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Ask A REL Response

November 2020


What research has been conducted on the impact of social emotional learning on Head Start students?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the impact of social emotional learning on Head Start students. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed the impact of social emotional learning on Head Start students. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Domitrovich, C. E., Gest, S. D., Gill, S., Bierman, K. L., Welsh, J. A., & Jones, D. (2009). Fostering high-quality teaching with an enriched curriculum and professional development support: The Head Start REDI program. American Education Research Journal, 46(2), 567–597.
    From the abstract: "This randomized controlled trial tested whether teaching quality in Head Start classrooms could be improved with the addition of evidence-based curriculum components targeting emergent language or literacy and social-emotional development and the provision of associated professional development support. Participants were lead and assistant teachers in 44 Head Start classrooms. Teachers received 4 days of workshop training along with weekly in-class support from a mentor teacher. End-of-year observations indicated that compared with the control group, intervention teachers talked with children more frequently and in more cognitively complex ways, established a more positive classroom climate, and used more preventive behavior-management strategies. Results supported the conclusion that enriched curriculum components and professional development support can produce improvements in multiple domains of teaching quality. (Contains 5 tables.)"
  2. Feil, E. G., Walker, H., Severson, H., Golly, A., Seeley, J. R., Small, J. W. (2009). Using positive behavior support procedures in head start classrooms to improve school readiness: A group training and behavioral coaching model. NHSA Dialog, 12(2), 88-103.
    From the abstract: "Social-emotional competence is an important determinant of school readiness. School readiness, in turn, sets the stage for school success. There is clear longitudinal evidence that school success, attachment and bonding to the schooling process, and full engagement of schooling can, in combination, operate as a protective factor against a host of long-term health risk behaviors and negative outcomes. Herein, we describe an experimental study of an evidence-based model of early intervention. Head Start teachers and assistants in 13 centers participated in the study. Centers were randomly assigned either to a wait-list control condition or the intervention. This universal intervention was based, respectively, upon the emerging bodies of knowledge in Positive Behavior Support and Behavioral Coaching. The intervention program's application was associated with medium to large effect size improvements in participating students' overall social competence (as an essential school readiness skill) as measured through (a) enhancements in their ratings of adaptive student behavior and (b) corresponding decreases in student levels of challenging behavior and aggression as reflected on teacher rating scales. Feedback from participating teachers indicated they viewed their experiences with the intervention quite positively. (Contains 3 tables and 1 figure.)"
  3. Nix, R. L., Bierman, K. L., Domitrovich, C. E., & Gill, S. (2013). Promoting children's social-emotional skills in preschool can enhance academic and behavioral functioning in kindergarten: Findings from head start REDI. Early Education and Development, 24(7), 1000–1019.
    From the abstract: "Research Findings: This study examined processes of change associated with the positive preschool and kindergarten outcomes of children who received the Head Start REDI (REsearch-based, Developmentally Informed) intervention compared to usual practice Head Start. Using data from a large-scale randomized controlled trial ("N" = 356 children, 42% African American or Latino, all from low-income families), this study tests the logic model that improving preschool social-emotional skills (e.g., emotion understanding, social problem solving, and positive social behavior) as well as language/emergent literacy skills will promote cross-domain academic and behavioral adjustment after children transition into kindergarten. Validating this logic model, the present study finds that intervention effects on 3 important kindergarten outcomes (e.g., reading achievement, learning engagement, and positive social behavior) were mediated by preschool gains in the proximal social-emotional and language/emergent literacy skills targeted by the REDI intervention. It is important to note that preschool gains in social-emotional skills made unique contributions to kindergarten outcomes in reading achievement and learning engagement, even after we accounted for concurrent preschool gains in vocabulary and emergent literacy skills. Practice or Policy: These findings highlight the importance of fostering at-risk children's social-emotional skills during preschool as a means of promoting school readiness."
  4. Rojas, N., Lloyd, C. M., & Mattera, S. (2013). Fidelity and scaling-up in the context of a social-emotional intervention for early childhood education. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.
    From the abstract: "Head Start, the largest federally funded early childhood education program in the United States, provides comprehensive services to low-income children and their families. These services historically have a whole child approach, fostering social-emotional well-being, physical and mental health, and cognitive and language development, as well as parent involvement and family social services. In recent years, a number of non-experimental studies have outlined the risk to social-emotional development in young children growing up in poverty. Because children in poverty are exposed to a wide range of psychological and social stressors, they have been found to be at a greater risk for developing emotional and behavioral difficulties compared with their more affluent peers. Low-income children are particularly vulnerable to behavior and emotional difficulties in preschool (Gilliam, 2007), and teachers have reported that they do not know how to address behavioral challenges (Lloyd & Bangser, 2009; La Paro & Pianta, 2000). Head Start has responded to the pressing need for effective tools to strengthen children's social-emotional skills and recent research has shown that well-designed professional development which includes training and coaching can enhance teachers' skills, and strengthen children's social and emotional outcomes (Hemmeter & Fox, 2009; Lloyd & Bangser, 2009; Morris et al, 2010; Raver et al., 2009). Head Start CARES examined enhanced curriculum improvements and professional development in the context of a large-scale random assignment study. The demonstration tested the effects of three theoretically distinct social-emotional program enhancements in Head Start settings across the country in order to determine whether it was possible to effectively implement these programs in a large number of Head Start centers and if so, how. The three structured program enhancements focused on different strategies including training teachers on delivery of classroom management procedures, enhancing children's skills to understand and respond to emotions, and a set of play-based activities designed to support self-regulation. In addition to testing classroom-based strategies, Head Start CARES served as a test of an overall system that was meant to support large-scale implementation of program enhancements in the classroom. This paper focuses on preliminary lessons learned from implementing social-emotional programs supported by a professional development model across the country in varied contexts; in particular the focus is on the training and coaching of teachers in the Head Start CARES demonstration. The seventeen Head Start delegate agencies that were selected to participate in the Head Start CARES demonstration were located in ten states across the nation. In total 307 classrooms and over 3,600 children participated in the study, with one-half receiving the CARES intervention. Training and coaching as a form of professional development offers the opportunity to greatly influence the quality of experiences that both teachers and children in early childhood education settings receive. Implementation of strong coaching and training, however, can be a complicated endeavor, due to the large number of people involved and the varied organizational contexts across grantees. In summary, implementation and scale-up of training, coaching, and the social-emotional enhancements required substantial effort among all of the stakeholders involved. One table and one figure are appended."
  5. Sandilos, L., Goble, P., & Schwartz, S. (2020). Burnout and teacher-child interactions: The moderating influence of SEL interventions in head start classrooms. Early Education and Development, 31(7), 1169–1185.
    From the abstract: "Research Findings: The present study explored the extent to which teachers' participation in professional development focused on children's social-emotional learning moderated the relation between self-reported burnout and teacher-child interactions. The sample included 307 Head Start preschool teachers who participated in a large randomized controlled trial, the Head Start CARES (Classroom-based Approaches and Resources for Emotion and Social skill promotion) Project. Teachers were assigned to one of the three SEL interventions (PATHS, Incredible Years, or Tools of the Mind-Play) or a control group. Results revealed a moderating effect of treatment condition. Specifically, in control classrooms, higher self-reported burnout was related to a decline in Instructional Support scores over the course of the year. In contrast, the negative association between burnout and teacher-child interactions was not present in the intervention condition. Follow-up analyses indicated that this moderating effect was only present for teachers who were trained in the PATHS and Incredible Years interventions. Practice or Policy: Findings suggest that training and participation in interventions focused on social-emotional learning may serve as a buffer against the detrimental influence of burnout on teachers' classroom practices."
  6. What Works Clearinghouse. (2009). WWC quick review of the article "Promoting academic and social-emotional school readiness: The head start REDI program". Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
    From the abstract: "This study examined whether the Head Start Research-based Developmentally Informed (REDI) program is more effective than the standard Head Start program at improving the language, emergent literacy, and social-emotional skills of preschoolers. Head Start centers in three Pennsylvania counties were randomly assigned either to use the REDI program or to continue using the standard Head Start program. The study included 44 classrooms and 356 4-year-olds across the two research groups. The study assessed language development and emergent literacy skills, as well as emotional understanding, social problem-solving skills, social-emotional behaviors, and learning engagement. Assessments were conducted at the beginning and again at the end of the school year for most outcomes. The study finds that students in the REDI group outperformed control students on one of three measures of language development and two of three measures of emergent literacy skills. Additionally, REDI program students exhibited greater understanding of emotions, better social problem-solving skills, and higher levels of learning engagement than students in regular Head Start classrooms. This What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) review finds that the research described is consistent with WWC evidence standards, and cites the study as a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. A cautionary observation is included that the authors examined the REDI program's effects on more than twenty outcomes. Estimating effects on a large set of outcomes increases the possibility that some results may be found to be statistically significant by chance: the authors do not adjust for this possibility in their analysis. [The following report was the focus of this "Quick Review": Berman, K. L., Dietrich, C. E., Nix, R. L., Geest, S. D., Welsh, J. A., Greenberg, M. T., et AL. (2008). Promoting Academic and Social-emotional School Readiness: The Head Start REDI Program. Child Development, 79(6) (EJ818718).]"


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Social emotional curricula, Head Start students
  • Head Start CARES program

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.