Top 7 Social Emotional Learning Programs for Youth of Color

Have you ever wondered which Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs are the best for youth of color?

Well, I dedicated a year and a half of my life to figuring out the answer to this question (sounds dramatic, but to anyone else who knows the struggle of completing a dissertation, you feel me on this)! My research examined the extent to which CASEL SELect programs improved outcomes associated with core SEL competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social- awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills, when used with youth of color from high-poverty communities.

I systematically reviewed, extracted data, and calculated overall mean effect sizes from previous studies to investigate the impact of SEL programs that were implemented with youth of color living in high-poverty communities. For my fellow nerds out there, I completed a meta-analysis, to figure out the best SEL programs for youth of color. Why did I do this?? So you could read this 7 minute article to discover the answer instead of spending over a year trying to figure out the answer!

After a comprehensive review of literature, 20 studies were selected that met inclusion criteria for the intended sample (youth of color and living in high-poverty communities). If you’re a nerd like me and want to know all of the methodology, you can read my dissertation here otherwise just keep reading! Based on my findings, I’ve compiled my top 7 SEL programs for youth of color. Check it out below and let me know what you think.

My Top 7 SEL Programs for Youth of Color from High-Poverty Communities

Too Good For Violence

Too Good For Violence

Too Good For Violence (TGFV) is a comprehensive prevention program developed by the Mendez Foundation, a non-profit organization. TGFV is for students in K-12 and is designed to mitigate risk factors and build protective factors within the student. The program is designed to reduce violent and aggressive behaviors while increasing social and emotional skills. In order to accomplish this, TGFV focuses on developing essential skills such as conflict resolution, anger management, respect for self and others, and effective communication.

The program includes seven lessons per grade level for elementary school (grades K-5) and nine lessons per grade for middle school level (6-8). During the lessons, students are taught the harmful consequences of violence. The students also are taught conflict resolution, how to effectively problem-solve, and how to communicate with others through observations and role-playing activities.

In one study, TGFV was evaluated and showed promising results for students of color. Students of color made up the majority of the sample in the study (12.5% African-American, 36% Hispanic, 5% multiracial, and 2% Asian.) Additionally, 54% of the students received free or reduced lunch. The study showed that TGFV enhanced students' social and emotional competence, increased conflict-resolution skills, improved social communication skills, reduced fighting, and increased prosocial behavior with other students. Additionally, teachers observed more frequent use of social skills and prosocial behaviors from students who received the intervention in comparison to students who did not receive the intervention.


The Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) program promotes peaceful conflict resolution, emotion regulation, empathy, and responsible decision-making” (Domitrovich, Durlak, Goren, & Weissberg, 2013, p.53). This program is for students in pre- kindergarten through sixth grade and is designed to prevent or reduce problem behavior and improve social emotional competence. This program was shown to improve academic behaviors, climate, as well as social and emotional attitudes/ skills. The PATHS program provides broad opportunities (40-52 lessons per year per grade level) to practice SEL related skills, across both school and family settings.

The PATHS program offers empirical support for use with minority students from high- poverty communities across multiple studies (Conduct Problems Research Group, 1999; Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007; Domitrovich et al., 2013). Taken together, the results from the study provided evidence that Head Start teachers can effectively provide an SEL intervention such as PATHS.

I Can Problem Solve

The I Can Problem Solve SEL curriculum was originally developed by Shure and colleagues in 1979. This curriculum is a universal prevention program, intended for use with students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and focuses on children's cognitive processes and problem- solving skills rather than on specific behaviors. Lessons are approximately 20 minutes and teach students explicit SEL skills such as developing self-awareness, making responsible decisions, and controlling emotions. The targeted outcomes of this program include improvements in pro- social behavior, reduced conduct problems, and reduced emotional distress. Additional evaluation outcomes of this program include improved social and emotional skill performance.

The I Can Problem Solve curriculum has been evaluated across several studies and has demonstrated positive effectiveness with minorities (Boyle & Hassett-Walker, 2008; Kumpfer, Alvarado, Tait, & Turner, 2002). More specifically, Boyle and Hassett-Walker examined distinct aspects of aggression, specifically relational and overt aggression in kindergarten and first grade classrooms with a majority Hispanic population. The school district had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the state. Almost 25% of the district's children were living in poverty and 91% of the participants in the study received free or reduced lunch.

Students who received the intervention showed greater improvement in behavior. Interestingly, students who received two years of the intervention demonstrated an increase (from a 12% effect size to 19% effect size) in prosocial behavior and a decrease in aggressive behavior and conduct problems. These findings suggest that the I Can Problem Solve curriculum may be effective for use with minority students from high poverty communities.

4Rs Program Description (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution)

The 4Rs SEL curriculum is a program that provides sequential, interactive lessons to support and develop SEL skills (Jones, Brown, Hoglund, & Aber, 2010). This program teaches students how to understand and manage feelings, develop empathy, how to be assertive, and how to solve conflict peacefully. The program covers pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has on average 35 sessions per academic school year, and is designed to build upon academic skills. The 4Rs program targets social and emotional skill performance. The 4Rs program provides extensive opportunities to practice social and emotional skills, and for use within the classroom, school- wide and family setting. The 4Rs program also provides tools for monitoring implementation and measuring student behavior.

The 4Rs program has provided promising findings for use with minority students from high poverty communities (Jones et al., 2010; Jones et al., 2011). A randomized control study tracked 1,184 third and fourth grade students in an urban setting for three years. Students in the study were majority African-American and Latino children and youth. Findings from this evaluation revealed the 4Rs program improved student outcomes. Students showed improvements in test scores, increases in favorable behavior, and had a reduction in reported problem behaviors.

Another benefit of the 4Rs program is that it has demonstrated positive developmental outcomes in the general population of students and also among students at highest behavioral risk. In short, the 4Rs program had a positive impact on minority students’ social-cognitive processes (Jones, Brown, Hoglund, & Aber, 2010; Jones et al., 2011).

Student Success Skills

The Student Success Skills (SSS) program is an intervention that has also shown emerging support for use with minority students from high-poverty communities. The SSS intervention uses teaching strategies to support social emotional growth and is designed to be implemented within the classroom setting (Lemberger et al., 2015). Teachers deliver five lessons, which provide strategies for setting goals, monitoring growth, building a positive and supportive learning environment, developing cognitive skills, regulating emotions, and building resiliency. The program also includes a mindfulness component, which focuses on students learning to use strategies such as muscle relaxation and other calming techniques. After the five lessons, teachers reinforce strategies and skills throughout the remainder of the school year during academic lessons.

The program was evaluated with 346 seventh grade students who were predominantly Hispanic (66%) and more than 80% of the students received free or reduced lunch. Students who participated in the program improved academic performance when compared to students in the control group.. These findings show the SSS program effectively and significantly improved academic outcomes for minority students from high-poverty communities.

The Incredible Years Series

The Incredible Years Series is composed of three curricula for children, school staff, and parents. The curriculum for students targets pre-k through second graders and focuses on the development of SEL skills such as identifying and recognizing emotions, managing anger, effectively solving problems, and building positive relationships. The curriculum is taught across 64 lessons. This program targets the following outcomes; increased prosocial behavior and reduced conduct problems. Additionally, this program evaluated the following outcomes; improved climate, improved social and emotional skill performance.

The Incredible Years curriculum has been evaluated over the past 20 years (Webster-Stratton, 2001)! This program is unique because it has been evaluated as a treatment program for children that have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder. This program is strong because it is culturally sensitive and is even available in multi-ethnic videotapes and puppets. As far as research, Minority students represented 63% of the sample and 84% of the total sample was high-poverty, as the majority of families participating in this study were socioeconomically disadvantaged.

The Incredible Years program is excellent at improving school protective factors and reducing risk factors encountered by students in high-poverty communities. According to the authors, this program is similar to the PATHS curriculum because it focuses on pre-school and kindergarten youth of color who live in high-poverty communities.. Interestingly, both the PATHS and Incredible Years curricula showed comparable findings as it relates to increased social emotional knowledge and enhanced problem-solving skills (Conduct Problems Research Group, 1999; Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007).

Competent Kids

A program that has demonstrated positive findings in an urban setting is Competent Kids (Linares et al., 2005). The Competent Kids curriculum is solid because it promotes essential SEL skills in kindergarten through fifth grade students. The curriculum is taught to students across thirty-five sessions and the targeted outcomes include academic performance and pro- social behavior. This program is unique because it has a family-systems component, which promotes family-school collaboration and also has activities to support newly learned skills within the home setting. The targeted outcome of this program is improved academic performance.

This program was evaluated with students from diverse multiethnic backgrounds and was predominantly minority (19% Hispanic, 19% Asian, 16% Arabic, and 9% described as Other) in comparison to only 16% White. Students in the control (52%) and intervention (63%) were similar in regard to eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Students who participated in the program had improvements in academic performance. The Competent Kids program improves the social and emotional development of youth of color who live in urban settings.

So, What Can These 7 SEL Programs Do for You and Your students?

Youth of color, especially those living in high-poverty communities encounter significant stressors, which places them at disproportionate risk for mental health problems, substance abuse, school dropout, criminalization, and incarceration. These behavioral and mental health needs are often left untreated (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2006). Therefore, an opportunity exists for evidence-based mental-health interventions to be offered in educational settings that support the social and emotional well-being of minority students from high-poverty communities.

The seven aforementioned SEL programs may support the social and emotional well-being of students. These SEL programs, when used with youth of color from high poverty communities, may improve outcomes such as student achievement, pro-social behavior, social and emotional knowledge, and school climate, while also reducing aggression, emotional distress, and problem behaviors (Barnett et al., 2008; Hall & Bacon, 2005; Hennessy, 2007; Lynch, Geller, & Schmidt, 2004; Pickens, 2009).

These seven programs are just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, more research is needed to investigate, which other programs are effective for youth of color. Our next article will cover several other SEL programs that were extremely promising, but did not quite make the rigid cutoff to be included in our top 7! These promising programs are still strong and are well worth taking a look at. Can you guess which ones might be included?

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