Cover: Supports for Social and Emotional Learning in American Schools and Classrooms

Supports for Social and Emotional Learning in American Schools and Classrooms

Findings from the American Teacher Panel

Published Oct 13, 2020

by Laura S. Hamilton, Christopher Joseph Doss

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent are contextual factors that can support SEL present in schools nationally and in subgroups of schools?
  2. What SEL practices do teachers and schools adopt, and how do these practices vary across subgroups of schools?
  3. Do SEL practices differ as a function of SEL standards?
  4. Do SEL practices differ as a function of teachers' well-being?

RAND researchers present results from a spring 2019 survey of a nationally representative sample of kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) public school teachers about their approaches to supporting students' social and emotional learning (SEL) and the factors that might influence those approaches. The authors explore teachers' SEL practices, including both classroom- and school-level approaches. The authors also examine teachers' beliefs about SEL, their emotional well-being, professional development related to SEL, school-level supports for SEL, and district and state SEL standards. All of these conditions can contribute to the likelihood that educators will adopt high-quality SEL practices. The findings shed light on how SEL practices and supports can depend on the population of students that a school serves and explore how multiple aspects of teacher well-being are related to SEL practices. Although these data were gathered before schools closed because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in spring 2020, the findings will continue to be relevant as educators work to enact SEL practices in both in-person and remote instructional contexts in future school years.

Key Findings

  • A large majority of teachers expressed confidence that they could improve students' social and emotional competencies. At the same time, many teachers believed that factors beyond their control had a greater influence on students' SEL than they did themselves, and that pressure to improve student academic achievement made it difficult to focus on SEL.
  • Three-quarters of teachers received some professional development (PD) that addressed SEL during the 2018–2019 school year. The topics that PD was least likely to cover were adapting SEL practices to different cultures or linguistic backgrounds and using student SEL data.
  • Teachers' sense of well-being was positively associated with their reported emphasis on SEL practices. Teachers in lower-poverty schools reported higher levels of well-being compared with their counterparts in higher-poverty schools.
  • Elementary teachers reported higher levels of school supports for SEL than secondary teachers did.
  • Half of teachers did not know whether their states or districts had adopted SEL standards. Teachers who perceived that their state or district had adopted SEL standards indicated greater use of SEL practices than other teachers; whether the state had actually adopted standards was not a predictor of teachers' reported use of SEL practices.
  • The use of SEL curricula or programs was more common among elementary teachers, whereas secondary teachers reported greater reliance on community engagement, teacher/student check-ins, and student involvement in school decisions.
  • Teachers in lower-poverty schools reported using peer mentoring, project-based learning, and guided inquiry to a greater extent than those in higher-poverty schools.


  • Teacher job satisfaction and well-being were generally high, but the data revealed disparities across schools. It will be important to monitor these disparities and develop resources and strategies for teachers to address their own social and emotional well-being.
  • Providers of PD should consider ways to ensure that teachers have access to professional learning opportunities that address topics about which teachers said there is a lack of coverage or they need more help.
  • Organizations that train teachers to engage in SEL practices and provide support for doing so should consider how to leverage informal collegial networks.
  • Standards and assessments can be relatively cost-effective ways to influence practices among a large group of educators, but results suggest that knowledge about these policies is incomplete, and this might hinder the broad adoption of SEL practices.
  • District leaders and others who provide support to schools should equip principals and other school leaders with the knowledge and resources needed to engage in instructional leadership around SEL.
  • Secondary schools could benefit from guidance to take advantage of opportunities to promote SEL through classes and activities.
  • Teachers will need resources to adapt their approaches to supporting students' social and emotional well-being, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Research conducted by

This study was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation and undertaken by RAND Education and Labor.

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