The importance of SEL for school climate and high school success: Lessons learned from ACT’s first-generation SEL program

I’ve been doing SEL research at ACT for over seven years now, and many people that I talk to about my work are surprised that a college testing company is involved in social emotional learning (SEL). Truth be told, I was surprised myself when I was applying for the job. When I started, ACT’s SEL work was smaller in scale and focused around a family of social emotional skill assessments[1]. The assessments were launched in 2006 and went online in 2011. Over 500,000 students from middle school to college took the SEL assessments, providing a treasure trove of assessment data that we at ACT were able to draw on to examine interesting questions related to SEL.[2] Let’s dig into those questions at a high level (i.e. no scary statistics) and how our past work in SEL remains important now.


How Does SEL Relate to School Context and Climate?

We conducted a study with Grades 6-9 SEL assessment data to address this question, using motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation to represent SEL.[3] Higher school poverty concentration was related to lower student SEL scores, while higher school racial/ethnic minority concentration was related to higher student SEL scores. This is an interesting finding, especially as poverty concentration and minority status tend to covary. This finding supports that schools with high concentrations of minority students are just as capable of fostering positive SEL as predominantly white schools, once socioeconomic differences are addressed. (See our recent blog on school climate for more info.) There was also a positive relationship between the two indicators of school climate (school safety and school relationships) and student SEL skills. Relationships between school safety and SEL were stronger than between school relationships and SEL. While the school safety measure did not directly evaluate peer victimization or bullying, it could be that students are more likely to experience peer victimization or bullying in unsafe school environments, and this could lead to lower SEL scores and adverse educational outcomes.


How Does SEL Relate to Success in High School?

Another study looked at SE skills in middle school and how they predicted high school grades and graduation. Once again, this study used ACT’s first-gen SEL assessment data from Grades 6-9. Academic Discipline (being a diligent student, a component of motivation) and Orderly Conduct (appropriate class behavior, a component of self-regulation) were important predictors of high school GPA. These results show that, for middle school students, being motivated to complete schoolwork and behaving appropriately are precursors to later success in high school. Most of the SEL effects on high school graduation were due to those students who graduated having high GPAs, suggesting that lowering the risk for poor academic performance may also lower the risk for dropout or delayed graduation. Orderly Conduct was the only SE skill to directly predict graduation on its own, without depending on high school GPA to account for the relationship. This is in line with previous research showing that poor grades and poor conduct are two pathways that lead students to drop out of school.


SEL in the time of COVID-19

As students are returning to school in person, online, or some combination of the two, they face unprecedented challenges in adapting to new circumstances and focusing on their lessons. The two studies discussed previously show that feeling safe and having good relationships with school personnel, such as teachers, can help a student develop better SE skills, which in turn helps students achieve better grades and a higher chance of graduating from high school. Even if your students are learning virtually, there are still ways to incorporate SEL into your curriculum and help give them the skills they need to thrive.

These are just a couple of examples of some of the SEL research that we have done leveraging our previous SEL program, and why this work still matters now. Our new, CASEL-aligned SEL program consists of a multi-method assessment unlike anything else on the market and is paired with a comprehensive student curriculum and professional development to provide a complete SEL solution. See how our offering works together seamlessly to create the most impact for your students and educators today.

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

[2] Data are analyzed by aggregating individual responses. Respondent PII is neither used in our research nor reported in any of the outlets where we publish our findings.

[3] Motivation and social engagement scores were higher for lower grades within this range, and self-regulation was higher in grade 9 than in grades 7 and 8.

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way is a senior research psychologist in the Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. His research focuses on the assessment of the social and emotional skills that impact important academic and work outcomes.