The Evidence Portal

Second Step Early Learning (SSEL)

About the program

SSEL is a program designed to facilitate the development of social emotional competence and self-regulation, in order to improve school readiness.

SSEL uniquely integrates activities and instruction in emotion recognition, empathy, and social problem solving with self-regulation techniques such as self-talk and learning to calm down. SSEL also contains daily ‘Brain Builder’ games that require starting and stopping activities based on various oral or visual cues. The program schedule is a combination of weekly theme curriculum topics, ongoing teacher reinforcement, the Brain Builder games, and information for parents for reinforcement at home.

The objectives of the SSEL program for children are to:

  • Increase short-term/proximal self-regulation and social/emotional competence
  • Reduce aggression
  • Improve peer relations
  • Improve on-task and classroom behaviour

Achievement of SSEL objectives is anticipated to contribute to distal/long-term outcomes including improved school readiness, academic success, and engagement in learning. SSEL is not designed as a substitute for literacy, maths or science activities. Rather, it addresses the underlying social and cognitive processes necessary for successful learning, and overall behavioural and academic success.

Who does it work for?

The program targets children aged 4 to 5 years. It can also be used in mixed age classrooms with children aged 3 to 5 years.

A classroom randomised control efficacy trial of the SSEL curriculum was conducted in the USA, in preschools with low-income children (Upshur et al. 2019). The study investigated the primary impact of the program on executive functioning skill development, social-emotional skill development, and potential secondary impact on pre-academic skills and classroom quality.

A total of 770 children participated. The children’s average age was 53.0 months, and they were evenly divided by sex. The sample was diverse, with about one quarter of the children with African American heritage, about two-fifths Anglo American, and two-fifths Hispanic American. A total of 187 teachers in both the intervention and control conditions participated in the study over 4 years. They were mostly female (only three were male); 78% were Anglo American, 14% Hispanic American, and 6% African American. Teachers’ average age was 37 years, mean preschool experience was 13 years, and the majority of teachers (55%) had a college degree or higher, with another 32% having an associate degree, and 13% having only a high school diploma.

The study randomly assigned 67 classrooms across 13 sites into the SSEL intervention group or the control usual curricula group. Six sites had HeadStart programs and seven had community preschool programs that enrolled a large proportion of low-income and at-risk children. Both types of preschools participated in each cohort. The study took place over two years.

The review did not identify any evidence that the program has been evaluated in Australia or with First Nations communities.

What outcomes does it contribute to?

SSEL promotes self-regulatory processes in the classroom that will support both individual and group learning. Activities are directed at developing specific academic skills that will improve preschool education and school readiness.

Positive outcomes:

Executive functioning skill development: There was a significant increase on the head-toes-knees-shoulders  and the backward digit span tasks  in the intervention group. SSEL successfully impacted attention, working memory, inhibition, and on-task behaviour that promote academic learning consistent with the SSEL logic model.

No effect:

Social-emotional skill development: There were no differences between the intervention and control groups on the emotion matching task (EMT) or the challenging situation task (CST).

Pre-numeracy skills, Pre-literacy skills, Language development: There were no significant differences between the intervention and control groups on preacademic maths, reading or oral language skills, as measured by the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement scales.

Negative outcomes:


Is the program effective?

Overall, the program had a mixed effect on client outcomes.

How strong is the evidence?

Mixed research evidence (with no adverse effects):

  • At least one high-quality RCT/QED study reports statistically significant positive effects for at least one outcome, AND
  • An equal number or more RCT/QED studies of similar size and quality show no observed effects than show statistically significant positive effects, AND
  • No RCT/QED studies show statistically significant adverse effects

How is it implemented?

SSEL has scripted, five day-a-week, brief large and small group lessons with 28 weekly themes, along with suggested extension and generalisation activities.

  • Day 1 of each week introduces the weekly theme using puppets.
  • Day 2 uses the picture on the curriculum card to describe a theme-related situation and how to solve it.
  • Days 3 and 4 are reinforcement days that involve small or large group practice activities.
  • Day 5 involves reading a book that addresses the weekly theme, such as recognising emotions, or playing fairly.

The SSEL kit contains the following:

  • Large, colourful weekly lesson cards designed to show children a situation reflecting the weekly theme, with the teacher’s script and instructions on the back.
  • A CD with songs to be played and sung daily, with words that reinforce the weekly theme.
  • Puppets to be used during the lessons.
  • Posters showing different social-emotional skills.
  • Small cards with children’s faces showing different emotions.
  • Detailed instructions for Brain Builder games, which are  played daily. The Brain Builder games are designed to help children practice attention, working memory, and inhibition.
  • A weekly hand out that can be copied and distributed to parents, covering the weekly theme and activities that could be carried out at home to reinforce the theme.

There are five units within the program:

  • Six lessons covering skills for learning, such as listening, paying attention, using self-talk to remember directions, and asking for help
  • Six lessons on empathy, such as identifying feelings in self and others, learning how others feel, and demonstrating caring and helpfulness towards others
  • Six lessons on managing emotions, such as identifying strong emotions and calming down
  • Seven lessons on friendship skills, such as how to join a group, inviting others to play, fair ways to play, and techniques for calming down and solving problems
  • Three lessons to review skills in preparation for transition to kindergarten

Strategies for reinforcing Executive Functioning (EF) skills are given:

  • Asking children to engage in ‘think time’ before raising their hand
  • Asking for the group to show nonverbal agreement (e.g., pat your head) to engage them when one child or the teacher is giving an answer
  • Using random calling in group activities to bring children back to focus and reinforce those paying attention and sitting quietly

Additionally, teachers were encouraged to reinforce specific skills throughout the day by asking children to think ahead about using the skills taught in upcoming activities, and to think back and recall when they or someone else demonstrated a skill; providing ongoing reinforcement when children demonstrate the skills; and offering art, literacy, math, and STEM extension activities that incorporate the learning strategies of the curriculum.

How much does it cost?

Information not provided

What else should I consider?

The study did not collect data on family participation. This is an important area for future study, since the curriculum kits provide extensive materials to engage families.

SSEL curriculum has potential for further dissemination due to the reasonable cost of materials, ease of implementation, and modest teacher training and supervision burden to achieve adequate fidelity, which in turn seem to produce meaningful changes in children’s EF skills.

It is important to go beyond overall group outcomes and interrogate the suitability of the curriculum for cohorts with specific needs.

Where does the evidence come from?

One RCT conducted in the USA with a sample of 770 children in 67 preschool classrooms (Upshur et al. 2019).

Further resources

  • Upshur, C.C., Wenz-Gross, M., Rhoads, C., Heyman, M., Yoo, Y., and Sawosik, G. 2019. A Randomized Efficacy Trial of the Second Step Early Learning (SSEL) Curriculum. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 62, 145-159.
Last updated:

17 Feb 2023

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