Why Social and Emotional Skill Development is Important for Students

Authors: Kate Walton, Dana Murano, & Jeremy Burrus
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Researc

A push to implement social emotional learning (SEL) into curricula continues in K-12 educational contexts. Some stakeholders may still need convincing that this is a worthwhile endeavor, particularly given the COVID-related disruptions to education and uncertainty surrounding the beginning of school this fall. We know that students lost instructional time last school year, and, as we approach the start of the new school year, many schools are still working to finalize whether to pursue in-person classes, online learning, or hybrid models. To make up for lost instructional time, some districts have considered exclusively emphasizing core subject areas rather than continuing to promote a well-balanced curriculum with physical education, arts, and SEL. However, SEL experts agree that SEL may be more important now than ever, and is a key factor to consider in school reopening this fall.

Critics may wonder whether SEL leads to a) positive social and emotional skill development, and b) positive impacts aside from social and emotional skill improvement. Indeed there is a large body of literature demonstrating the efficacy of SEL programs for having immediate benefit for social and emotional skill development and benefit for more distal outcomes, such as academic performance. Here we share some of our findings concerning outcomes associated with well-developed social and emotional skills. Our findings are based on 24,400 middle school and 9,112 high school students who took our social and emotional skills assessment, ACT® Tessera®, which measures five key skills – Sustaining Effort, Getting Along with Others, Maintaining Composure, Keeping an Open Mind, and Social Connection.

Below are some of our key findings, along with specific examples pertaining to Sustaining Effort, which tends to have the strongest associations with these outcomes:

  • Social and emotional skills are related to GPA. In middle school, each of the five social and emotional skills was significantly related to GPA, with correlations ranging from .20 to .38 (and from .11 to .41 in the high school sample). For example, the average grade for students in the top quartile of Sustaining Effort was an A, while the average grade for students in the bottom quartile was a B-.
  • Social and emotional skills are related to absenteeism. High school students with higher levels of Sustaining Effort, Getting Along with Others, and Maintaining Composure had better attendance records than those with lower levels of these skills. Students in the top quartile of Sustaining Effort had 44% fewer absences than students in the bottom quartile.
  • Social and emotional skills are related to disciplinary behavior. Among middle school students, there were significant differences on all social and emotional skills between students with no disciplinary infractions and students with at least one infraction, with standardized effect sizes reaching .55. Students in the bottom quartile of Sustaining Effort were 4.5 times more likely than students in the top quartile to have at least one disciplinary infraction.
  • Social and emotional skills are related to school climate. In middle and in high school, there are large associations between all social and emotional skills and dimensions of school climate.


We unequivocally show here that social and emotional skills are related to several important school-related outcomes and outcomes that are important for success later in life. These findings corroborate the notion that SEL programs are crucial for promoting student well-being and success, and we maintain that they are every bit as important as core subject areas. Moreover, they are relatively inexpensive to implement and have an impressive return on investment; research shows that every $1 spent on such programs sees gains equivalent to $11.

Regardless of what school re-opening looks like for your district this fall, we must all ensure that we do not de-prioritize SEL in an effort to focus exclusively on core academics. It is clear that SEL contributes to academic success, rather than detracts from it. It is critical that schools provide students with strong social and emotional skills necessary to thrive in the face of disrupted routines and continual uncertainty.

Kate E. Walton, PhD

Kate E. Walton, PhD

Kate Walton is a principal research scientist in ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. Prior to joining ACT in 2017, she was Associate Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University. She received her PhD in Personality Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota in the Psychology Department’s Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research Program. She is interested in social and emotional skill assessment and development.