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How to choose the best SEL programs for your school district

Ryan CrawleyMarch 25, 2022

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Let’s face it. There has never been a better time to introduce Social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom. Recent statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years suffer from anxiety while another 7.1% have diagnosed behavior problems. Your students need SEL skills to succeed in your classroom and their lives. 

SEL, which was first created in the 1960s, has been used by the Collaborative of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) since 1994. CASEL defines SEL as the process of acquiring healthy identities, emotions, empathy, and personal and collective goals. This includes:

  • Managing behavior
  • Showing empathy toward others
  • Conducting social awareness
  • Building strong relationships
  • Maintaining personal responsibility
  • Setting goals
  • Making responsible decisions  

SEL across the board 

Every teacher has their own idea about how SEL could work in their classroom. However, a more efficient approach would be establishing a social-emotional learning curriculum for the entire school district. This would ensure that each teacher follows a proper curriculum to yield the best results for parents, educators, school administration, and students. 

Make the choice that’s right for you 

Your school district can create its own effective SEL program and add it to the curriculum. Or it can choose from a number of SEL programs on the market that have shown to have positive effects on students. Here are some points to consider:

  • Is this SEL program designed for a K-8 or K-12 school district, for elementary school, for middle school, or is it meant for high school students?
  • Does research show that this SEL program works?
  • Does it fit your budget?
  • Does the SEL program focus on areas that are pertinent to your school?
  • Will you get support from the company that designed the SEL program?

12 top-rated SEL programs 

We know how tough it can be to decide which SEL curriculum would be the best fit for your school. To help you out, here’s a list of the 12 top-rated SEL programs on the market today. 

1. Positive Action

Positive Action is a Pre-K through Grade 12 SEL program that can be added to any curriculum. It focuses on building positive relationships, mental health, and managing emotions and behavior. According to the US Department of Education Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Positive Action meets all the requirements of an SEL program and blends into lesson plans at all grade levels. Positive Action, which was created in 1982, has been used in more than 16,000 schools. Plus, it includes more than 1,800 lessons designed to improve students’ SEL abilities over time. 

2. Second Step

Second Step is a Pre-K through grade 8 SEL program that is said to take a more holistic approach to teaching empathy. Each lesson takes about 25 minutes to complete, and there are an additional 200 discussion-based activities and resources. In addition to the SEL curriculum it offers, Second Step also provides Bully Prevention units. The goal here is to change districts and schools into supportive environments where educators, families, and the whole community can work together to promote social-emotional growth and progress with children. 


PATHS is a pre-K through grade 6 SEL curriculum program that has been nationally and internationally recognized as the gold standard in SEL education. On its website, PATHS says it strives to provide “evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that cultivate a safer and more positive learning environment, where both students and teachers can thrive.” PATHS points out that up to 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years because of burnout, and because of this, many educators can benefit from an SEL education. A subscription to PATHS includes digital copies of the curriculum manuals, additional bonus materials and videos, and much more. 

4. EduMotion

EduMotion offers SEL lessons for students from kindergarten to grade 12. Margot Toppen, the founder and CEO of EduMotion, has created an SEL curriculum that is inspired by movement and world cultures. EduMotion tackles a few of the main SEL issues, such as handling diversity, offering empathy, and expressing kindness. In many lessons, students actively participate by moving rather than just watching a video.  

The school program also includes classroom and home lesson plans for parents who either want to address SEL issues at home or are currently homeschooling their children. 

5. The 4Rs

The 4Rs is a Pre-K through Grade 5 SEL program that uses children’s literature to teach proper behavior to students. The 4Rs program (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) encourages students to use creativity to develop skills such as critical thinking, long-term conflict resolution, and community building. A study by Columbia University found that the 4Rs and other SEL programs bring a return of $11 for every $1 invested. 

6. Better Kids

Developed for K through Grade 3 students, Better Kids is an SEL program that focuses on helping primary school students build SEL skills while still young. Better Kids offers an award-winning academic social and emotional learning game designed to strengthen skills such as empathy, conflict resolution, problem solving, independence, and developing coping strategies. The emotional learning program will allow students to learn and have fun at the same time. 

7. Playworks

Playworks started as a way to make recess more productive. It’s an SEL program that helps students stay active and build valuable skills through play. Playworks, which is designed for students in Kindergarten through Grade 12, was first developed in 1995 and is now used by more than 2 million students. Handling conflict resolution, academic success, and developing leadership are just a few of the skills students will develop by following this social emotional curriculum. And judging by the number of schools that have used Playworks, it appears to be working. 

8. Peekapak

Aside from being a fun word to say out loud, Peekapak helps students develop SEL skills through language arts and learning games. A Kindergarten through Grade 12 curriculum, Peekapak allows students to read stories, develop their writing skills and play fun online games. Story-based learning is a positive way for students to develop SEL skills because they can put themselves in the characters’ shoes and decide what they would do in each situation. Peekapak can be completed in the classroom or remotely at home. Teachers will receive the analytics reports for each student to determine if the children fully understand each lesson. 

9. CharacterStrong

CharacterStrong is a Kindergarten through Grade 12 SEL program that emphasizes both evidence-based implementation strategies and best practices. CharacterStrong consists of lesson plans, videos, podcasts, presentation slides, webinars, and more. As with other SEL programs we have spoken about, costs for CharacterStrong will depend on each school’s specific needs. 


If your school district doesn’t have extra funds to purchase SEL programs, consider EVERFI. This free social-emotional curriculum offers digital resources for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12. EVERFI focuses on equipping students with self-awareness skills, conflict resolution habits, leadership qualities, and empathy toward others. It includes lesson plans, discussion guides, activities, and individual tutorials to show kids and adults how to strengthen social and emotional skills. 

11. Centervention

Here’s another free SEL program for both schools and individuals. Centervention offers plenty of lessons for educators plus an entire SEL curriculum. The program emphasizes learning SEL skills through personalized online games that allow students to move at their own pace. As the student plays, important data is gathered to determine which SEL skills students might need to improve and which skills are already solid.

12. Classcraft

While some other SEL programs on this list involve interactivity in one form or another, Classcraft goes a bit further, and its approach is built upon extensive pedagogical and motivational research. You’ll see common game elements such as story-driven quests, boss battles, and character creation being utilized to motivate students intrinsically, while also engaging them on a cultural level. Classcraft combines these ideas with tools for implementing and tracking SEL, PBIS, and MTSS initiatives at the class, school, and district levels. Its built-in behavior settings and rewards management are carefully aligned with CASEL standards, the ultimate goal being the cultivation of strong relationships between students, teachers, and schools.

Find the perfect fit 

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of research-based SEL curriculum programs out there. Do your research and decide which SEL program would be a perfect fit for your school or district. Remember, you may not see changes overnight, but it won’t be long before you start to see a positive impact from the SEL curriculum you’ve chosen. 

Photo: Google Education

Classcraft can help you motivate your students to engage more in their learning.

Why Classcraft for SEL

Learn more

Social Emotional Learning

Classcraft can help you motivate your students to engage more in their learning.

Why Classcraft for SEL

Learn more