SEL Action Research, Practice, and Public Policy Awards

To encourage high professional standards and recognize outstanding achievements in the field of social and emotional learning, CASEL created awards that honor the legacy of two individuals who played leading roles in the early years of CASEL’s development, Mary Utne O’Brien, former CASEL executive director and key leader in the SEL field, and Joseph E. Zins, former director of the University of Cincinnati’s doctoral program in special education and a research pioneer in SEL.

Learn more about award criteria, past winners, and the nomination process below. Awards are presented annually in the fall.

  • Mary Utne O’Brien Awards for Excellence in Expanding the Evidence-Based Practice of SEL

    To honor the memory of the late CASEL executive director Mary Utne O’Brien, and to promote her dedication to high-quality practice in social and emotional learning, the CASEL board of directors established an award focused exclusively on expanding evidence-based SEL practice, including policymaking. The award focuses on two fields — Public Policy and Educational Practice — and is designed to highlight priorities that advance evidence-based practice in states and school districts. CASEL will honor two awardees annually for their work to expand evidence-based SEL.

    Nominations for 2021 have not yet opened.

    Mary Utne O’Brien Awards Descriptions

    Federal or State Policymaking Related to Social and Emotional Learning: This award will be presented to elected officials, policymakers, or international field leaders who have made important contributions to integrating SEL into federal- or state-level policies affecting Pre-K-12 education. 

    District or School Leadership Related to Effective Implementation of Social and Emotional Learning: This award will be presented to a district or school leader who has provided the vision, inspiration, and practical strategies for developing the infrastructure and support for high-quality SEL at the district or school level. 

    Past Recipients

    Federal or State Policymaking Related to Social and Emotional Learning: Congresswoman Judy Biggert (2011), Congressman Dale Kildee (2011), Congressman Tim Ryan (2012), Ellen Moir (2015), James Comer (2015), Joan Duffell (2018), and Tom Roderick (2018).

    District or School Leadership Related to Effective Implementation of Social and Emotional Learning: Carol Comeau (2012), Jillian Ahrens, Linda DePriest, Koua Jacklyn Franz, Ed Graff, Sherrie Raven, Trish Shaffer, Kristina Tank-Crestetto, Karen VanAusdal (2013), and Michelle Van Allen (2018).


    Joseph E. Zins Awards for Social and Emotional Learning Action Research

    To honor the memory of the late CASEL collaborator Joseph E. Zins, CASEL established the Zins Awards for Action Research in Social and Emotional Learning in 2007. CASEL presents the awards to investigators and researchers at distinct phases in their careers. CASEL will present the Joseph E. Zins Awards annually to two outstanding SEL action researchers: one early-career researcher and one established scholar.

    Nominations for 2021 have not yet opened.

    Joseph E. Zins Awards Descriptions

    Early Career Contributions by an SEL Researcher Awards: This award will be presented to a researcher who has made substantial contributions to the field of SEL in schools or school districts. Eligibility is limited to SEL researchers at the Research Scientist or Assistant or Associate Professor level. These contributions could include applied research, theoretical contributions, or research on curriculum, policies, or practices.

    Distinguished Scholar Awards for Contributions by an SEL Researcher: This award will be presented to a senior investigator (Senior Research Scientist or Full Professor) who has advanced the field of social and emotional learning in schools in important and meaningful ways, across the span of a distinguished career. These contributions could include applied research, theoretical contributions, or research on curriculum, policies, or practices.

    Past Recipients

    Early Career Contributions by an SEL Researcher Awards: Sara Rimm-Kaufman (2007), Marc Brackett (2009), Celene Domitrovich (2011), Angela Lee Duckworth (2012), Stephanie Jones (2013), David Yeager (2015) Camille A. Farrington and Anne Gregory (2018)

    Distinguished Scholar Awards for Contributions by an SEL Researcher: Maurice Elias, Edward Zigler (2011), J. David Hawkins (2012), Joseph Durlak (2013), Kimberly Schonert-Reichl (2015), and David Osher (2018).


    2020 Awards Webinars

    Mary Utne O’Brien Awards Webinar: Key Priorities for Evidence-Based SEL Practices

    Learn from the 2020 award recipients who are providing the vision and strategies for SEL: Dr. Sheldon Berman, Superintendent of the Andover Public Schools and Byron Sanders, President and CEO of Big Thought.

    Access the slide deck and recommended resources

    Joseph E. Zins Awards Webinar: Innovations in SEL Research 

    Learn from the 2020 award recipients who are conducting innovative and impactful SEL research: Laura Hamilton, Ph.D., General Manager of Research Centers at ETS, and Clark McKown, Ph.D., founder and President of xSEL Labs.

    Access the slide deck and recommended resources

  • 2020 Award Recipients

    Watch our webinars featuring the 2020 recipients

    Mary Utne O’Brien Awards

    • Byron Sanders is the President and CEO of Big Thought, as well as a committed advocate for education, economic development, and creating equitable communities throughout Dallas, Texas.

    Joseph E. Zins Awards

    • Laura Hamilton, Ph.D. is General Manager of Research Centers at ETS, overseeing the organization’s research centers which focus on a number of cross-cutting domains to help inform decision-making and shape the future of education. Read a Guest Blog from Laura Hamilton Ph.D.

    Learn more