SEL Data for Dialogue

It is common for teachers to assess students’ understanding and mastery of the academic standards taught in class through reading assessments, math benchmarks, exit tickets, student writing samples, classroom observations, and student-led projects, among several others. We use these tools to assess students’ strengths and identify any gaps in their academic learning. In addition, standards serve as a guide for what is (in general terms) developmentally appropriate for students to learn.

So, what about HEART skills? It is possible to generate and use SEL data to inform students’ growth and teachers’ instruction? Here’s the quick summary: If we want to understand students’ social and emotional skills and how much progress we are making in helping them learn and apply 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. As you know, I created the HEART in Mind model to provide educators with a research-based and practical framework that would help teachers effectively implement SEL in the classroom. In this model, intrapersonal , interpersonal and cognitive skills are represented by the acronym HEART and are organized to show you a developmentally appropriate progression of skill development. In Teaching with the HEART in Mind, my new book, you will find indicators of mastery for each one of the HEART skills by grade level. This will help you understand the varying expectations we may have for students based on their grade level, and identify your students’ strengths and areas for growth.

Let’s look at the indicators of mastery for the first competency in the HEART in Mind model, Honor your Emotions:

Beginner (kindergarten through second grade)

  • Uses a variety of emotion words
  • Connects emotions with bodily sensations
  • Describes how emotions are linked to behavior

Advanced Beginner (third through fifth grade)

  • Describes a range of emotions
  • Identifies the reasons behind their emotions
  • Expresses how they feel to others

Strategic Learner (sixth to eighth grade)

  • Recognizes the different degrees of intensity in their emotions
  • Identifies the complexity and meaning of feelings
  • Demonstrates when and how feelings can be communicated appropriately

Emerging Expert (ninth through 12th grade)

  • Analyzes factors that create difficult emotions, such as stress or fear
  • Generates ways to interpret and communicate emotions
  • Applies strategies to use emotions effectively

Practicing Expert (college and beyond)

  • Identifies how emotions affect decision-making and interprets their meaning
  • Evaluates how expressing emotions affects others and communicates accordingly
  • Generates ways to use emotions to accomplish personal goals

As you can see, these indicators of mastery describe what students should know and be able to do in each level. If you teach and infuse SEL in your classroom, you have probably noticed that students have different levels of skill development. 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. By having these indicators, you can more effectively plan your instruction and monitor if students are reaching their SEL goals.

Did you notice that the indicators also include adults? As an educator, you can use the HEART in Mind model to develop your own social and emotional skills. As I have written before, adult SEL capacity is essential to cultivate resilience, teach SEL effectively and be able to create the supportive classroom environment you want for your students.

For a complete list of indicators of mastery, check out Teaching with the HEART in Mind!

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.

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 and equipped to navigate the world outside of school.

In Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I have included a self-assessment for adult skills that educators can use to reflect on their HEART skills and make an action plan to grow their social and emotional capacity! Give it a try.

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.


  1. Dr. Nina April 11, 2021 at 10:43 am - Reply

    Hi Lorea,
    Thanks for advocating for good SEL implementation! I have seen scary ideas about SEL curricula, and very inappropriate ways for “measuring” SEL competencies.

    In my practice SEL is a part of learnign engagement and learner agency as I support teachers pursuing their M.Eds.

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