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Know your common elements: identifying practices and approaches to supporting SEL in primary schools


20 Sep 2019

EIF evidence director Tom McBride highlights how the new guide from EIF and EEF on supporting social and emotional learning in schools takes a new approach to using programme-based evidence to create recommendations on day-to-day practices for teachers and school leaders.

Hydrogen. I’m sure hydrogen is the most common element, followed by helium. But while Wikipedia reassures me that I have retained at least a few key facts from GCSE chemistry (which may yet prove helpful in a pub quiz), these are not the kinds of common elements that are front of mind right now. Instead, we’re interested in how the common elements of interventions are being used to try to help practitioners to deliver better support to children and families.

Today, EIF and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) have published a new guide, Improving social and emotional learning in primary schools. We have a longstanding interest in the association between social and emotional learning (SEL) and later life outcomes, and what we know about the SEL programmes and interventions which are effective in supporting the development of these skills. This new resource is intended to provide teachers and senior leaders in primary schools with actionable steps they can take to support children to develop these skills: to articulate and manage their emotions, deal with conflict, solve problems, understand things from another person’s perspective, and communicate in appropriate ways.

The research that underpins this guide uses a relatively new, innovative and increasing popular methodology, often called common elements. There are many programmes which have been shown through rigorous evaluation to be capable of improving various aspects of children’s development – and many of these are featured on our Guidebook which provides independent advice to commissioners and policy makers on the quality of evidence underpinning early intervention programmes. However, there can be challenges in implementing programmes, including the high costs of materials, the time required for training and the resource requirements of delivery.

The common elements approach seeks to isolate the core components – specific practices, routines and strategies – within these programmes. It works to provide practitioners – in this case primary school teachers – with a set of approaches they can use in everyday practice, as an alternative to setting aside dedicated time to run manualised programmes. The guidance is full of simple and practical approaches which teachers can use or model on a day-to-day basis, techniques such as using ‘I’ messages to articulate feelings – ‘I feel x because…’ – or using deep breathing in stressful situations to help regulate emotions. These common elements have identified these through our work with colleagues at the University of Manchester, looking in detail at the manuals and guidance associated with a number of programmes which have good evidence of supporting SEL in primary school children.

Common element approaches are not seeking to replace programmes. We still believe that well designed programmes with strong evaluation evidence have an important role to play in supporting better outcomes for children and families. However, we are excited by the potential that common elements approaches have for supporting day-to-day practice. I have heard others describe it this way: that the common elements approach is like an ATM, enabling a limited range of specific tasks, while a programme is like a bank, offering a fuller set of services – although I suspect that in our increasingly cashless society, this analogy has a limited shelf-life.

For EIF, this guide marks the latest step in our ongoing drive to ensure evidence on what works is being used to change policy and practice. We will be working hard with colleagues at EEF to ensure the messages are heard and acted on by schools who want to support their pupils in this vital area.

Of course, it is one thing to isolate the most frequently used practices from effective programmes, but it is another to show that they are capable of transforming practice and improve outcomes. This in my view is the next step for the field. Over the coming years, I hope that the phrase common elements will come to be associated less with attempts to memorise the periodic table, and more with useful tools to help practitioners to use the best evidenced approaches in the way they work with children and young people.