When it Comes to SEL, Are We Measuring What Matters?

Jessica Adamson, Chief Strategy Officer, Aperture Education

(April 19, 2023) – Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an increasingly important component of education. Introduced nearly 60 years ago, interest in SEL has grown during the past several decades. But, in recent years, SEL has become important as school systems seek a better understanding of students’ wellbeing after disruptions and isolation during the pandemic, focus on creating school communities that are safe and positive climates for learning, and put a greater emphasis on a holistic approach for ensuring student success and career readiness. 

Use of formal SEL programs or curricula rose by 25% over three years ending in Fall 2021. More than three-quarters of principals and half of teachers across the U.S. reported using SEL materials during the 2021-2022 school year, a year when reportedly over $765 million was spent on SEL programming

Despite significant investment – in both educator time and financial resources – many school systems may find themselves without quantitative information about the impact of their SEL programs. This can make it difficult to know whether the time and money spent on SEL is yielding positive results, and where additional efforts are needed to support students.

Measuring What Matters – New York and Connecticut Take the Lead 

Two prominent Departments of Education – New York City and the State of Connecticut – have infused SEL into the fabric of their schools and incorporated measurement into their existing SEL programs. A data-driven approach enables them to put equal emphasis on students’ social-emotional and academic learning, as classroom success and students’ future citizenship and careers depend on both.

The New York City Department of Education – the nation’s largest school district with more than 1 million students and 1,800 schools – implemented SEL assessments during the pandemic as a natural progression to its focus on SEL. In the five years leading up to the pandemic, the school dramatically expanded its social-emotional programming from early childhood through high school, with significant investments to add social workers, counselors and mental health professionals. With these supports in place, New York then introduced the concept of SEL and academic integration. 

Seeing the trauma, loss, grief and other challenges during COVID – New York officials needed a mechanism to understand children’s social-emotional wellness, as well as the social and emotional skills that they were bringing into the classroom as schools reopened from the pandemic. 

Working in partnership with Urban Assembly, New York City Schools introduced the Strong Resilient NYC initiative, which added the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), a strength-based social and emotional learning screener, and provided access to Urban Assembly’s SEL implementation specialists to support all students. The combination of these efforts provided school officials and educators a way to objectively measure students’ social-emotional competencies, identify their strengths in order to build on those and think more strategically about ways to support students. 

Under Chancellor David Banks’ leadership, the school system has come to view these SEL assessments similarly to how they would use academic assessment to inform high-quality core instruction. To build the SEL knowledge base, nearly all eligible students in New York City were screened. Then,the data was reviewed to help teachers identify where students required improvement and aligned those needs with classroom-level instructional support. Urban Assembly schools, a subset of NYC schools which has used the DESSA for several years, has reported a 39% reduction in both school suspensions and referrals, addressing behavior issues.

Much like its counterparts in New York City, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) saw how the impact of remote learning added to the trauma, anxiety and uncertainty that students were experiencing. CSDE has put a priority on scaling SEL and taking an interconnected approach to support educator, student, family and community wellness. A critical piece to this approach was to fund universal SEL screening for all students across the state.  

Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education Charlene M. Russell-Tucker expanded the SEL screening program, with over 80 districts in the state taking advantage of the SEL assessment initiative for students in grades K-12. Among the first districts to participate was Windsor Public Schools, which serves 3,300 students in six schools just north of Hartford, Conn. Family needs assessments revealed that students and parents wanted help coping with stress. They also needed social and emotional support and skills, wanted to address self-care and mental health and deal with bullying. 

Windsor Public Schools’ SEL program focuses on empowering students’ voices, getting more insights on the skills they have and where there could be improvement with a vision of increasing student achievement through collaborative partnerships. The district’s data-driven culture, fueled by DESSA, guides the SEL program and helps the schools determine if individual or small group interventions are needed, and fosters development of classroom and schoolwide activities that enhance SEL. Over the past two years, Windsor has seen improvements, with strong evidence of both positive student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationship building. Last school year alone, the district was able to assess 100% of its students and used DESSA data to aid in delivery of over 1,700 individual, group and classroom supports. 

Why Now is The Time to Assess SEL

The benefits and ROI of implementing evidence-based SEL programs are well documented and thousands of school districts across the country are investing in social-emotional learning. Yet to date, only a small portion of schools have meaningfully implemented ways to assess the outcomes of their efforts or determine whether and for whom their SEL programming is working. 

Historically it has been difficult to access measures of student social and emotional competence that are both valid and reliable, but that also can be used universally at scale. However, New York City Schools and CSDE provide two excellent examples – as well as hundreds more school systems around the country both large and small – of how incorporating assessment into social-emotional programming serves to strengthen and enhance SEL systems.

Using a strength-based screener, like the DESSA-mini, provides a non-stigmatizing way to identify students who need support and enable the appropriate responses. Taking less than one minute of teacher time per student, these screeners and their associated assessments help teachers understand individual students’ strengths and needs, and ultimately enables them to build stronger relationships, which aids in academic engagement. 

Having an assessment that minimizes bias and quickly and reliably identifies which students need support, and what needs those supports should target, allows school districts to be more efficient with the allocation of their limited mental health and student support resources. Accurate and timely data allow students to receive support early, which can avoid more costly special education services later. Assessment data also provides specific guidance to support professionals on what skills need to be worked on, removing the guesswork of intervention. Further, using measures that are sensitive to change and can be used to monitor progress provide useful evidence of when interventions are no longer necessary or when more intensive supports are required. 

SEL is important for enabling students to relate to their peers, and knowing when to seek help from adults, which increases their ability to effectively resolve conflicts and results in more positive school climates. Benchmarking and regular measurement of social-emotional strengths has shown a proven ability to predict which students can benefit from early intervention to prevent serious behavioral infractions. These results can be seen in Urban Assembly schools in New York, which have seen a significant drop in suspensions and referrals since employing DESSA.

SEL skills are going to be increasingly valued in the workforce over technical skills. In fact, in a survey of over 400 employers, companies identified the top five skills they look for in students entering the workforce after high school, four of which directly draw upon 3 or more SEL competencies. New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks sees this clear connection and the importance for students in his district. He has committed to transforming the school system so that students graduate with “a pathway to a rewarding career, long-term economic security and equipped to be a positive force for change.” The system’s investment in SEL assessment in order to identify students who need support in building these critical life skills is a key component in the success of his vision. 

The importance of SEL cannot be underestimated. The efforts in New York City, Connecticut and thousands of other schools around the country are yielding positive results, not only improving the social-emotional wellbeing of students, but also contributing to their academic achievement and preparing them for future success. 

Now is not the time to tap the brakes on SEL programs. District leaders must continue investing in the tools that drive SEL forward. And with established curricula, the next step should be putting an emphasis on assessments and measurement. Using a data-driven approach, educators can gauge the effectiveness of their SEL curricula and gain more information about individual students to ensure they receive the support they need and can build on their unique strengths to prepare them for life after graduation. 

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