SEL4MA Testimony regarding H3898

Testimony by the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts before the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Public hearing in regard to H3898, “Resolve establishing a special commission on behavioral health promotion and upstream prevention”
Massachusetts State House, Boston, MA
February 9, 2016

Co-Chairs Senator Flanagan and Representative Malia, members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to speak briefly before you today.

I’m Jim Vetter from Somerville. I serve as Associate Director of Health and Technology at Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC), which is headquartered in Waltham, and I am Co-Chair of the statewide Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts (SEL4MA).

At EDC and SEL4MA, we appreciate Representative James Cantwell’s leadership in sponsoring this bill as well as the strong commitment to the promotion of behavioral health demonstrated by the Co-Chairs and members of this Committee, including the work that Senator Flanagan and Representative Malia did in support of last May’s successful SEL4MA conference here at the State House. And I see many others on the Committee or here to testify who have long been in support of a behavioral health promotion approach.

With the growing number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts—with Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently reporting over 1000 opioid-related deaths in 2014 alone[1]—there is clearly an urgent need for action, including the critical need for immediate response to prevent death in an overdose situation.

At the same time, we know that to only address the most immediate manifestations of substance abuse and other behavioral health issues is not enough to ensure the well-being of the citizens of the Commonwealth.

From experience gained through work that has taken place over decades in Massachusetts, across the country, and around the world by EDC’s experts in behavioral and mental health promotion—who conduct research, develop programs, and provide technical assistance in behavioral health promotion and prevention—we have seen firsthand the positive impact that can be made when communities come together across domains to look upstream and work to promote social and emotional health, which research has shown can provide the resilience necessary to respond positively and healthfully to the stressors in life.

This Committee has shown wisdom in acknowledging the need for multiple levels of support, in alignment with in the Institute of Medicine’s continuum model of mental health intervention[2] and our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Massachusetts Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)[3], among others.

In these models, promotion and prevention activities for entire populations provide the bedrock of an effective approach: saving money and saving lives. From infancy through youth through adulthood through our older years, social and emotional competencies are critical to our health and well-being.

The evidence base is there. While there is more research to be done, we currently know a lot about what works in the promotion of behavioral health. Fear-based “scare” programs from decades back have been shown to lack effectiveness. But as demonstrated by the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the Effective Social and Emotional Learning guides developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are now a wide a range of programs and practices used in schools and communities that have been shown to produce tangible result.

For example, a recent meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools indicates that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated:

  • Reduced emotional distress: including fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.
  • Fewer negative behaviors: including decreased disruptive class behavior, noncompliance, aggression, delinquent acts, and disciplinary referrals; and
  • Improved attitudes and behaviors: including greater motivation to learn, deeper commitment to school, increased time devoted to schoolwork, and better classroom behavior;[4]

But does the use of social and emotional learning take away from school’s core focus on traditional academics? It was quite to the contrary. Students receiving quality SEL supports showed:

  • Better academic performance: including achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive SEL instruction[5]

What about the cost of proactive promotion of behavioral health? Can our communities afford to make this investment?

A recent study conducted by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies for Columbia University’s Teacher College shows that for every dollar invested in training in social-emotional learning, there is a return of investment of eleven dollars.[6]

It takes foresight and clear-headed thinking to adopt a behavioral health promotion approach. We at EDC and SEL4MA applaud the efforts of communities across the state and Commonwealth itself for their efforts in this critical area. The physical, social, emotional, and fiscal health of may well depend on it.

Thank you Co-Chairs Senator Flangan and Representative Malia and members of the Committee.


[1] http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/quality/drugcontrol/county-level-pmp/data-brief-overdose-deaths-ma-residents-january-2016.pdf

[2] Mrazek, P. J., & Haggerty, R. J. (Eds.). (1994). Reducing Risks for Mental Disorders:: Frontiers for Preventive Intervention Research. National Academies Press.

[3] http://www.mass.gov/edu/government/departments-and-boards/ese/programs/accountability/tools-and-resources/massachusetts-tiered-system-of-support/

[4] Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development: 82 (1), 405-432.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Belfield, C., Bowden, A. B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(03), 508-544.