Do School-Based Interventions Improve Underserved Learners’ Social and Emotional Skills? Yes, but It Takes Time

Do School-Based Interventions Improve Underserved Learners’ Social and Emotional Skills? Yes, but It Takes Time

Although first generation college students (FGCS) are now making the transition to college more than ever, they experience lower than average college graduation rates, and these rates are even lower for FGCS who are also from a racial or ethnic minority group. It should come as no surprise that research shows that learners from underserved populations such as these tend to show lower levels of college readiness. So, can we “move the needle” through interventions in K-12 settings to improve students’ college readiness? If so, how much time might such interventions require?

Answers to these questions are often complex, but increasingly, research shows that taking a more holistic approach to college readiness is important. As part of a long-standing collaboration with Region One Educational Service Center in South Texas, ACT researchers investigated growth in social and emotional (SE) skills in a cohort of largely Hispanic, high-poverty students who participated in GEAR UP. GEAR UP is a discretionary federal grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college. Specifically, Region One GEAR UP offered services designed to increase the college readiness of students over six academic years, starting in grade 7 and continuing through grade 12.

Students in this study took ACT’s first-generation SE skills assessments[1]. Students’ scores from several of that assessments’ scales and the Academic Success Index[2] were examined longitudinally from grades 7-12. Further, Region One students were compared to a national sample of examinees of that same assessment. The results of these analyses are reported in a newly-published research brief entitled School-Based Interventions: Targeting Social and Emotional Skills to Increase the College Readiness of Hispanic Students from Underserved Backgrounds.


Can we move the needle?

Across the scales examined, Region One students scored significantly below the national comparison sample in grades 7-9, but they showed significantly higher levels of SE skills than the national comparison sample by grade 12. We took a closer look at data from 1,768 students who took the assessments each year from grades 7-12 to further illuminate this finding. The sample was divided into three groups based on their scores on the Academic success Index. Region One students who scored in the bottom 25% of the index in grade 7 improved substantially over time, thus reducing the gap in SE skills compared to those who scored in the upper three quartiles of the index. Students in the middle 50% of performance showed a moderate increase from grade 7-12, and students in the top 25% maintained a high level of SE skills from grades 7-12 (see Figure).

Figure. Academic Success Index Mean Score Trends: Bottom 25% of Region One Students Improve Substantially Over Time.

Note. The discontinuity from grade 9 to 10 represents the transition in assessments from Grades 6-9 to Grades 10-12.

The findings from this study demonstrate the potential benefits that interventions can have for enhancing SE skills and reinforcing behavioral drivers of college readiness (e.g., higher levels of sustained effort that are predictors of college performance and persistence), particularly for learners from underserved populations. Importantly, the findings show that lower-performing students displayed the greatest improvement in SE skills by the end of the study, closing the gap with their higher-performing peers. These findings are consistent with meta-analyses of interventions on social and emotional skills, such as the one by Durlak and colleagues and the one by Taylor and colleagues, both of which found that interventions were effective at improving both social and emotional skills and academic achievement. Thus, the answer to our first question of whether we can move the needle to improve students’ college readiness is “yes”!


How long does it take to move the needle?

It is important to note that these interventions did not produce change overnight. Social and emotional skill interventions—and all behavioral interventions—are not “magic bullets”. As summarized in the Durlak et al. meta analysis cited above, for skill interventions to work, they require a number of recommended practices to be in place. Specifically, they note that programs are likely to be effective if they use a sequenced step-by-step training approach, use active forms of learning, focus sufficient time on skill development, and have explicit learning goals. These practices are known by the acronym SAFE, which stands for sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. In looking at the efforts that Region One GEAR UP staff used when implementing their programming, it is clear that they were organized with SAFE practices in mind. Thus, for educational institutions to truly experience the benefits of SE skill-based interventions, they must follow SAFE practices, set reasonable timelines for when to expect results, refrain from withdrawing support for these initiatives if immediate improvement is not seen, and make long-term commitments to these programs. Like abuelita (my grandmother) used to say: la prisa no es buena consejera (rush is a poor counselor)!


[1] ACT Engage® Grades 6-9 and/or ACT Engage® Grades 10-12 assessments

[2] Academic Success Index reports an estimated probability of receiving a GPA > 2.0 in high school or college and draws from content measuring sustained effort—a student’s level of diligence, effort, organization, and self-control in completing school-based tasks—and has been linked in research to successful performance and persistence outcomes in academic settings.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas, Ph.D.

Alex Casillas is a Principal Research Psychologist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. He has led research and development of behavioral assessments for predicting performance and persistence in school and work, as well as a multidisciplinary effort to design and implement a research-based framework that articulates what effective behavior looks like as part of the ACT Holistic Framework. His current research increasingly focuses on issues relevant to underserved learners. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Grinnell College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Science from the University of Iowa.