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Second Step® Programs and SEL Research

Discover the research and evidence behind our family of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs.

students raising hands in class

Grounded in Research

We take great pride in the fact that Second Step is based on current research in the field. Translating research findings into key components of our programs allows us to be confident our curricula will be effective in classrooms.

adult with papers

Committed to Effectiveness

We’re dedicated to evaluating our program for effectiveness through randomized control trials, which is the only way we can be certain it meets its intended objectives. By basing our program development on rigorous research and evaluating our program outcomes with these research trials, we strive to provide a truly effective curriculum that helps children improve their social-emotional skills and be successful in school and in life.


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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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).

Increased Executive Functioning Shown in Preschoolers Who Received Second Step® Early Learning

A classroom randomized 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. Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

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) conducted a randomized controlled trial over a one-year period with 7,300 students and 321 teachers in 61 schools across six school districts, from kindergarten to second grade. Significant improvements in social-emotional competence and behavior were made by children who started the school year with skill deficits in these areas. Additionally, the number of lessons completed and student engagement were predictive of improved student outcomes.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

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 1) 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 weakest 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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

Second Step® Elementary Classroom Kits

(conducted with the 2002 edition)
Less Adult Conflict Intervention, Improved Social Competence

A study examined the effects of Second Step Elementary on 1,253 second- through fourth-grade children. When compared to children in a control group, those who participated in Second Step Elementary showed greater improvement in teacher ratings of their social competence, were less aggressive, and were more likely to choose positive goals.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

Frey, K. S., Nolen, S. B., Edstrom, L. V., & Hirschstein, M. K. (2005). Effects of a school-based social-emotional competence program: Linking children’s goals, attributions, and behavior. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 26(2), 171–200.

Gains in Prosocial Skills and Behavior

A pre-post design of 455 fourth- and fifth-grade students in a small urban school district was studied to evaluate the efficacy of the Second Step Elementary curriculum. After students received Second Step Elementary, they showed significant gains in knowledge about social-emotional skills. Report card data also revealed modest gains in prosocial behavior.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

Edwards, D., Hunt, M. H., Meyers, J., Grogg, K. R., & Jarrett, O. (2005). Acceptability and student outcomes of a violence prevention curriculum. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 26, 401–418.

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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

20 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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

Second Step® Child Protection Unit

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 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.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

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.

*Also publicly available at and in Spanish at

Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

Online Teacher Training for Second Step® Child Protection Unit Helps Alleviate Anxiety, Creates Positive Experience for Teachers and Students

This qualitative study explored PreK to Grade 4 teachers’ and school counselors’ experiences with the child sexual abuse prevention online training and the Child Protection Unit curriculum. After implementing the program, teachers participated in focus groups, where they reflected on their Child Protection Unit experiences. They reported that receiving online training on both childhood sexual abuse and teaching the Child Protection Unit helped to alleviate some initial anxiety about teaching the unit’s content and materials. They also reported that teaching the Child Protection Unit was a positive experience overall and that students reacted positively to the unit, engaged in the lessons, and took them seriously.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

Allen, K. P., Livingston, J. A., & Nickerson, A. B. (2019). Child sexual abuse prevention education: A qualitative study of teachers’ experiences implementing the Second Step Child Protection Unit. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 15(2), 218–245.

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 vs. older students and for girls vs. boys. In addition, the Child Protection Unit improved the students’ relationship with their teacher.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

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 attitudes and improved relationships with students than teachers who did not.
Read more about this study. (PDF)

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.

Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

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) 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. New York: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

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.

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 Research 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. Advance online publication. doi: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. doi:10.1080/00405841.2013.829731

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 new meta-analysis, released in July 2017, evaluated results of nearly 97,500 students in 82 schools, and the effects were assessed 6 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.