The Importance of Adult Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

The last two decades have seen an assault on America’s public schools and their teachers as evidenced by their de-professionalization, assault on their unions, and immense philanthropic support for charters and vouchers (Ravitch, 2020). Teacher satisfaction has plummeted and many teachers left the profession out of frustration with the test accountability focus of educational policy and the narrowing of the curriculum (Greenberg, Brown & Abenavoli, 2016).

During this same period, the goal of creating caring and responsible students began to gain significant attention through the effective research (Durlak et al., 2011) and advocacy of the field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). However, until very recently, educators (teachers and other professional support staff in schools) were not a central focus for either research or policy in SEL. In 2009, Tish Jennings and I  published a highly-cited conceptual paper on the importance of teacher’s own social and emotional development demonstrating that teacher well-being was central to both student outcomes and teacher retention (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). The diagram below depicts the The Prosocial Classroom model from this paper.

A number of other action-researchers also began to focus on preventive interventions that focused on new models of professional development for teachers that incorporated a focus on stress-reduction, emotional awareness, and the practice of skills drawn from the fields of mindfulness and compassion. Most recently, the report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional & Academic Development (2018) shined a spotlight on the importance of adult SEL.

Assessing the Impact of Adult SEL

Given the importance of adult SEL on student social, emotional and academic outcomes, how can we measure the effects of professional development to support the well-being of teachers and other educators? Assessments of teacher outcomes has frequently included:

  • assessing teacher’s social competence,
  • their self-reports of stress and well-being,
  • observations of classroom climate and instruction, and
  • student reports of student-teacher relationships.

However, there has been little focus on teacher’s health and physiology or the costs incurred through teachers’ more frequent need to use health care, teacher absenteeism and cost of replacement teachers, teacher presenteeism (i.e. productivity losses that occur when employees come to work but under-perform due to physical and psychological causes), or the financial costs of teacher turnover as well as educational costs to their students.

Impact of Mindfulness and Compassion on Adult SEL

Although teacher stresses and burnout has been well-documented (Greenberg, Brown, & Abenavoli, 2016), only in the last decade have innovative professional development programs been tested to reduce these outcomes and improve teacher well-being. In their meta-analysis of teacher mindfulness programs (Klingbeil & Renshaw, 2018), evidence indicates significant effects on mindfulness as well as teacher well-being and psychopathology. Two prominent programs CARE and SMART have both replicated these effects. In addition, CARE has shown observed effects on classroom emotional climate and productivity as measured by observers using the CLASS measurement system (Jennings et al, 2017) and longer-term effects in the next school year (Jennings et al, 2019). Further, a number of studies have produced in-depth qualitative studies that provide the voice of participants (Schussler et al, 2016, 2018; Sharp & Jennings, 2016; Taylor et al, 2015)

Getting Creative in Assessing Outcomes for Teachers

While there is a need for large studies that independently replicate the effects found in recent studies, there is also a need to broadly expand the scope of assessment/measurement. Most assessments have been conducted on teacher self-reports and have not been validated by other sources of measurement. In addition, while one study has assessed costs (Doyle et al., 2019), no studies have assessed benefit-cost ratios and potential savings to school districts or society. This is in spite of the fact that many of the hypothesized effects of teacher mindfulness programs can be translated into real costs and potential cost saving.

Let me suggest a few examples. First, if teachers are showing fewer symptoms of physical stress, illness or mental health, they will be less likely to incur the costs of doctors and urgent care visits as well as costs of use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs for stress-related illnesses. Second, if teachers experience stress related disorders, they are more likely to be absent and thus there is substantial costs ($10-20 per hour) in the cost of substitute teachers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and subsequent reductions in student learning. Third, teachers with greater levels of stress will show higher level of presenteeism which means they are not actively engaged in their work and less likely to provide quality instruction. Finally, if teachers show stress-related disorders or are unhappy in their positions, they are more likely to leave their jobs. The costs of teacher turnover are estimate at 7 billion dollars per year in the U.S. and the cost of each teacher departure is estimated between $10,000 and $25,000 depending upon the district (Watlington et al, 2010).

Current data on educational costs in the U.S. show that 23% of all education spending is on teacher benefits (health care and retirement)—an estimated 136 billion dollars in 2016 (Snyder et al, 2019, p. 192). Research that would demonstrate a reduction in these health care costs, substitute teacher costs, and turnover costs could show that American schools could heavily invest in improving teacher’s well-being while saving costly public dollars that could be more effectively invested in the future of our children’s education. To do so, requires that we use a larger framework on the effects of interventions on teacher well-being and retention to assess if such cost savings are attainable.




Doyle, S., Brown, J. L., Rasheed, D., Jones, D., & Jennings, P. A. (2019). Cost analysis of ingredients for successful implementation of a mindfulness-based professional development program for teachers. Mindfulness, 10, 122–130.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405–432.

Greenberg, M. T., Brown J. L., Abenavoli, R.M. (2016). “Teacher Stress and Health Effects on Teachers, Students, and Schools.” Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.

Klingbeil, D. A., & Renshaw, T. L. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions for teachers: A meta-analysis of the emerging evidence base. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(4), 501–511.

Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79,491–525.

Jennings, P. A., Brown, J. L., Frank, J. L., Doyle, S., Oh, Y., Davis, R., Rasheed, D.,

DeWeese, A., DeMauro, A. A., Cham, H., & Greenberg, M. T. (2017). Impacts of the CARE for Teachers program on teachers’ social and emotional competence and classroom interactions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109, 1010-1028.

Jennings, P. A., Doyle, S., Yoonkyung, O., Doyle, S., Rasheed, D., Frank, J. L., & Brown, J. (2019). Follow-up impacts of the CARE for Teachers professional development program on teachers’ social and emotional competence. Journal of School Psychology.

National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (2018). From a nation at risk to a nation of hope: Recommendations from the National Commission. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute. Retrieved from

Occupational Employment Statistics (Substitute Teachers), May 2018, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved online February 3, 2019,

Ravitch, D. Slaying goliath. (2020). New York: Knoff.

Schussler, D. L., Jennings, P. A., Sharp*, J. E., & Frank, J. L. (2016). Improving teacher awareness and well-being through CARE: A qualitative analysis of the underlying mechanisms. Mindfulness, 7, 130–142.

Schussler, D. L., DeWeese, A., Rasheed, D., DeMauro, A. A., Brown, J. L., Greenberg, M. T., & Jennings, P. A. (2018). Stress and release: Case studies of teacher resilience following a mindfulness-based intervention. American Journal of Education, 125, 1-28.

Sharp, J. E., & Jennings. P. A. (2016). Strengthening teacher presence through mindfulness: What educators say about the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program. Mindfulness, 7, 209–218.

Snyder, T.D., de Brey, C., and Dillow, S.A. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics 2018 (NCES 2020-009). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Taylor, C., Harrison, J., Haimovitz, K., Oberle, E., Thomson, K., Schonert-Reichl, K., & Roeser, R.W. (2015). Examining Ways That a Mindfulness-Based Intervention Reduces Stress in Public School Teachers: A Mixed-Methods Study. Mindfulness, 1-15.

Watlington, E., Shockley, R., Guglielmino, P., & Feshler, R. (2010) The high cost of leaving: An analysis of the cost of teacher turnover. Journal of Education Finance36, 22-37.


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