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Second Step Early Learning

Evidence rating
Cost rating
Reviews: January 2019; September 2021

Note on provider involvement: This provider has agreed to EIF’s terms of reference, and the assessment has been conducted and published with the full cooperation of the programme provider.

Second Step Early Learning (SSEL) is a classroom-based programme designed to increase students’ school success and decrease problem behaviours by promoting social-emotional competence and self-regulation. It is a universal programme for children between the ages of 4 and 5, though it has been targeted at disadvantaged areas in its best evidenced implementation. The programme is delivered in early-years settings.

SSEL is designed to promote young children’s readiness skills for school and life. It is delivered by teachers in lessons which are interactive and developmentally appropriate. 

It is delivered across 28 weeks of short daily activities which involve either the whole classroom, or small-group activities that use posters, songs, puppets and story books.

EIF Programme Assessment

Evidence rating

Second Step Early Learning has evidence of a short-term positive impact on child outcomes from at least one rigorous evaluation.

What does the evidence rating mean?

Level 3 indicates evidence of efficacy. This means the programme can be described as evidence-based: it has evidence from at least one rigorously conducted RCT or QED demonstrating a statistically significant positive impact on at least one child outcome.

This programme does not receive a rating of 4 as it has not yet replicated its results in another rigorously conducted study, where at least one study indicates long-term impacts, and at least one uses measures independent of study participants. 

Cost rating

A rating of 1 indicates that a programme has a low cost to set up and deliver, compared with other interventions reviewed by EIF. This is equivalent to an estimated unit cost of less than £100.

Child outcomes

According to the best available evidence for this programme's impact, it can achieve the following positive outcomes for children:

Enhancing school achievement & employment

based on
Second Step Early Learning

Key programme characteristics

Who is it for?

The best available evidence for this programme relates to the following age-groups:

  • Preschool

How is it delivered?

The best available evidence for this programme relates to implementation through these delivery models:

  • Group

Where is it delivered?

The best available evidence for this programme relates to its implementation in these settings:

  • Children's centre or early-years setting

How is it targeted?

The best available evidence for this programme relates to its implementation as:

  • Targeted selective

Where has it been implemented?

Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States

UK provision

This programme has been implemented in the UK.

UK evaluation

This programme’s best evidence does not include evaluation conducted in the UK.

Spotlight sets

EIF does not currently include this programme within any Spotlight set.

Second Step Early Learning

About the programme

What happens during delivery?

How is it delivered?
  • Second Step Early Learning is delivered in 28 weeks of 5–7 minute daily activities, by a teacher to classrooms of children.
What happens during the intervention?
  • Core social-emotional and self-regulation skills are taught in 28 weekly themes divided into five units: skills for learning, empathy, emotion management, problem-solving, and transitioning to kindergarten.
  • The weekly themes are presented on large photo cards that feature short five- to seven-minute daily activities designed to be integrated into the flow of the day.

What are the implementation requirements?

Who can deliver it?
  • The practitioner who delivers this programme is a preschool teacher with QCF-6 level qualifications. 
What are the training requirements?
  • The programme comes with an online staff training toolkit to help train teachers to implement the programme with fidelity. The toolkit can be used by anyone overseeing programme implementation and was designed to be adapted to best suit users’ own settings. The toolkit, which is customisable for any individual or group of teachers, includes the following components:
    • A kick-off meeting agenda guided by a PowerPoint: Staff receive an overview of the programme and prepare to deliver the first unit.
    • Four check-in meeting agendas: These meetings are held after each of the first four units is delivered. Staff reflect on successes and challenges with implementation and prepare to deliver the next unit. These check-in meetings provide valuable opportunities for timely feedback and coaching throughout programme implementation.
    • A wrap-up meeting agenda: Staff reflect on successes and plan for next year’s implementation.
How are the practitioners supervised?
  • Supervision of practitioners is not required.
What are the systems for maintaining fidelity?

Programme fidelity is maintained through the following processes:

  • Training manual
  • Face-to-face training
  • Fidelity monitoring.
Is there a licensing requirement?

There is no licence required to run this programme.

How does it work? (Theory of Change)

How does it work?
  • The universal, classroom-based programme is designed to increase children’s school success and decrease problem behaviours by promoting social emotional competence and self-regulation.
  • It teaches skills that strengthen children’s ability to learn, have empathy, manage emotions and solve problems.
  • In the short term, children will have improved social-emotional competence and increased self-regulation.
  • In the long term, children will have increased school success, reduced aggression and improved peer relations.
Intended outcomes

Enhancing school achievement & employment

Second Step Early Learning

About the evidence

Second Step Early Learning’s most rigorous evidence comes from an RCT which was conducted in the United States.

This study identified statistically significant positive impact on a number of child outcomes.

This programme is underpinned by one study with a level 3 rating, hence the programme receives a level 3 rating.

Study 1

Citation: Upshur et al., 2019
Design: Cluster RCT
Country: United States
Sample: 770 4-year-old children recruited from classrooms in Head Start centres and community preschools which serve low-income families.
Timing: Post-intervention
Child outcomes: Improved executive functioning
Other outcomes: None measured
Study rating: 3

Upshur, C. C., Wenz-Gross, M., Rhoads, C., Heyman, M., Yoo, Y., & Sawosik, G. (2019). A randomized efficacy trial of the second step early learning (SSEL) curriculum. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology62, 145-159.

Available at

Upshur, C. C., Heyman, M., & Wenz-Gross, M. (2017). Efficacy trial of the second step early learning (SSEL) curriculum: Preliminary outcomes. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology50, 15-25.

Available at

Study design and sample

The first study is an RCT. This study involved random assignment of children to a Second Step Early Learning group and a usual curriculum group. 

This study was conducted in the USA, with a sample of 770 4-year-old children recruited from classrooms in Head Start centres and community preschools which serve low-income families. Approximately half the sample were boys and half girls. Children’s mean receptive vocabulary scores indicated a somewhat below age-equivalent sample. More than half of the families had a family income of less than $20,000.


  • Executive functioning was measured using the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task (direct assessment).
  • Executive functioning was also measured using the Backward Digit Span Task (direct assessment).
  • Emotion knowledge was measured using the Emotion Matching Scale (direct assessment).
  • Emotion knowledge was also measured using Challenging Situations Task (direct assessment).
  • Preacademic skills were assessed using 4 tests from the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement.


This study identified statistically significant positive impact on executive functioning.

More Less about study 1

Published April 2024