Scoping Review: How do researchers think about SEL?

Published by Heather Woods on

The first phase of the research project will focus on a scoping review of how researchers conceptualize and enact social and emotional learning in elementary settings in Canada. This will be the first piece of how research, policy, and practice conceptualize and enact social and emotional learning in elementary settings in Canada. Eventually, as we discussed in the previous update, we will look for how these three perspectives inform one another (or potentially do not), are similar and different.

What is a scoping review?

So, first things first, what is a scoping review? A scoping review seeks to summarize the research conducted in a particular area. Unlike a systematic review, the goal is not to evaluate the quality of the research conducted in an area, but rather exploring what the key ideas from the research are about a particular topic.

According to Arskey & O’Malley (2005) there are 4 reasons to conduct a scoping review:

  1. To examine the extent, range and nature of a research activity
  2. To determine the value of undertaking a full systematic review
  3. To summarize and disseminate research findings
  4. To identify gaps in the existing research

The current project encompasses pieces of reasons 1, 3, and 4. We seek to understand how Canadian researchers have conceptualized social and emotional learning in elementary classrooms. In doing this, we will be able to share a summary of the findings through the research website and potentially an article in a professional journal, along with an academic publication of the full systematic review. Additionally, in conducting the scoping review, we will be able to highlight gaps and future directions for social and emotional research in Canada.

There are 6 stages to conducting a scoping review (Arskey & O’Malley, 2005; Levac et al., 2010), these include:

Stage 1: identifying the research question

  • Question: How is SEL conceptualized by Researchers in Canadian Schools?
  • Study Population: Canadian Research(ers)
  • Topic: SEL
  • Context: In schools
  • Foci:
    • Conceptualization of SEL (how are they defining it? what are they including in it?)
    • What interventions are being done in Canada?
    • What are the parameters of those studies (populations, skills, methods)
    • Summary of implementation research (may touch on sustainability here whether programs were deemed effective, why/why not)

Stage 2: identifying relevant studies

  • Search Strategy was developed with the input of the faculty librarian. More on this below.

Stage 3: study selection

  • Screening the articles
    • First round screen title and abstract only for relevance
    • Second round is reviewing the full text of articles for relevance
  • Developing the inclusion and exclusion criteria

Stage 4: charting the data

  • Content or thematic analysis. I’m currently leaning more towards content as it’s less open for interpretation.
  • Table to be created for data extraction (headings: Citation, Location, Year, SEL definition, foci [e.g., competencies or skills], definitions of foci, Aims of study, program, implementation methods, RCT [y,n], Length of Intervention, theory, outcome measures, findings, implications)

Stage 5: collating, summarizing and reporting the results

  • This stage will be developed once I am a little further along in the analyses process.

What was the search strategy?

The search strategy was developed based on reviewing prominent systematic reviews and meta-analyses (e.g., Brown et al., 2018; Durlak et al., 2011). Reviewing these studies allowed for developing the structure of the search terms (e.g., looking for social OR emotional learning). I met with the faculty librarian to further discuss search strategy to ensure we were using the search databases in the most effective manner.

The key terms that we focused on were:

  • SEL
  • Social Learning
  • Emotional Learning
  • Social Emotional Learning
  • School
  • Canada & Provinces
  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Responsible Decision-Making
  • Elementary Education Settings

The following databases were searched: ERIC, Education Source, Academic Search Complete, Web of Science, PsycINFO, Proquest (Dissertations & Theses). For each database the thesaurus or similar tool was used to identify the relevant subject terms and related constructs/terms.

After the search was conducted we found 25, 990 articles. After uploading to Covidence (systematic review software), 1968 articles were marked as duplicates. This left us with 24, 022 articles to screen for relevance.

The full search strategy can be seen here:

Scoping Review Progress

As I sit here, a colleague and I have screened 5598 (of 24, 022) abstracts and titles for relevant research and grey literature. Of those articles, 5422 were deemed irrelevant and we have sorted 176 articles into the ’maybe’ or ’yes’ category for the next round of screening.

Those that were deemed irrelevant did not meet the criteria for inclusion. Below, you can see our current inclusion/exclusion criteria. This list is developing as we screen more and more articles. As we mentioned above, the development of inclusion and exclusion criteria for scoping reviews is developed and refined as you engage with the literature and find what is most relevant to our research question.

Inclusion Exclusion
Elementary School SettingClinical/Specialized Populations
CanadaNon-Canadian Populations
SELPublication Language other than English
Social CompetenciesHigh School/College/University
Emotional CompetenciesProfessional settings
English Extra-Curricular Settings
(after-school programs, coaching, sports)
Medical Education/Nursing

At the moment the ratio of inclusion vs exclusion may seem a little extreme. However, I have been purposely filtering the articles based on the exclusion criteria (e.g., the United States or College) to more quickly get rid of the irrelevant articles. Despite the very specific criteria in my search strategy for including articles from Canadian sources, there seems to be a very large proportion of articles from other countries, so I am trying to sift through those first.

The articles that have been classed as maybe included appear to meet the inclusion criteria except it is unclear whether the research was conducted in Canada or what age the students were. The full text will be screened more thoroughly for these details to determine whether I will include these articles.

Current Questions and Reflections

Right now, I am wondering whether to include articles that explore the social and emotional competencies in adults within the school system. I have come across quite a few articles (not in Canada yet) about principles emotional intelligence or teachers coping strategies. While this research is very interesting, I am not sure it quite fits within the scope of the project.

I will be following up with my supervisor and colleagues about their thoughts about this. I welcome your input as well.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please feel free to email me at:

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