Sexuality Research and Social Policy

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 178-186

First online:

Social–Emotional Learning in Grades 3 to 6 and the Early Onset of Sexual Behavior

  • David J. SchonfeldAffiliated withCincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
  • , Ryan E. AdamsAffiliated withCincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
  • , Bridget K. FredstromAffiliated withCincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Email author 
  • , Ricarda TomlinAffiliated withYale University
  • , Charlene VoyceAffiliated withYale University
  • , Lisa M. VaughnAffiliated withCincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

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The study aimed to explore whether evidence-based elementary social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula [Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS)] focused on social problem-solving skills combined with sexual risk prevention lessons would have an impact on preventing the early onset of sexual intercourse. A 4-year longitudinal, randomized, controlled design was employed in which 24 elementary schools were assigned to receive the already in place SEL curriculum (control) or the enhanced PATHS curriculum (intervention) combined with sexual risk prevention lessons during grades 3–6. Social problem-solving skills were assessed in grade 6 through the use of a social problem-solving dilemma and sexual behavior was assessed in grades 6 and 7. Sexual activity rates were 9.1% and 21.1% in the sixth and seventh grades, respectively. While the direct effects of the intervention on sexual behavior were not significant, the intervention did indirectly have an effect through social problem-solving skills. Those receiving the intervention curriculum were more likely to focus on issues specific to a dilemma designed to assess problem-solving skills and adolescents using this social cognitive skill, in turn, were less likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse by the seventh grade. The results provide evidence of the positive impact of SEL on students’ social problem-solving skills and delay in initiating sexual intercourse.


Social–emotional learning Elementary school Social development Curriculum intervention Social problem-solving measure