Government advice on mental health and behaviour in schools: Where is the evidence?

13 Dec 2018 12:17:03.337

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The quality of research into the impact of social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions in UK schools needs to improve in order for the programmes to be successful, says new research.  

The research, led by Professor Roisin Corcoran, Chair in Education at the University of Nottingham, and published in Educational Research Review, provides the first comprehensive review of the research into SEL interventions in the UK and United States over the last 50 years. The study was funded by the Jacobs Foundation.

The Department of Education in the UK recently published guidance on mental health and behaviour in schools, in which schools are encouraged to promote students’ positive mental health and wellbeing using evidence-based approaches including SEL interventions.

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SEL interventions aim to improve students’ interactions with others, decision making and emotion management. They might focus on the ways in which students work with (and alongside) their friends, teachers, family or community. Unlike some non-cognitive skills programmes that primarily attempt to tackle problems—such as drug use—after they occur, SEL interventions are often designed to promote positive youth development.

In many countries including the UK, these programmes are often recommended as approaches for schools to develop students ‘soft skills’. There are many SEL programmes available for schools to choose from. But do they work?

Lead author of the study, Professor Corcoran, Chair in Education at the University of Nottingham, said: “Children benefit when taught social and emotional skills – but some methods are better than others.

“The primary objective of our study was to carry out a systematic review and meta-analysis of the research looking at SEL programmes carried out over a 50 year period anywhere in the world, to see how well the programmes were working.”

The team investigated which interventions for primary and secondary pupils had been found to improve students’ academic performance in reading, mathematics and science.

The study also looked at the different methods used by each intervention and what impact this had on the outcomes of the programme.

Overall there were 40 studies included in the final analysis and the review found that SEL programmes generally had a positive effect on pupils’ academic performance, compared to more traditional methods.

However, the team also found that particular SEL programmes, some of which have become popular and dominated classrooms over the past few decades, may not have as meaningful effects on students as once thought.

Programmes were ranked according to their strength of evidence of effectiveness, and also balancing factors such as the quality of the study’s methodology.

Professor Corcoran said: “There was a clear disparity in the quality of the studies we reviewed and it appears under closer analysis, that the study features may have produced different results – for example when comparing randomised controlled trial studies to quasi-experimental design studies.

“There is also evidence that some of the popular interventions might not be as effective as policy makers and schools sometimes believe based on previous research on these interventions and undesirable results.”

To give just one example, the Department for Education lists The Incredible Years as “a series of interlocking, evidence-based programs for parents, children, and teachers, supported by over 30 years of research, which aims to prevent and treat young children's behaviour problems and promote their social, emotional, and academic competence” (Department for Education, 2018, p. 33).

“We reviewed the prior research on The Incredible Years, and it was not included in our study due to the lack of high-quality research to ascertain its effectiveness in improving academic outcomes.” said Professor Corcoran. 

The findings from the review highlight the need for more large-scale, randomised studies, focusing on effective SEL programmes. Some of the SEL approaches most widely used in schools, tested via large randomised experiments do not present strong enough evidence of effectiveness.

“More high quality research is needed to understand the SEL interventions that work best – particularly for students from low-income and minority families. Many of the studies we came across focused on using social and emotional learning for non-academic aims – for example, to reduce bullying among students – and this is an area that we will be looking at in our next review. But what’s clear from the current review is that teaching these cognitive “soft skills” shouldn’t be seen as something beyond academic achievement, but in fact a technique that may provide both a boost to academic results at school, and the important social and emotional literacy required to succeed in adulthood,” writes Professor Corcoran for The Conversation.

“While the Department for Education in the UK recommends that schools adopt evidence-based interventions to promote students positive mental health and wellbeing, the role of scientific evidence in the procurement process is ambiguous. In practice, ambiguous guidance leaves the decision making process in education to word of mouth and vendor-driven marketing, instead of evidence."

In conclusion, Professor Corcoran said: “First, government must provide clear definitions and standards for what it means by evidence of effectiveness. Second, a wide range of evidence-based interventions are needed in every grade level, that have proven to be effective for important outcomes valued in education. Third, resources and technical support must be made available to help schools implement interventions as intended and to enable continuous evaluation of interventions so we can better understand what works. Finally, unbiased, accessible reviews of research including systematic reviews and meta-analyses must be conducted to help practitioners and policymakers make better decisions based on high-quality evidence.  

“When evidence really matters, academics, practitioners, government, funders, commercial companies have incentive to rigorously evaluate and create high-quality interventions that not only look great, but are great and actually make a positive difference in the lives of kids.” said Professor Corcoran. 

A full copy of the publication can be found here.

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named both Sports and International University of the Year in the  2019 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer, proud of our Athena SWAN silver award, and a key industry partner- locally and globally.

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More information is available from Professor Corcoran in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham on + 44 (0) 115 9513 709 or at Follow Professor Corcoran on Twitter at @DrRCorcoran


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