George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Collaborative Exercises to Assess Students’ SEL Skills

School counselors can create engaging activities that help them track students’ developing social and emotional learning skills.

June 28, 2023
skynesher / iStock

As a counselor, I use data in creative ways. My ASCA (American School Counselor Association) Mindset and Behavior standards are one page in length and support all students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The purpose of my job as a school counselor is to determine what social and emotional learning (SEL) skills students need to be college and career ready by the time they graduate from high school. One of the most impactful ways I can help students develop their SEL skills is by collecting data related to their progress and creating lessons in partnership with teachers.

Data Comes from A Variety of Sources

As a school counselor, I use various methods to assess student SEL needs for my whole group and small group classroom visits, and individual counseling lessons. Then, I collect baseline information on an SEL topic using observation, academic data, behavioral data, and student and teacher surveys. I communicate with teachers to let them know the content of my planned visit to help ensure success.

Using the social skill of cooperation, for example, I will assess students’ knowledge of the definition of cooperation and how to discuss their those skills in context. After I assess their knowledge of the concept, we discuss what good cooperation looks like. During this time, I not only gauge the students’ ability to identify the components of good cooperation but also assess my success in preteaching it.

If a lot of students aren’t able to cooperate well, I readjust and decide what additional information they might need in order to truly understand what good cooperation looks like and how to implement it in various social scenarios. For example, students would practice the skills of working together to complete a task. 

Successful cooperation wouldn’t necessarily be evaluated on the product that students produced but rather on their ability to cooperate. Were they able to display active and empathetic (kind) listening, take turns, problem-solve together, and share ideas kindly? This data is collected from my observations, student discussion after the project, and even pre- and postactivity surveys for students in older elementary grades. 


I collaborated with a teacher to lead a cooperative lesson with first-grade students that consisted of working on three different content areas: their math goals (shapes), elements of visual art (a painting), and cooperation (ASCA standards).

The students were shown a painting—Vasily Kandinsky’s Composition 8. We talked about the shapes that they saw and wrote them on the board. They named circles, triangles, squares, etc. After that, we discussed what good cooperation looks like (a review from a previous lesson). I then told students that they would have to work in groups of four to five to create their own piece (one large piece) inspired by Kandinsky’s work. 

In each group, they would have to decide how many shapes they wanted to put on their artwork, decide who was playing what role in the creation, and design their pieces together. After the assignment was complete, students shared their work, and I asked each group to reflect on how cooperation had been. Students reflected on questions like these: Were they able to listen to each other without interrupting? Were they able to make decisions together to solve the problem? Did they all work on the project, or did some students feel left out? If there was disagreement, how did they work through it? 

While students in groups shared their experience, I was able to gauge not only their understanding of the concept of cooperation but also their ability to be self-aware and recognize how well they cooperated individually and as a group. With my observation and their insight and reflections, I was able to give them authentic feedback in real time.

Integrating content areas into one lesson during the classroom visit allowed me to gauge students’ ability to cooperate, but the additional benefit was that students were able to reflect on their performance and give feedback to other members of their group. 

Peer-to-Peer Assessments Are Also Impactful

Not all assessments have to come from educators. Sometimes peers’ assessments are just as powerful. Allowing students to give each other feedback on their peers’ cooperation skills within the project is a meaningful experience for students. It allows the student giving constructive feedback to them to learn how to communicate in honest, kind, and purposeful ways. It also allows the student receiving feedback to learn how not to take the criticism personally, but to reflect on how to improve for future group projects. 

This authentic learning experience is ongoing, and the way for students to learn meaningful social skills is to practice and reflect on them in authentic ways as much as possible. In addition to my observational assessment, the teacher created a rubric to evaluate students’ ability to understand the math concepts: Did they draw the same number of shapes as they planned? Did they name the shapes correctly when sharing their work? Did they form the shapes correctly? 

Exchange Knowledge With Educators

Working with teachers to create meaningful learning experiences for students not only helps students tremendously but also allows them to learn from each other as educators; appreciate each other’s knowledge, passions, and skills; and model authentic cooperation for students. I love learning more innovative data-driven ways to support students. 

As an arts integration specialist, school counselor, and former teacher, I look for articles, websites, ideas, and resources that help me reflect on my personal and professional focus in my role as an educator. Using creativity, project-based learning, authentic social situations, and understanding how they all positively impact students is my primary focus when creating data-based student lessons and experiences. I would love to collaborate with other educators to create innovative lessons and assessments. 

Sharing knowledge with other educators is a passion of mine, and I enjoy the collaborative experiences of being both the trainer and the participant. Most counselors have never been teachers like me, and l love doing workshops on the topic of innovative ways to teach and assess students. Training others in my knowledge and attending the workshops of other innovative educators is an enriching experience. It’s a great way to have creative collaboration and data-driven learning with peers, coming full circle with my learning goals for my students.

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