SEL and Bullying Prevention

School staff and parents are often unaware of how serious bullying can be in schools until a dramatic incident captures wide attention. The documentary “Bully,” released in theaters across the country on March 30, 2012, portrays the tragic effects bullying can have. It prompted many schools to take action and contributed to an ongoing discussion of bullying and ways to prevent it.

What should schools do? A growing number of states have laws requiring schools to adopt bullying prevention programs. Yet there is no quick or easy solution. Instead, research suggests that a systemic approach is necessary to effectively address bullying and associated behaviors.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) programming can be an effective way to reduce the likelihood of bullying because it promotes skills, behaviors, attitudes, and environmental factors that are  incompatible with bullying and other forms of negative peer interactions.

What Does the Research Say About SEL and Bullying?

Research clearly indicates that bullying cannot flourish in a safe and caring learning environment characterized by:

  1. Supportive relationships between teachers and students and among students that encourage open communication and positive ways to resolve problems and conflicts.
  2. Good working relationships between schools and families that foster two-way communication about student growth and development.
  3. School norms, values, and policies that emphasize respect for others and appreciation of differences.
  4. Students who are aware of and can manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging social situations constructively.

SEL programming strives to achieve these goals, and research indicates it is effective in doing so. Compared to control groups, not only do students who participate in SEL programs demonstrate significant gains in their social and emotional skills; they show higher levels of prosocial behavior, more favorable attitudes toward school and others, and better academic achievement. They also experience lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress. In other words, SEL programming is associated with multiple positive benefits. It can foster educational and social conditions that make bullying far less likely.


Download the CASEL guide “Social and Emotional Learning and Bullying Prevention.”

Learn more about the federal government’s Stop Bullying initiative.

Learn more about the film “Bully” and The Bully Project.


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(1), 405−433.

Espelage, D.L., Green, H.D., & Polanin, J. (2011). Willingness to intervene in bullying episodes among middle school students: Individual and peer-group influences. Journal of Early Adolescence. Published on line November 17, 2011

SEL and bullying experts Joseph A. Durlak and Dorothy L. Espelage contributed to this web page.