Back to Blog List

Social-Emotional Learning Interventions in Preschool Can Help Long-term Mental Well-being


When young children don’t have the opportunity to develop social, emotional and self-regulation skills they begin at a disadvantage, and the challenges they face as a result can compound with the demands of school and growing up. But a social-emotional learning intervention in preschool can benefit disadvantaged children’s mental well-being into their teens, according to a new study published in APA’s American Journal of Psychiatry.  

The study, led by Karen L. Bierman, Ph.D., involved an evidence-based social-emotional learning program called Research-based, Developmentally Informed (REDI) in Head Start classrooms, which serve children from low-income families. More than 350 children in the study were followed from preschool into early adolescence. The researchers found the proportion of youths with significant conduct problems, emotional symptoms, and peer problems was one-third lower in the group receiving the social-emotional learning intervention than in the control group.preschool.jpg

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?  

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL—see below) identifies five broad areas of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. A variety of approaches are used to teach the skills, such as modeling and coaching. In the classroom, students can practice group decision-making and setting rules. Children and youth can learn cooperation and teamwork through games and sports.  

How Can Social-Emotional Learning Programs Help Disadvantaged Youth?  

“The negative impact of poverty-related adversities on mental health begins in early childhood and affects later adjustment in multiple ways,” Bierman and colleagues explain. For example, early experiences can impact the way children react to stress and their capacity for effective emotional and behavioral regulation. 

Enriching preschools with programming that supports social and emotional learning and language skill development may be an important way “to reduce the disparities in school readiness and mental health associated with growing up in poverty,” the authors conclude. The early intervention may help address the origins of disparities in mental health and help reduce developmental problems that can increase mental health problems as children grow up.  

The authors conclude these efforts may be “highly strategic for public health if early intervention can foster resilience and reduce additional exposure to adversity, thereby improving educational attainment, social support, and wellbeing, while reducing vulnerability to adolescent risky behavior and psychopathology.” The authors also suggest ways to expand the benefits for children, such as working directly with parents and making available more intense supports for children and families who need it.

CASEL’s Updated Definition of Social and Emotional Learning

CASEL is  a nonprofit providing support to educators and policymakers on the use of social and emotional learning. CASEL recently updated its definition of social and emotional learning to “pay close attention to how SEL affirms the identities, strengths and experiences of all children, including those who have been marginalized in our education systems.”  According to its December 2020 update:

"Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.


Bierman, KL, et al. Reducing Adolescent Psychopathology in Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Children with a Preschool Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial. American Journal of Psychiatry.  Online Dec. 2020



Comments (0)