help you in this process?
- Assemble a subcommittee or team made up of parents, faculty, and community stakeholders who represent the cultural perspectives in your community. Ask them to help you review and explore programs you are considering.
Step 5. Contact and visit schools using the program
To complete the selection process, contact and visit one or more schools using the programs you are considering. Speak with teachers and others who have experience with the program. Observe how the program works in action. Most programs can identify individuals or schools for a visit. At a minimum, and if distance and travel are problems, try to arrange extended telephone interviews with others who have used the program. If you are able to arrange visits, prepare carefully with a set of questions and discussion topics. With all the information you gather, your team will be well-equipped to complete the selection of a SELect program to support your SEL plan.
Step 6. Completing the Selection Process and Beyond
Once you have selected a program, there’s work to do to ensure the program is well-implemented. As part of planning, you will need to develop strategies for supporting implementation. Your committee should explore at least three kinds of on-site support: observation and feedback to teachers by program staff; meetings where teachers can discuss challenges and successes with colleagues who are more experienced with the program; and peer coaching by experienced teachers. Your school may also want to consider relatively new approaches to professional development such as incorporating the program into the school’s daily routines. Teachers might be given time to meet with one another and reflect on how things are going. Ideally, you will be able to use self-assessment tools provided by the program that can assist with this type of reflection.
Your team should also develop a plan for monitoring progress and impact by using implementation and student outcome data. Although there is strong evidence suggesting SEL programs can improve students’ behavior and academic performance, it is always important to monitor a program’s effects in each local context. Meeting regularly to discuss and identify challenges to overcome and successes to celebrate should be an important priority.
Once you have selected the program, you will also need to develop a plan for first-year implementation. It may make sense to start with a modest effort and build on solid success. For example, you might decide to pilot a program in one school, or in several grades in several schools. You will also need to develop strategies for supporting implementation. Going forward it will be important to continue to evaluate and assess whether the selected program is well-received and also achieves its goals in promoting SEL in students.