Second Step® Programs and Research
Discover the research and evidence behind our family of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs.
Grounded in Research
We take great pride in the fact that Second Step programs are based on current research in the field. Translating research findings into key components of our programs helps us design our curricula to be effective in learning environments.
Committed to Continuous Improvement
Committee for Children’s research team is deeply involved in the development process for each program we create, from initial conceptualization to continuous improvement efforts after program release. The team ensures programs reflect up-to-date scholarship and leads research partnerships with educator and field-leader advisory groups, as well as field-test sites, to gather and respond to expert feedback on our programs. We are committed to conducting research that advances equity and using equitable research practices at each phase of program development and evaluation.
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Randomized control trials of Second Step® programs provide evidence of the programs’ effectiveness. This section provides an overview of these studies, organized by program, and includes links to the published research.
Second Step® Early Learning
Second Step® Early Learning Is Shown to Significantly Increase Executive Function, Which Leads to Kindergarten Readiness
Executive function, a set of foundational cognitive skills, is strongly linked to young students’ kindergarten readiness and academic success. Findings from a recent randomized control trial indicate that participation in Second Step Early Learning leads to significant increases in preschoolers’ executive function. Growth in preschoolers’ executive function subsequently predicted gains in students’ pre-academic skills and on-task behavior, which in turn predicted their kindergarten readiness.
Wenz-Gross, M., Yoo, Y., Upshur, C. C., & Gambino, A. J. (2018, October). Pathways to kindergarten readiness: The roles of Second Step Early Learning curriculum and social emotional, executive functioning, preschool academic and task behavior skills. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1886. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01886
Increased Executive-Function Skills Shown in Preschoolers Who Received Second Step® Early Learning
A classroom randomized control trial was conducted using Second Step Early Learning compared to the most commonly used curricula in Head Start and community preschools. Children receiving Second Step Early Learning had significantly better end-of-preschool executive-function skills than students who didn’t receive the program.
Upshur, C. C., Heyman, M., Wenz-Gross, M. (2017). Efficacy trial of the Second Step Early Learning (SSEL) curriculum: Preliminary outcomes. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 50, 15–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2017.03.004
Second Step® Elementary Classroom Kits
(Conducted with the 2011 Edition)
Improvements in Prosocial Skills, Empathy, Conduct Shown with Second Step® Elementary Classroom Kits
This study (the first with the 2011 edition of Second Step Elementary) conducted a randomized control trial over a one-year period with 7,300 students and 321 teachers in 61 schools across six school districts, from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Significant improvements in social-emotional competence and behavior were made by children who started the school year with lower baseline skills than their peers. Additionally, the number of lessons completed and student engagement were predictive of improved student outcomes.
Low, S., Cook, C. R., Smolkowski, K., & Buntain-Ricklefs, J. (2015). Promoting social–emotional competence: An evaluation of the elementary version of Second Step. Journal of School Psychology, 53, 463–477. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2015.09.002
Second Step® Elementary Classroom Kits: Student Engagement and Number of Lessons Received Improved Both Social-Emotional and Academic Outcomes
In a randomized control trial study, Kindergarten to Grade 2 students’ academic performance was increased only when they received the intervention with high implementation fidelity. Compared to students in low implementation fidelity classrooms, students who were more engaged in the lessons showed small but significant improvement in oral reading fluency and decreases in disruptive classroom behavior. Students who participated in more lessons had increased on-task behavior and improved math computation.
Cook, C. R., Low, S., Buntain-Ricklefs, J., Whitaker, K., Pullmann, M. D., & Lally, J. (2018). Evaluation of Second Step on early elementary students’ academic outcomes: A randomized controlled trial. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(4), 561–572. https://doi.org/10.1037/spq0000233
Two-Year Study Found Second Step® Elementary Increased Social-Emotional Skills and Decreased Disruptive Behaviors in K–2 Students
In a two-year randomized control trial, students (Kindergarten to Grade 2 in year one) receiving Second Step Elementary had increased social-emotional skills and decreased disruptive behaviors compared to the control group. These effects were strongest for students who had the lowest baseline skills at the beginning of the study. Both groups exhibited summer learning loss in their social-emotional skills, signaling a need to extend social-emotional learning through the summer.
Low, S., Smolkowski, K., Cook, C., & Desfosses, D. (2019). Two-year impact of a universal social-emotional learning curriculum: Group differences from developmentally sensitive trends over time. Developmental Psychology, 55(2), 415–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000621
Second Step® Middle School Classroom Kits
(Conducted with the 2008 Edition)
Physical Aggression 42 Percent Less Likely
Thirty-six middle schools in the Chicago and Wichita areas participated in an evaluation of Second Step Middle School classroom kits. Schools in the study were randomly assigned to teach either Second Step Middle School or be control schools. After one year, sixth-graders in schools that implemented Second Step Middle School were 42 percent less likely to say they were involved in physical aggression compared to sixth-graders in schools that didn’t implement the program.
Espelage, D. L., Low, S., Polanin, J. R., & Brown, E. C. (2013). The impact of a middle school program to reduce aggression, victimization, and sexual violence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(2), 180–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.02.021
Twenty Percent Reduction in Bullying by Students with Disabilities
This three-year study followed 123 students with disabilities from sixth through eighth grade. The 47 students in the intervention group received Second Step® lessons during these three years. The control group of 76 students received no Second Step lessons. The study found that bullying by students with disabilities decreased by one-fifth during this three-year period of middle school among the intervention group participating in Second Step programs.
Espelage, D. L., Polanin, J. R., & Rose, C. A. (2015). Social-emotional learning program to reduce bullying, fighting, and victimization among middle school students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 36(5), 299–311. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932514564564
Second Step® Child Protection Unit
PreK to Grade 4 Students Participating in the Second Step® Child Protection Unit Increased Knowledge About Child Sexual Abuse and Improved Relationships with Their Teachers
A randomized control trial tested the effects of the Second Step Child Protection Unit on PreK to Grade 4 students’ conceptual knowledge of child sexual abuse and their recognition, reporting, and refusal of unsafe touches. Compared to the control group, students who participated in the six-week curriculum had increased conceptual knowledge about child sexual abuse. This effect was strongest for younger versus older students and for girls versus boys. In addition, the Child Protection Unit improved the students’ relationship with their teacher.
Nickerson, A. B., Tulledge, J., Manges, M., Kesselring, S., Parks, T., Livingston, J. A., & Dudley, M. (2019). Randomized controlled trial of the Child Protection Unit: grade and gender as moderators of CSA prevention concepts in elementary students. Child Abuse & Neglect, 96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104101
Teaching the Second Step® Child Protection Unit Increases Educators’ Knowledge About Child Sexual Abuse and Improves Relationships with Students
A randomized control trial tested the effects of the Second Step Child Protection Unit on teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward child sexual abuse and teacher-student relationships. Teachers completed surveys before the training and after teaching the unit. Compared to the control group, teachers who completed the Child Protection Unit had higher child sexual abuse-related knowledge and improved relationships with students.
Kim, S., Nickerson, A., Livingston, J. A., Dudley, M., Manges, M., Tulledge, J., & Allen, K. (2019). Teacher outcomes from the Second Step Child Protection Unit: Moderating roles of prior preparedness and treatment acceptability. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 28(6), 726–744. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2019.1620397
Higher Adherence to Second Step® Implementation Increased Student Knowledge of Child Sexual Abuse Prevention One Year Later
This article explores the effect of teachers’ implementation fidelity when teaching the Second Step Child Protection Unit. Teachers were observed teaching Child Protection Unit lessons and rated on adherence to content, teacher quality (teacher enthusiasm, encouragement of student behavior, and use of behavior-management strategies), and dosage received (student engagement in lessons). Only adherence predicted student knowledge: Teachers who adhered to the content more had students who had greater knowledge of child sexual abuse prevention 12 months after the intervention.
Manges, M. E., & Nickerson, A. B. (2020). Student knowledge gain following the Second Step Child Protection Unit: The influence of treatment integrity. Prevention Science, 21, 1037–1047. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-020-01146-y
Increased Parent Knowledge About and Motivation to Discuss Child Sexual Abuse Prevention
A randomized control trial examined the effects of the Second Step Child Protection Unit’s family videos* on parents’ knowledge, motivation, and self-reported communication with their child about personal safety and childhood sexual abuse (CSA) prevention. Parents who watched the videos had significant increases in knowledge about CSA and parental motivation to have conversations with their children about personal safety and CSA at a two-month follow-up compared to those who did not watch the videos.
Nickerson, A. B., Livingston, J. A., Kamper-DeMarco, K. (2018). Evaluation of Second Step child protection videos: A randomized controlled trial. Child Abuse & Neglect, 76, 10–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.10.001
Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning
These seminal studies present field-level and longitudinal evidence for the positive effects of SEL.
SEL Has Positive, Lasting Impact for K–12 Students
In a follow-up to their groundbreaking 2011 meta-analysis, CASEL and collaborating researchers have found that students from kindergarten to high school significantly benefit from school-based, universal social-emotional learning (SEL) interventions. This meta-analysis, released in July 2017, evaluated results of nearly 97,500 students in 82 schools, and the effects were assessed six months to 18 years after the program had ended.
The study shows that 3.5 years after their last SEL intervention, students fared markedly better academically than their peers in control groups by an average of 13 percentile points, based on eight studies that measured academics. Additionally, researchers saw that conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use were much lower for students with SEL exposure than those without. The study also indicates that—regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or school location—students showed significant positive benefits one year post-intervention. This finding suggests that SEL interventions can support the positive development of students from diverse family backgrounds or geographical contexts.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Taylor, R.D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: a meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156–1171. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12864
SEL Programs Studied Return $11 for Every $1 Invested
This pioneering report from Columbia University details a benefit-cost analysis evaluating six SEL interventions (including Second Step® programs) that shows an average return on investment of $11 for every dollar spent. Until now, there has been little to no data to show policymakers and grant givers the economic benefits of SEL curriculum. The researchers acknowledge the limitations of imprecise data and say their conservative estimates may not capture the full benefits of the SEL programs evaluated. Known benefits of the interventions studied include: reductions in child aggression, substance abuse, delinquency, and violence; lower levels of depression and anxiety; and increased grades, attendance, and performance in core academic subjects.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(3), 508–544. https://doi.org/10.1017/bca.2015.55
Social Competence in Kindergarten a Predictor of Future Outcomes
In a study released in July 2015 that examined nearly 20 years of data from the Fast Track Project, researchers found that teacher-rated social competence in kindergarten consistently and significantly predicted outcomes in education, employment, criminal justice, substance use, and mental health into adulthood. Kindergartners with higher social competence scores were measurably more likely to attain a college degree, more likely to earn a high school diploma, and more likely to have a full-time job at age 25.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., and Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 2283–2290. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630
How SEL Helps Prevent Bullying
Research has shown that building the social-emotional competence of students is an important component of effective bullying prevention. This article examines how social-emotional learning (SEL) contributes to bullying prevention efforts in schools and discusses specific SEL skills that can be taught to students to help prevent bullying.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Smith, B. H., & Low, S. (2013). The role of social-emotional learning in bullying prevention efforts. Theory into Practice, 52(4), 280–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2013.829731
Schoolwide Gains in SEL
A meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social-emotional learning (SEL) programs was conducted. Compared to students who didn’t participate in an SEL program, those who did showed significant improvements in social-emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point achievement gain.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x
Approaching SEL Through an Equity Lens
It’s critical that teachers and education leaders are intentional about implementing SEL while always keeping equity in mind. Doing so requires education leaders to prioritize building community partnerships, support adults’ SEL, and regularly collect and respond to feedback from the full community. These research briefs and reports outline approaches and strategies for implementing SEL with an equity lens.
How to Approach and Assess SEL with an Equity Lens
It’s essential for educators and leaders to conceptualize and implement SEL with equity in the foreground. This research brief illustrates the importance of this work and provides a list of reflection questions, organized within the CASEL framework, to guide those implementing SEL as they consider the relationship between their practices, SEL, and equity in their classroom.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Borowski, T. (2018). Toward transformative social and emotional learning: Using an equity lens. American Institutes for Research. https://measuringsel.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Framework_EquitySummary-.pdf
District-Level Priorities Guide Equitable SEL
District leaders should think about equity from the earliest stages of SEL implementation. This report outlines five district-level priorities to support equitable SEL and provides corresponding examples from districts across the country. The five priorities or “insights” are: Explicitly position and communicate about SEL as a lever for equity. Prioritize adult learning that fosters critical reflection on one’s own social, emotional, and cultural competencies. Elevate students’ cultural assets, voice, and agency. Partner with families to develop a culturally responsive approach to SEL. Establish SEL data strategies that help to share power, dismantle inequities, and create more equitable learning environments.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Schlund, J., Jagers, R. J., Schlinger, M. (2020). Emerging insights: Advancing social and emotional learning (SEL) as a lever for equity and excellence. CASEL. https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/CASEL-Equity-Insights-Report.pdf
What Equitable SEL Looks Like in the Classroom
Ultimately, teachers and counselors are tasked with using culturally responsive approaches when leading SEL lessons. This article highlights classroom-level strategies and examples to illustrate how they may do so. The piece is framed around three guiding principles: Centering students’ lived experiences and identities in SEL instruction, using SEL discussions to validate student experiences of oppression, and using SEL instruction as a space to encourage youth to use their voices for social justice.
Read the full report. (PDF)
Rivas-Drake, D., Rosario-Ramos, E., McGovern, G. & Jagers, R. J. (2021). Rising up together: Spotlighting transformative SEL in practice with Latinx youth. CASEL. https://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/SEL-Rising-Up-Together.pdf
Bullying Prevention in Schools Starts with Social-Emotional Learning (PDF)
Leer en Español (PDF)
Selecting Assessments and Programs to Support High-Quality SEL for Youth and Adults (co-authored by Committee for Children and Illuminate Education) (PDF)