Influencing the Development of Social and Emotional Learning Skills

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan, Steps to Leaps Research Collaborative member.

Prior research has yet to elucidate how constellations of protective factors in childhood and prevention efforts simultaneously may influence youth involvement in problem behaviors across different points in development. The current study examined how latent classes (i.e., unobserved groups) of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills, parent-child relationships, and peer influences in third grade and receipt of an ongoing school-based SEL intervention predicted substance use and violence in fifth and eighth grade. The study included a relatively large sample of children (n = 1,169 in 14 schools), who were primarily from low-income families, minority and urban. Membership in a latent class reflecting protective childhood factors predicted less substance use and violence in fifth grade; however, the SEL program (i.e., intervention) predicted less substance use and violence in eighth grade. Findings support the idea that SEL interventions can successfully target and boost developmentally appropriate positive behaviors and can prevail over earlier risk factors when provided with enough time and exposure.

These findings add more support to a large body of evidence on the role of SEL interventions in improving the developmental trajectories of children. This specific intervention positively impacted children’s well-being through reductions in problem behaviors (i.e., substance use and violence), and did so regardless of earlier child, peer and parental factors. These types of school-based educational interventions offer opportunities to provide positive experiences in classrooms and schools, rather than targeting individual children based on identified risk factors. Ultimately, if successful in their mission, they may be able to improve the culture of the school environment in meaningful ways that would not otherwise be possible. Additionally, future work should continue examining the most developmentally and educationally appropriate ways of improving positive aspects of youth development (e.g., well-being, grit, leadership) to reduce the likelihood of negative life outcomes.


Duncan, R. J., Rolan, E., Marceau, K., Lewis, K. M., Bavarian, N., DuBois, D. L., & Flay, B. (2019). Childhood protective factors and a prevention program reduce later problem behaviors. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 65, 101063.