Schools are becoming increasingly unsafe for our nation’s students — physically, socially and emotionally. American youth are in crisis.

According to one method of defining and tracking gun violence, compiled by The Washington Post, nearly 340,000 students have directly experienced gun violence at school since 1999, with 366 school shootings since then and no sign of this exposure slowing down. There were 46 school shootings in 2022. Less than three months into 2023, there have been seven.

In addition to physical violence, the identities of traditionally marginalized youth have been threatened by recent political discourse. The LGBTQ community is under attack with more than 300 pieces of legislation targeting this population across the country, some directed at schools, where all students should feel safe and accepted. There has also been an outlash of criticism on curriculum, coursework and materials, with efforts to restrict what educators teach, that has put racial, cultural and historical identities under attack.

America’s young people are feeling the weight of it all. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report providing data and 10-year trends on behaviors and experiences related to the health and well-being of U.S. high school students. The report included data on school connectedness, which the CDC defines as “the feeling among adolescents that people at their school care about them, their well-being, and success.” The report revealed that school connectedness was low among racial and ethnic minorities, LGBQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Other Non-Heterosexual Identity) and female students. It also shared high numbers of some populations attempting or having a plan to commit suicide; numbers which all have been constant or steadily rising over the last decade.

These trends are extremely troublesome given the social and emotional vulnerability of marginalized populations — and families are concerned. A recent Pew Research poll of parental concerns found that among eight issues, including kidnapping, being attacked and unplanned pregnancy, about three-quarters of parents with school-aged children were “extremely” or “somewhat” worried that their children may struggle with anxiety or depression and bullying at school. These ongoing threats to the social and emotional well-being of marginalized students require urgent, direct support.

Universal school-based social and emotional learning (USB SEL) programs teach a range of skills and strategies that underscore how students develop self-awareness, form healthy relationships, set goals, make decisions and consider different perspectives. In K-12 settings, USB SEL programs have demonstrated success in improving the social and emotional states of our youth, while also boosting school climate and safety. The success of USB SEL programs has not gone unnoticed among families. Most parents support SELwant SEL programming in their children’s schools and believe SEL is an important tool for their children’s future.

Although the evidence available for USB SEL programs is abundant, a fully comprehensive contemporary update of the field was long overdue. We — a group of researchers at universities in the Northeast — came together three years ago to address this gap and support the field of SEL in understanding its impact. Alongside colleagues from universities across the country, our team systematically analyzed over 400 studies from the last 13 years, representing the experiences of over half a million K-12 students from more than 50 countries. We looked at the impact of more than 250 distinct USB SEL programs on 12 student domains, as well as intervention quality, content, skills and SEL implementation. We recently published a review of our findings. As a result, the field now knows more than ever before about SEL, on a massive scale.

So, what do half a million students tell us about the promise of SEL to support the increasing threats facing our nation’s youth?

Read the full article about SEL programs for students by Christina Cipriano, Michael McCarthy and Miranda Wood   at EdSurge.