Debate on social and emotional learning weighs merits and costs

Contact | Jackie Kerstetter:, Education Next

Debate on social and emotional learning weighs merits and costs
Experts draw from learning science and available research evidence

March 28, 2019—In a new forum for Education Next, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University School of Education and Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Urban Institute weigh the pros and cons of the education industry’s increasing focus on social and emotional learning (SEL).

In “An Integrated Approach Fosters Student Success,” Balfanz argues that learning science supports a whole-child approach to schooling.

“[Learning] is a ‘hot process’ influenced by complex and dynamic interactions of biology and environment, social interactions, human feelings and beliefs, and variable physiological and psychological reactions to environmental factors like stress and scarcity,” he says. “Maximizing learning is not simply about ‘filling up’ the brain, but also about shaping it. Emotions play a key role here, as they can both limit and enhance brain-shaping experiences….Thus, the choice between academic gains or social-emotional improvements is a false one.”

In “Where is the Evidence for Social and Emotional Learning?” Whitehurst contends that the available evidence does not support school-based SEL practices.

“There are danger signs that the SEL bandwagon is on the wrong road,” he writes. “Similarity in personality traits is not at all predicted by the children’s ‘shared environment,’ that is, whether or not they are reared in the same family or attend the same school….Social-and-emotional learning programs could accomplish much more by shifting their focus from abstract traits and dispositions to specific skills that are observable, close to the classroom, teachable, and linked in straightforward ways to the mission of schools.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “Should Schools Embrace Social and Emotional Learning? Debating the merits and costs” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, April 2 on and will appear in the Summer 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on May 24, 2019.

About the Authors: Robert Balfanz is a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Grover “Russ” Whitehurst is a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute and professor emeritus of psychology and pediatrics at Stony Brook University.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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