Adopt an Evidence-Based Program for SEL

Evidence-based SEL programs are grounded in research and principles of child and adolescent development, and scientifically evaluated and shown to produce positive student outcomes.  The goals of schoolwide SEL are more likely to be achieved when evidence-based approaches are used to reach students in all settings where they spend their time.

Effective SEL approaches often incorporate four elements represented by the acronym SAFE:

  • SEQUENCED: Connected and coordinated activities to foster skills development.
  • ACTIVE: Employing active forms of learning to help students master new skills and attitudes.
  • FOCUSED: Dedicated time and attention to developing personal and social skills.
  • EXPLICIT: Targeting specific social and emotional skills.

If you have already adopted an evidence-based program, use the rubric or the questions below to identify areas for continuous improvement: 

Is the school implementing with fidelity an evidence-based SEL program and practices across all grade levels?

Is the school providing ongoing implementation support to staff?

Are program and practices aligned to the school’s SEL vision and goals, and culturally and linguistically responsive to students?

Is the SEL team regularly using data on fidelity of implementation to inform planning?

A core part of schoolwide implementation is adopting an evidence-based program that provides structured SEL opportunities for all students. This is complemented by additional strategies your school uses to extend SEL throughout the school day and out-of-school time.

According to a meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in schools (Durlak et al., 2011), students who received high-quality, evidence-based SEL programming demonstrated:

  • Better academic performance: achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive systematic SEL instruction.
  • Improved attitudes and behaviors: greater motivation to learn, deeper commitment to school, increased time devoted to schoolwork, and better classroom behavior.
  • Fewer negative behaviors: decreased disruptive behaviors, noncompliance, aggression, delinquent acts, and disciplinary referrals.
  • Reduced emotional distress: fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.

Another meta-analysis found that participation in an SEL program had a lasting impact on these outcomes up to 18 years later, regardless of students’ race, socioeconomic background, or school location (Taylor et al., 2017).

There are many types of evidence-based SEL programs, including programs that can support positive school or classroom climate, explicit SEL instruction, and/or SEL integration into academics. Your SEL team can reflect on which evidence-based approach is the best fit for your unique community through the process of adopting and launching an SEL program:

Adopting an SEL Program

1. Identify priorities

Identify priorities for the SEL program that align with the school’s SEL goals. The CASEL Schoolwide SEL planner will help your team develop goals that are aligned with the school’s resources and needs. Also consider SEL standards and any other school improvement efforts that might be addressed by an SEL program (for example, improving relationships among teachers and students, increasing students’ ability to solve problems peacefully, building a more welcoming school climate, or better meeting the needs of English learners).

2. Identify SEL programs

Identify SEL programs that address priorities. The SEL team gathers preliminary information about SEL programs that might address their school’s priorities. Consult the CASEL Program Guide for a list of evidence-based SEL programs that meet its “SELect criteria.” (See Tool: How to use the CASEL Guide to SEL Programs).

The Guide provides a systematic framework for evaluating the quality of social and emotional programs, which is used to identify and rate well-designed, evidence-based SEL programs. The Guide also shares best-practice guidelines for district and school teams on how to select and implement SEL programs.

Quality evidence-based SEL programs:

  • Are well-designed and promote students’ social and emotional skills.
  • Provide high-quality professional learning to support implementation.
  • Are evidence-based, as indicated by rigorous research.

3. Review available program information to narrow the search.

Your team can visit program websites to determine how well those programs align with your school’s priorities and learn about:

  • The program’s approach to SEL skill development.
  • The scope and sequence of content.
  • Instructional practices that foster positive relationships and support SEL skill-building.
  • The cultural sensitivity and linguistic responsiveness of the program.
  • How the program works in the field (gauged through sample materials and videos).
  • Research reports about the program.
  • Available professional development and ongoing technical assistance.
  • Implementation costs, both initially and over time.
  • Tools for linking the program to family and community partners.

4. As an SEL team complete the tool below to review each of the programs identified.

Download Tool

Selecting an Evidence-Based Program

Use this tool to identify a program that aligns to the needs of your students and their families, the needs of your teachers who will be using the program, and district and school priorities.


5. Request program review copies from publishers at varying grade levels, as well as information about:

  • Costs of core and supplemental materials.
  • Whether materials are offered in multiple languages.
  • Costs for professional development and other available supports, and the full scope of services included in those costs.
  • Existing process, timeline, and costs for training local district and school staff to deliver related professional learning for the EBP over time.
  • The availability of guidance and tools for monitoring implementation and evaluating student outcomes. (Allow enough time for hands-on experiences with the curriculum by a variety of teachers and team discussions based on a materials review. Experienced educators can help assess whether the lessons can be facilitated in the time described.)
  • Availability of guidance and tools for connecting with families and community partners.

6. Communicate with or (if resources permit) visit schools using the program.

Publishers are often willing to provide contact information for such schools. It can also be beneficial to connect with schools outside of the publishers’ recommendations. It may also be possible to connect virtually with practitioners who have first-hand experience with a program.

7. Complete the selection process.

Compare the information you’ve gathered about each program, and share findings with the school community during staff meetings, department/grade-level meetings, parent meetings, and/or school board meetings. Your team can then compile the input and makes a collaborative decision with the principal.

Adopting an Evidence-Based Program at Marcus Garvey School

At Marcus Garvey School in the Chicago Public Schools, SEL was already incorporated into their balanced instructional model. To enhance their approach to schoolwide SEL, a team of staff leaders decided to look for an evidence-based SEL program that could provide sequenced and consistent SEL practice for students at all grade levels.

To help establish priorities for what they wanted the program to address, the team reviewed data from the district’s climate survey for their school. This helped them better understand the perspectives of their students. When reviewing the climate data, they discovered that students in their school did not feel connected to the adults.

The team used the CASEL Program Guide to identify a program that could help teachers and students relate more effectively and build their social and emotional competencies.

Since then, the school has embedded SEL into core curriculum by integrating the state of Illinois’ SEL Learning Standards with the evidence-based program and with all subject areas. The school uses tracking forms to help teachers stay up-to-date on lesson coordination and implementation, and staff are offered ongoing professional learning to ensure a high level of quality.

Launching an Evidence-Based SEL Program

After selecting an SEL program, the next step is to develop an implementation plan. Some schools start with a focused implementation plan and build on it during subsequent years. For example, a school might pilot a program at one or two grade levels or a few classrooms before implementing schoolwide to ensure strong implementation.

When deciding to launch a program schoolwide, consider:

  • Who will implement the program: It’s strongly recommended that teachers be responsible for leading explicit SEL lessons in their own classrooms so they can form strong relationships with their students. They’ll also be better equipped to incorporate SEL concepts throughout their teaching, and students will be better supported to practice those skills throughout the day. Counselors, administrators, youth advocates, mentors, families, and community partners can extend the program’s instruction beyond the school day.
  • When the program should be implemented: Whether there’s a dedicated SEL block for direct instruction or teachers choose how to build the program into their schedule, it’s highly recommended to have an administrator visit during those lessons and make note of shining moments in newsletters, staff meetings, or email.
  • How the program will be implemented: What supports and technology may be needed to implement with fidelity? (For example, some programs include video clips.) How might these lessons align with district-prioritized instructional strategies?
  • The time frame for implementation: How often are the lessons facilitated? For how long? What kinds of collegial planning can support robust implementation that brings the school community into a shared experience? How can successes and challenges with the implementation be addressed during staff or department meetings?

Professional Learning for Program Implementation

Many SEL programs offer professional learning services to support implementation, ranging from a brief introductory program overview to multi-day explorations of SEL with in-depth program practice. Training may include workshops, coaching, and online support.

Professional development is an investment and critical to the success of the program. A common mistake schools and districts make is to underestimate the importance of professional learning. If funding for adequate professional learning is a challenge, consider these cost-saving measures:

  • Collaborating with a district SEL office if available.
  • Sending a small team to a “training-of-trainers” or a certification process that prepares them to deliver professional learning to the staff.
  • Utilizing online professional learning opportunities.
  • Pursuing state and federal funding sources such as Titles I, II, and III.

The SEL team can use TOOL: Planning for Professional Learning on Evidence-Based Programs to begin incorporating professional learning and other support activities into the existing schoolwide professional learning plan.

Download Tool

Planning for Professional Learning on Evidence-Based Programs

Use this tool to begin incorporating professional learning and other support activities into the existing schoolwide professional learning plan.

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