The importance of measuring and teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies cannot be overstated. In fact, it is clearly emerging as one of the most effective ways to develop psychologically healthy and productive young people and adults.
Furthermore, the extent to which we ignore SEL, we increase the likelihood that students will further disengage from learning. SEL has been defined as the fostering of social and emotional competencies through explicit instruction and through student-centered learning approaches that help students engage in the learning process and develop analytical, communication and collaborative skills.
But how does one actually begin the process of measuring and gathering data related to SEL?
As Susanne Denham notes, “Assessment is an integral, indispensable part of implementing an SEL program and must include (1) clear goals and benchmarks (i.e., standards) for children’s SEL progress; (2) evidence-based curricula and instruction, along with support for teachers to implement such programming, so that such standards may be met; and (3) universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring (formative, interim, and summative).”
Below is a flowchart that illustrates how assessment fits into the overall SEL model (Denham, 2015):
But what types of assessment for SEL are best and available to educators?
What has become obvious from the literature is that a wide variety of mechanisms are being employed to measure SEL. Different from measuring mastery of academic standards in the classroom, the measurement of SEL involves much different approaches, thus presenting a unique challenge to educators.
Fortunately, there are some answers. All of the suggested steps revolve around the following techniques and principles (Denham, Hamre, et al., 2010):
- Informant Ratings
- Direct Assessment
- Direct Observations
- Structured or unstructured interviews
Applying informant ratings
This would involve using validated surveys and questionnaires completed by teachers and/or parents whereby they rate student’s competencies based on their cumulative observations of the SEL core skills.
These types of informant ratings have become an effective tool for providing insight into the social emotional learning needs of the students and have proven effective for universal screening and progress monitoring of SEL.
Students can also self-evaluate their SEL competencies. A two-part teacher survey (where teachers complete information about their students) and student survey (where students complete information about themselves) can provide information on how students are progressing in the five core competencies of SEL.
However, the limitations of self-ratings by students must consider biased response styles such as faking good or bad, and the fact that students with low SEL competencies may simply be unable to accurately self-evaluate.
For school programs occurring during the regular school year, it is advised to administer the surveys or questionnaires for universal screening at specific points during the academic year:
- First administration – start of the academic year (e.g., August or September)
- Second administration – end of first semester or mid-point of academic year
- Third administration – end of the academic year (e.g., April or May)
The first administration would serve as the baseline, with each subsequent administration measuring the changes in life skills as the child progresses throughout the school year. This approach can be helpful to gauge the impact of system-wide programs. For students with significant SEL deficits engaged in intervention programs, a more frequent progress monitoring regime may be employed.
Making good use of assessments
The other approaches recommended by Denham listed above can be useful (direct assessment, direct observations, and structured or unstructured interviews), but the overriding issue is feasibility. The time and resources required for these types of assessment approaches, which include training, establishing observer reliability, coding and scoring, makes these approaches only practical for research purposes and not implementation in schools.
Below is a table (Denham, S., 2015) of tools that meet specific criteria as exemplary for measuring SEL:
Universal screening assessments allow for the implementation of a three-tiered model in which all children are universally screened, to targeted interventions for at-risk students, and to individualized work with persistent challenges. These assessments are delivered by the teacher and/or through parent survey based on their summative observations. Student self-reporting via survey could also be employed.
Formative assessments and progress monitoring assessments are used for learning and minute-by-minute monitoring and integrated instruction. It involves the student and provides frequent feedback, as measured via direct observations in the moment. Summative assessments are then conducted at the end of specified periods to measure impact or change (with the same screening methods employed).
Considering other innovative approaches
To take it one step further, some districts can sponsor self-guided research and projects. These assigned projects allow students take ownership of their learning.
In the UK, educators launched a special project called “What about us?” to discover and improve the learning experience for students, in particular those with learning disabilities. They invited students to take a proactive role in the research: students were asked about their ideas and opinions on what’s working and what’s not. They were then given ownership of the research process and result findings.
By the end of the project, their efforts yielded some interesting findings. Some students worried about being bullied when they were outside of the classroom. Among other things, they discovered that students sought an environment that ensured they would be “safe and happy.” When faced with the threat of bullying, students would feel stress and discomfort that would impact their ability to learn.
As the group suggests: “Involving young people in doing research should become a key strategy for enhancing social and emotional well-being for students with learning difficulties, disabilities and/or special educational needs.”
Measuring SEL has certain complexities and is quite different from measuring academic skills. Schools should evaluate the system depicted in Fig. 1 from the reference of SEL, and determine the specific needs and functions of their usage of SEL assessment.
The goal of SEL assessment is to clearly define student strengths and weaknesses, and assist in making data-based decisions that help improve children’s SEL and fostering long-term positive outcomes.
Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. Edited by Durlak, J., et al. The Guilford Press, New York. 2015.
Critical Skills for Building Healthy Schools in Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. Darling-Hammond, L. Edited by Durlak, J., et al. The Guilford Press, New York. 2015.
The Uncommon Core. Shriver, T. & Buffett, J. in Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. Darling-Hammond, L. Edited by Durlak, J., et al. The Guilford Press, New York. 2015.
Assessment of SEL in Educational Contexts. Denham, S. in Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. Darling-Hammond, L. Edited by Durlak, J., et al. The Guilford Press, New York. 2015.
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