Strong social-emotional skills are critical for student success in school and later in life. To that end, schools across the United States are implementing universal school based social-emotional learning programs (USB SEL). A wealth of research has examined the impact of such programs on students. However, little is known about how these interventions affect racially minoritized students and students with disabilities, as they have often been excluded from analyses.

We were excited to come across this study that reviews the literature on this topic and even more excited when the lead author, Dr. Christine Cipriano from Yale Medical Center, agreed to answer some of our questions about her work!

The Interview

Your team was interested in learning more about the effectiveness of USB SEL (Universal School Based Social-Emotional Learning) programs for racially minoritized students and students with disabilities in elementary schools. Why was this question important to you? 

My research on this topic shows that there is a lack of awareness that students with disabilities (SWD) are present in the classrooms in which USB SEL programs are implemented. This lack of awareness can result in programs and assessment practices that are biased, inaccessible, and not inclusive of the full breadth of students intended to benefit from an SEL intervention. Thus, we set out to investigate universal school-based SEL access and outcomes for elementary school-aged students with learning differences. Learning differences are variations in how the brain processes information and can affect reading, writing, math, focus, communication and following directions.

The experience of students with learning differences within education is one of profound intersectionality – race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability interact to create overlapping and interdependent systems of disadvantage. As part of this study, we conducted a systematic review of student identity representation in USB SEL interventions. As we moved through our literature review we were struck by the lack of representation of race and disability in our sample and we wanted to highlight this information as soon as possible. The remaining review, including an analysis of gender, language, and SES identifiers, is underway.  

Your review included 269 studies that were published between 2004-2020. Findings show that 28% of studies specifically reported findings related to racially minoritized students, while only 7.4% reported on the impact of USB SEL interventions on students with disabilities. Why do you think that is the case?

There are likely a number of reasons for this under-representation. Researchers may be unaware that SWDs are present in the classrooms in which they are working. Some disabilities, including high incidence disabilities such as learning disabilities, are often invisible to outside observers and yet the students spend all their time in “general” education classrooms. In addition, administrative data at the school level is challenging to obtain and may be unavailable to the researcher as part of human participant protections. Finally, researchers may be underprepared to do analyses that include student subgroups of small numbers, and historically subgroup analyses of students with disabilities have been the exception, rather than the norm.

You found only one study that examined the impact of SEL interventions on students who are both racially minoritized and identified as a student with a disability. What are some ramifications of this?

We don’t know much about how racially marginalized students are experiencing SEL programs, and we know next to nothing about students with disabilities' experiences with SEL in U.S. elementary schools. This is not because there is a lack of research supporting the positive effects of SEL, but because there is a lack of representation of marginalized students within these SEL studies. What our study documented is a pattern of problematic overgeneralizations and categorizations that resulted in the underrepresentation of students. Without careful attention and intention to grow in self- and social awareness as researchers, we will not meet the need for data that reflects our nation’s increasingly diverse schools and classrooms, leaving student identities being left out of data-driven decision-making. 

What are some key takeaways from your study? How can the research community start to address this issue? 

For starters, there has been a LOT of research documenting the effects of SEL for elementary students in the U.S. since the field's seminal paper was published in 2011.  Our prospective sample included more than 11,000 studies! Interestingly, although our review identified 107 SEL interventions 18 programs accounted for 60% of the evidence. This is important for two reasons. One, if a small group of programs account for more than half the evidence base, we are not talking about the state of the evidence for the full range of SEL interventions. And two, drawing conclusions across these SEL programs is difficult because they vary in what they teach, how they teach it, how long the interventions last, the quality of the delivery, and so much more

Speaking of variation, attention to differentiation among students with disabilities was not possible. The few studies that mentioned SWD categorized students with generic terms like if the student has an Individual Education Plan (or IEP), which overlooks that students with different disabilities and different diagnoses within a single disability group may have varying inherent characteristics that impact how they participate in, interact with, and benefit from an SEL program.

And we also report that only 1 out of 5 studies look at the effects of SEL interventions for subgroups of students based on racial or ethnic identities. And the categories leave a lot to be desired, such as aggregating students as Black, Hispanic, or white, analyzing samples as white or non-white, and more than one-third of studies using the term “Other” as an analytic group for analysis. These practices are problematic: aggregating students into a constructed category large enough for analysis can result in biased estimates. Knowing someone’s race is only a starting point for understanding deeper things such as cultural beliefs, marginalization, privilege, and opportunity. With limited knowledge of who constitutes “other” in any given study, it is difficult to understand how the results apply across individual differences. there is no clarity for whom or under what conditions the results apply.

Our call in to the research community is to evolve what is held up as best practice in our methodologies and reporting standards so that we move our field forward truly in the service of all students! As of 2020, more than a third of the studies in our sample of USB SEL in elementary school failed to meet the minimum reporting standard for race and ethnicity and there is still no minimum reporting standard for disability. We encourage intervention scientists to require educational interventions to acknowledge, represent, and reflect the rich heterogeneity of learners in classrooms and schools nationwide to support truly representative and generalizable recommendations.

At a time when our nation's youth are more anxious and disconnected than ever before, social and emotional learning is being increasingly politicized by arguments without evidence. So, what can you say today about how kids are experiencing SEL?

There is overwhelming evidence available for SEL for students K-12 from the past decade, and the distilling of what it is, for who it benefits, and how it benefits who is well underway. To be clear, all students deserve decision-making that is informed by data. 

If you want to know more about SEL effects, the wait is almost over! Check out the forthcoming fully comprehensive contemporary systematic review and meta-analyses of the state of the evidence for universal SEL interventions for students K-12. Not without its limitations, like studies available in English and using experimental designs, our exhaustive global search revealed more than 32,000 potential studies for analysis! 


Citation: Cipriano, C., Naples, L.H., Eveleigh, A., Funaro, M., Cook, A., Cassidy, C., McCarthy, M. & Schlichtmann, G. (2022). A Systematic Review of Student Disability and Race Representation in Universal School-Based SEL Interventions for Elementary School Students, Review of Educational Research Online First