Negotiating Funding, Engaging Educators, and Effectively Using Quantitative Data to Drive Social and Emotional Change… Amid Pandemic-Related Challenges
Sandra Mossman Elementary is built upon the foundation of an innovative and caring community and is driven by visionary leaders who inspire and build students’ highest cognitive and ethical potential. The school serves approximately 800 students in grades K–5 in League City, Texas, just outside Houston. Mossman educators believe in student self-direction, shared responsibility, and persistent risk-taking through a novel approach to learning.
Studies have shown that in Texas, less than 50% of kindergarten students are entering school with limited school readiness skills, many of which align with social-emotional competencies. With this knowledge in mind, school counselor Mike Ammons cast a vision to school administrators and educators about improving social-emotional behavior and growth from the beginning of a child’s educational experience. “I realized that early intervention for social-emotional deficits was crucial, just like reading or math deficits. But even though these are skills that can be taught, social-emotional learning isn’t always taken seriously. I wanted to make sure we had sufficient quantitative data on our students’ social-emotional competencies so we could chart a course to change behavior predicated on more than just our feelings,” said Ammons.
Two years later, Ammons has used quantitative data from the DESSA Comprehensive SEL System by Aperture Education to build the foundation for a unique, community-funded social-emotional learning program that has the buy-in of educators, administrators, community members, and even local high school students.
Keep reading to learn how Mike Ammons of Mossman Elementary:
Found funding to pay for the assessment and teacher tools
Obtained administrator buy-in to support his SEL initiatives
Engaged educators in completing the assessment and implementing SEL strategies
Implemented in phases using the DESSA-mini 60-second universal screener
Used the DESSA assessment data at the individual and classroom levels
Measured success of their implementation
Is preparing for the future of social-emotional learning now
Many schools and districts struggle to find funding to support social-emotional learning programs, and Mossman is no exception. League City, Texas, has a community-funded education foundation that supported full funding for social-emotional programming for the 2019–2020 school year after Ammons submitted a thorough application outlining the importance of SEL.
To fund the program in the second year, amid the challenges of the pandemic, Ammons used Aperture to pull data from the prior year’s DESSA results to show baseline and growth data in social-emotional skills. He then partnered with his principal for approval to share this information in a five-minute presentation to the foundation board. “The board ended up being really interested in the data and having a lot of questions. By the time we wrapped up, they had decided on the spot to provide the funding immediately. The check was written that day,” said Ammons. Not only did Ammons seek funding for the DESSA System, he also asked for an extra $500 for each grade level so educators could equip their classrooms with SEL resources.
Getting Administrators On-board
Ammons took a two-pronged approach to getting buy-in from administrators and teachers. Administration was keen on data-based decision-making. “Being able to make decisions for students, classrooms, and the school predicated on data rather than feelings was something that appealed to my principals and administrators quite a bit.” The data from the first year of using the DESSA System by Aperture Education became crucial to administrators’ decisions around individual student support plans and classroom placements for the second year.
Ammons took a different approach with educators. “Teachers already have a lot on their plates, but this is data that can directly support their needs,” he said. “I spoke with them about removing stress from the classrooms so we could relate to the students in a really positive way. I talked about how the DESSA did a really good job of identifying areas that students needed to improve on. But I also made sure to let them know that it was an efficient tool. Not something where they were going to have to chart out behaviors for months or have notebooks full of prose . . . it was just a 60-second screener.”
Additionally, when Ammons sought funding for SEL programming from the education foundation, his request included money that would go directly into the hands of educators. “We asked for $500 in additional funding for each grade level so teachers could equip their classrooms with tools, like creating a calming corner where students can go to de-escalate, take deep breaths, or just have a few moments to themselves.” Teachers received additional support and tools from another unlikely source: high school students. Ammons invited students at the nearby high school who were interested in becoming teachers and counselors to learn about social-emotional learning and develop tools and activities to build social-emotional skills, under his coaching.
Last, Ammons wanted to make sure that teachers felt prepared to deliver social-emotional instruction in their classrooms, and to recognize teachers who engage in best practices and had measurable outcomes with their students. Ammons set up a “SEL Lab” in his classroom, where teachers would convene for monthly professional development on specific topics and skills. He ran the first few sessions and then began asking teachers to contribute with topics that they were having success with. Even teachers who aren’t tasked with DESSA ratings had the opportunity to get involved. The school’s physical education teacher, for example, regularly embeds social-emotional skills into his teaching, and he led one of the sessions to demonstrate to staff how he engages all students in a class.
Implementing in Phases
“For the first year, we wanted the campus to get used to using the DESSA-mini screener. We started just with kindergarten because we know that more broadly across the state, many students are entering the school system without the necessary social-emotional skills,” said Ammons. The DESSA-mini is a universal screener that takes less than 60 seconds per student for a teacher to finish. It was completed at the beginning of the school year, and again in the middle of the year. Even though the 2019–2020 school year was cut short due to the pandemic, Ammons still had quantitative data to show administrators, educators, and the foundation a measurable change in student behavior, and for administrators to make classroom assignment decisions for the following fall.
Now in the second year, the DESSA is being used for grades K–5. Every kindergarten student was assessed by their teacher through the 60-second DESSA-mini at the beginning of the year. If a student fell into the “Needs Improvement” category based on the screener results, teachers then administered the full DESSA for that student. Owing to pandemic-related challenges, teachers for grades 1-5 have the choice to administer the DESSA-mini and, if needed, the full DESSA. “It’s not perfect, but given the challenges [of this year], it’s a start,” said Ammons. The plan is to implement school-wide screening at a future date. The collected data is being used on both the individual student and classroom levels.
For individual students who received the full DESSA, a Student Success Team (SST) is in place. In addition to Mike, the SST is composed of educators and administrators who look at the data and create a game plan for each student. “The interactive charts are super helpful on the fly. Whoever is running the SST meeting can pull up the report, project it, and that can guide a meaningful discussion. When you have the data, you can’t ignore it. You have to use it. Teachers were really responsive to this program.”
While individual interventions were determined by the full DESSA, the DESSA-mini was an effective tool in understanding classroom-wide trends and deciding where to focus SEL during the school day. “We have morning meetings, which are a classroom time for relationship building and social-emotional learning. Based on the classroom reports and the needs assessment, teachers can personalize their morning meeting time. It targets our most vulnerable students but serves all of our students in a meaningful way,” said Ammons.
“The other thing I like is that it contextualizes vocabulary and use of relevant words like ‘relationship skills’ and ‘social awareness,’” said Ammons. “We’re able to consistently use those terms, so students can hear that same verbiage and have a more complete understanding of what our expectations are. And teacher expectations and clarity are extremely important for kids.”
“Data is important and is an approach that is sort of new to the world of counseling and social-emotional learning,” said Ammons. “I’ve been told by my principal that I think about things a little differently than other counselors because of my bias toward having quantitative rather than qualitative data. But it’s valuable information not only as we chart a course for our students. It’s a really good tool to identify which teachers are being really successful with students. If we can identify those teachers whose students are seeing measurable change between first and second semester, we can approach them to learn what they are doing and mine out the best practices for our specific population. We can give credit to those teachers who are doing great work and also help out classrooms that might not be as successful. The way the data influences campus decision making and practices is really where it becomes extremely valuable for our students and school community.”
Preparing for the Future
While assessing social-emotional skills in a quantitative way might feel new and different, it’s also becoming more accepted and expected, even at the state level. Texas, among other states, has recently required districts to include social-emotional learning within the K–12 curriculum; the list for approved assessment instruments includes the DESSA-mini. “I think in the next five to ten years, screeners like this will be standard. And what we’re doing right now is setting the standard and defining the future.”
About Aperture Education
Aperture Education empowers over 3,000 schools and out-of-school-time programs across North America to measure, strengthen, and support social-emotional competence in K-12 youth and educators. The powerful data districts receive enables education leaders to take strategic action about SEL within their organizations. The Aperture system includes the DESSA suite of strength-based assessments which is lauded by researchers for its high standards for reliability and validity, and appreciated by educators for its ability to easily and quickly identify each student’s personal social-emotional strengths and areas of needed support. Aperture partners with industry curriculum leaders to deliver research-based, CASEL-informed intervention strategies to bolster specific areas of needed growth. Paired with robust reporting in one easy-to-use system, Aperture is often favored in districts nationwide. Aperture has supported over one million students in their social and emotional growth and continues to develop innovative solutions to bring the whole child into focus.