Early Learning Study Shows SEL Improves Academics
“There’s been so much pressure to increase academic standards in early learning,” says Lauren Starnes, PhD, an educational leader finishing her second doctoral degree in early childhood education. With people worrying that poor-quality education can lead to disparities in future opportunities and income, many states have been pushing for standardized testing at the end of preschool. In response to that demand, Starnes piloted a standardized test at a few private preschools in North Carolina, and the results surprised her.
“Collectively the students did well; there were no concerns at all,” Starnes says, but she noticed that students fell into two basic groups: those who scored in the above-average 60th to 70th percentile grouping, and those who ranked in the significantly above-average 80th percentile grouping. “I wondered if age or gender determined the difference. I dug into the data, but initially I couldn’t find anything,” she says.
After many conversations with teachers, Starnes discovered that one of her sample groups was using the Second Step program to teach social-emotional competencies, and two weren’t. She learned that some teachers hadn’t adopted the program when it was first introduced five years ago because they viewed it as “something extra, like a math supplement,” Starnes says. Others had embedded it into the classroom with culture-shifting results. “That was it!” Starnes says, describing the finding that prompted her to disaggregate the data and formally study the effects of social-emotional education on the academic achievement of early learners.
Participants for Starnes’ study were 63 four- and five-year-old children, with 41 students in the control group and 22 in the group exposed to Second Step. It was a closely matched sample of students who all spoke English and who had attended a full pre-kindergarten year at that private preschool before taking the end-of-year standardized test, the Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners (AABL) tool. The independent variable was the presence or absence of Second Step.
The results showed higher achievement scores among the Second Step group across several domains, including verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and early math. “The kids who excelled in higher order thinking were the kids who had been exposed to Second Step. It carried across literacy and mathematics,” Starnes says. “I wasn’t surprised to see a positive effect from Second Step,” she says. “I was surprised at the extent of the effect.”
Starnes’ research is currently under review and soon to be published. Although there have been numerous studies illuminating the many benefits of SEL for children in at-risk populations, Starnes says she hopes her research will contribute meaningful data and insight about a lesser-studied population. She believes that SEL can make a positive difference for all children.
Starnes says that even though the principals and teachers in her study group were highly educated, many weren’t formally trained in how to teach SEL, and they were shocked at the findings. One teacher told her: “I always thought social-emotional learning was important, but it seemed like something extra. I wanted to make sure the academics were there first.” After Starnes shared the results with her, the teacher acknowledged that what she chose to ignore is exactly what might have improved academic results. “It was really eye-opening,” Starnes says. That same teacher now uses Second Step and has told Starnes, “It’s made such a difference! The kids are now solving their own peer conflicts!”
Starnes cites Carrington Academy in Georgia, one of the preschools studied, as an example of a well-run learning environment. It has self-directed centers and high expectations, with teachers expertly guiding children from the side. One of the stand-out teachers there, Kathy Sheldon, was recognized in 2017 as Preschool Teacher of the Year for her ability to naturally weave character education into daily lessons. Starnes says that Sheldon uses Second Step to create a well-rounded classroom where students feel safe and empowered to manage their emotions and respond appropriately in social situations. “I’ve heard children say things like, ‘Can we compromise?’” Starnes says. “They use language that shows they’re very independent.”
Starnes adds that social-emotional education can also be used as an indirect means to evaluate teacher satisfaction, which is often affected by behavior issues. Her research showed that Second Step classrooms did have lower numbers of behavior incidents, but the numbers were so low overall that it was hard to demonstrate meaningful statistics. The key takeaway, she says, is that Second Step can function as a teacher support tool. She explains that the program helps teachers work smarter, not harder, by proactively teaching children how to self-manage rather than reacting to bad behavior choices.
“Teachers may think that the best way to increase academic rigor is to do more math or practice more reading,” Starnes says, “but if students can’t function socially, they’re not ready for school. SEL is foundational.”