A group of elementary school students work on a painting together

An Evaluation of Tools for Life: Relationship-building Solutions® in Elementary and Middle Schools

Improving School Climate and Safety

Photo by FatCamera/iStock

Teachers and administrators across the United States struggle to maintain safe, civil, community- and achievement-oriented schools. Disciplinary actions such as suspensions and increased security measures are commonly used in an effort to improve school climate and safety. Another approach is to improve the socioemotional skills of students and educators to foster a more positive school climate and build positive relationships among all individuals in schools.

The purpose of this project was to implement a social and emotional learning (SEL) program in a school district and evaluate its effects on school climate and safety throughout the district. Jackson Public School District, in Jackson, Mississippi, partnered with the Tools for Life® Corporation to implement its SEL curriculum in randomly selected elementary and middle schools in the district in 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

RAND documented the program's implementation and costs and assessed its impact on school climate and safety. This study represents the first district-wide randomized controlled trial of the Tools for Life program. The project was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice as part of its Comprehensive School Safety Initiative.

Findings and Lessons Learned

The overall study results suggest that the Tools for Life program had little impact on students' social and emotional learning, behavior, or academic performance, and moreover, was relatively expensive to implement. However, a number of factors appeared to have challenged implementation of the program and the research team's ability to discern its impacts.

  1. Launching a district-wide SEL program requires effort, time, resource, and commitment, which was difficult for JPSD during a time of transition. Make sure the time is right and connect program to priorities.
  2. Buy-in and adoption of the program were uneven in JPSD. Some educators viewed the program as important and fully-adopted it in their classroom, but buy-in and subsequent implementation varied across schools. Secure stakeholder and implementers’ buy-in before implementation.
  3. Implementation challenges are typical in the first years of a new program; districts should be prepared. Conduct a careful program selection process, and take full advantage of implementation supports.
  4. Not all measures are equal. The district measures for SEL and school climate outcomes relied on students’ self-reports. These measures can provide useful information about SEL and climate, but they are also subject to several potential biases. Choose the right measurement tools.