An empirical basis for linking social and emotional learning to academic performance

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There is general agreement about the benefits of school-based social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions in relation to children and young people’s social-emotional competence, mental health, and academic achievement. However, we know little about the theorized mechanisms through which SEL leads to improved academic outcomes. The current study is the first to present an integrative model (derived from the SEL logic model) using a 3-wave (annual assessment, T1, T2, T3) longitudinal sample of 1626 (51% boys, n = 832) 9–12-year-old students (M = 9.17, SD = .31 at baseline) attending 45 elementary schools in England, drawn from a major randomized trial of a universal SEL intervention (the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies curriculum; PATHS). Using structural equation modeling that accounted for within-time covariance, data clustering, gender and prior academic attainment, we examined the temporal relations between social-emotional competence (T1), school connectedness (T2), mental health difficulties (T2), and academic attainment (T3). It was hypothesized that social-emotional competence would directly and indirectly influence academic attainment through school connectedness and mental health difficulties. Our analyses also examined whether these hypothesized relations varied as a function of intervention exposure (PATHS versus usual provision). The theorized model was partially supported. Social-emotional competence at T1 exerted a significant influence on school connectedness and mental health difficulties at T2. However, the latter was the only significant predictor and mediator of academic attainment at T3 after controlling for gender and prior academic performance. Students with greater social-emotional competence at T1 were reported to experience fewer mental health difficulties at T2, and this in turn predicted higher academic attainment at T3. Intervention exposure did not markedly influence the magnitude or statistical significance of these identified pathways. Collectively, these findings indicate some possible revisions to our current understanding regarding the role of social-emotional competence in promoting academic attainment, as its contribution appears to lay primarily in buffering the adverse effects of mental health difficulties
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-204
Number of pages12
JournalContemporary Educational Psychology
Early online date17 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • Social and emotional learningSocial and emotional competenceAcademic attainmentLogic model


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