SEL Data for Dialogue

When I first started working as a teacher in the US, I learned about “data-driven instruction.” The school where I taught used several data points to assess students’ understanding and mastery of the academic standards taught in class: reading assessments, math benchmarks, exit tickets, student writing samples, classroom observations, and student-led projects, among several others. We used these tools to assess students’ strengths and identify any gaps in their learning. Then, as a team, we adjusted our instructional plans to make sure students’ academic needs were being met. Many of you probably go through a similar process in your classroom. So, what about social and emotional needs? Is it possible to use SEL data to inform instruction?

Here’s the quick summary: If we want to understand students’ social and emotional competencies and how much progress we are making in helping students develop these skills, we need to use data. Otherwise, how would you know that what you’re doing is working? Or that you are meeting students’ needs?

In an earlier post, I discussed how SEL cannot be solely focused on teaching social and emotional competencies once a week; SEL should be part of the school fabric (from the way teachers greet students in the morning, to the procedures for handling student misbehavior), and it should incorporate SEL data that helps school teams improve instruction and the learning environment at the school. Dr. Denham, Psychology Professor and member of the research advisory group at CASEL, explains that a well-designed SEL initiative includes clear goals and benchmarks (i.e. SEL standards), and tools for universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring. Let’s look at these two elements in more detail.

1. SEL goals and benchmarks

This refers to the SEL content you teach- the what. Which competencies do you teach? How are these competencies applied differently by age/grade level? What should you expect students to do/practice/apply when they leave campus? If you have clear goals and benchmarks at your school, answering these questions should be straightforward. However, if you don’t, continue reading. There are several resources that may help you and your school with your SEL benchmarks.

In the US, some states have adopted specific SEL standards. For example, the state of Illinois established free-standing SEL standards in 2006. The first SEL goal is “to develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.” They break down this broad goal into 3 learning standards:

  1. Identify and manage emotions and behaviors,
  2. Recognize personal qualities and external supports, and
  3. Demonstrate skills related to achieving personal and academic goals.

Then, each learning standard is divided into specific benchmarks, following developmentally appropriate milestones. Let’s look at the corresponding SEL benchmarks for the first learning standard.

Learning Standard: Identify and manage one’s emotions and behaviors

Early Elementary Benchmarks (ages 6-8):

  • Recognize and accurately label emotions and how they are linked to behavior
  • Demonstrate control of impulsive behavior

Late Elementary (ages 8-11):

  • Describe a range of emotions and the situations that cause them.
  • Describe and demonstrate ways to express emotions in a socially acceptable manner.

Middle/Junior High School (ages 11-14):

  • Analyze factors that create stress or motivate successful performance.
  • Apply strategies to manage stress and to motivate successful performance.

Early High School (ages 14-16)

  • Analyze how thoughts and emotions affect decision making and responsible behavior.
  • Generate ways to develop more positive attitude.

Late High School (ages 16-18):

  • Evaluate how expressing one’s emotions in different situations affects others.
  • Evaluate how expressing more positive attitudes influences others.

The state of Illinois goes one step further identifying performance descriptors for each benchmark (check out descriptors for grades 1-5 and grades 6-12). For example, a 6 year-old student who meets the first benchmark (recognize and accurately label emotions and how they are linked to behavior) would be able to:

  • Identify emotions (e.g., happy, surprised, sad, angry, proud, afraid) expressed in “feeling faces” or photographs.
  • Name the emotions felt by characters in stories.
  • Identify ways to calm yourself.
  • Describe a time you felt the same way a story character felt.
  • Discuss classroom and school rules.
  • Share feelings (e.g., through speaking, writing, drawing) in a range of contexts.

As you can see, these standards and benchmarks describe what students should know and be able to do in each level. In addition, the performance descriptors offer discrete indicators that teachers can use to monitor if students are reaching their SEL goals.

In your classroom, you probably have students reading at different levels, right? The same is true for SEL. You may have students who enter kindergarten knowing basic emotions and having strategies to calm themselves, while other learners may need additional instruction and support to develop these skills. Having SEL benchmarks and goals will help you develop a plan to support students’ growth in this important area. Do you have questions? Reach out!

2. Tools for Assessing SEL

Assessment data are an essential component of SEL implementation. It can serve many functions, including universal and targeted screening, progress monitoring for SEL benchmarks, and as a planning tool for curriculum development and instruction. SEL measures can also support equitable outcomes; since a systematic data analysis can reveal disparities in the degree to which schools are meeting students’ needs. Teachers can use SEL data to make effective instructional decisions generally and, specifically, to guide the integration of SEL in the classroom. In addition, when SEL data are used along academic scores, discipline reports, attendance, teacher observations and parent input, schools can easily identify the challenges that students face, and act to ensure adequate levels of support to meet the needs of all students.

If you are looking for an SEL assessment tool for your school, you are in luck. CASEL just released the first SEL Assessment Guide, which provides a curated catalog of 23 assessments currently used in schools, and examples of how practitioners are using these tools. It includes student self-report, teacher/staff perceptions, performance measures, and family and peer feedback. Many of the tools are available in several languages. If you are looking for an assessment, this guide will make the task of selecting and using an appropriate assessment easier and faster.

SEL assessments should NOT be used for tracking or labeling students; they should be used to help teachers identify strengths in their students and areas that need to be further developed. The insights gain from SEL data should support creating richer learning environments, where students feel safe and supported to practice the skills they’re trying to learn.

Need more examples? If you’d like to read more about how schools use SEL assessments in practice, let me know. I’ll send you a recently published case study that describes how a school uses assessment data to build positive school climate and strengthen the skills of students and teachers. Or just drop me a note using the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.

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