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Tools to Assess Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

Susanne Denham

Psychology Professor, Applied Developmental Psychologist, CASEL Research Advisory Group
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two students in yellow shirts at a desk

Editor's note: This piece by Susanne A. Denham is adapted from Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, now available from Guilford Press.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) plays a key role in children's academic readiness and success. Students with strong SEL skills participate more in the classroom, have more positive attitudes about and involvement with school, are more accepted by classmates, and are given more instruction and positive feedback by teachers. Without SEL skills, young children are more likely to dislike school and perform poorly on academic tasks, and later experience grade retention and dropout (Raver & Knitzer, 2002).

In the same way that assessment is important for understanding students' academic learning, it is also important for understanding students' social and emotional learning. A well-designed SEL program includes not only evidence-based curricula and instruction (along with support for teachers), but also clear goals and benchmarks (i.e., standards), and tools for universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring.

SEL Across Age Levels

As children mature, the role of SEL changes in their daily lives. During early childhood, SEL skills are organized around positive engagement with people and the environment, managing emotions within social interactions, and remaining connected with adults while successfully moving into the world of peers. These tasks can be difficult to navigate: young children are often required to sit still or wait, attend, follow directions, approach group play, and get along with others both at school and outside of school.

SEL tasks then change radically for children entering middle childhood. As children become aware of a wider social network, they learn to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of peer inclusion, acceptance, and friendship. Managing how and when to show emotion becomes crucial, as does knowing with whom to share emotion-laden experiences and ideas.

Adolescents are expected to form closer relationships with peers; successfully negotiate a larger peer group and other challenges in the transition to middle and high school; come to understand the perspectives of others more clearly than ever before; achieve emotional independence from parents and other adults while maintaining relationships with them; establish clear gender identity and body acceptance; prepare for adulthood; and establish a personal value or ethical system and achieve socially responsible behavior.

In the academic realm, older children and adolescents are required to become much more independent in their engagement with ever more complex coursework, and to consider how their achievement is moving them toward independence. SEL is therefore integral to a child's development from preschool through adolescence and is often related to his or her success in school.

Setting SEL Goals and Benchmarks Through Standards

Because SEL is so important, standards in this area are as crucial as those in any other area (and, I would argue, possibly more important). However, in the national arena, standards for SEL are few and unclear. Specifically, the Common Core State Standards, which are currently being adopted by 42 states, include an attempt at SEL-related skills within interpersonal and intrapersonal domains. The interpersonal domain includes teamwork, collaboration, and leadership. The intrapersonal domain includes intellectual openness, work ethic/conscientiousness, and positive self-evaluation. However, the NRC (2012) acknowledges that cognitive skills have been addressed more extensively than have interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, which have been covered more unevenly and have no assessment tools to benchmark students.

Since Common Core State Standards do not sufficiently or clearly address SEL needs, either in terms of standards or assessment, where does this leave the search for SEL assessment tools? It's useful to look at Dusenbury et al. (2015), which examines states' SEL standards. Several states have adopted excellent free-standing SEL standards (although not always across grade levels). The Illinois model is a good example of K-12 free-standing SEL standards (Illinois State Board of Education, 2006); here, each SEL standard for elementary, middle, and high school is organized around three goals that take in all the aspects of SEL:

  • Goal 1 is to develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
  • Goal 2 is to use social awareness and interpersonal (i.e., relationship) skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
  • Goal 3 is to demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.

Tools for Assessing SEL in Educational Settings

Working with Kendziora and colleagues (2011), and after studying a wide range of tools, I have chosen to describe several behavior rating scales that fulfill many of the criteria important for effective SEL assessment. These tools are exemplary of quality SEL assessment for educational settings. This is not an exhaustive list and does not include performance tasks (see McKown, 2015). For additional information about each tool and a framework for SEL skills development and assessment in educational settings, please refer to chapter 19 in the Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning.

Devereux Early Childhood Assessment, Second Edition

For PreK evaluations, the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment, Second Edition (DECA) is a nationally-normed assessment that evaluates within-child protective factors associated with resiliency in preschool children. The assessment checklist can be completed by both parents and teachers, in either English or Spanish, and evaluates the presence of 27 positive behaviors common in preschool children (along with ten problem behaviors, which are not a focus here but potentially may be important in certain situations).

Devereux Student Strengths Assessment

The Devereux Student Strengths Assessment and four-item accompanying screener, the DESSA-Mini, are behavior rating scales for elementary school-age children (K-8), completed by parents and/or teachers. The DESSA measures child strengths that map very directly onto the SEL skills described here. Specifically, it provides ratings on 72 items across eight scales, including:

  • Optimistic thinking
  • Self-management
  • Goal-directed behavior
  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Personal responsibility
  • Decision making
  • Relationship skills

A social-emotional composite score is also included, which is based on a combination of the eight scales. Web-based administration, scoring, and interpretation are available.

Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scale

The Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scale (SEARS) for K-12 includes a screener, as well as 52- to 54-item Teacher (SEARS-T), Parent (SEARS-P), Child (SEARS-C), and Adolescent (SEARS-A) versions, and examines SEL from a conceptual framework that is close, but not identical, to that sketched here: responsibility, social competence, empathy, and self-regulation.

Given its level of comprehensiveness and focus on child strengths, the SEARS measures (although somewhat less conforming to the SEL model than the DESSA) provide useful information for intervention planning. They can also be applied to create student profiles for ongoing progress monitoring and subsequent prevention strategies.

Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scales

The Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scales is a set of rating scales designed to assess children's social behavior and assist in the implementation of interventions, which is part of the whole system. This measure updates the widely used and positively evaluated Social Skills Rating Scales. Improvements include:

  • Updated norms
  • Four additional subscales for a broader conceptualization of social-emotional development
  • Greater overlap across forms
  • Validity scales
  • Improved psychometric properties
  • Spanish versions of forms
  • Direct links to intervention

The system includes rating scales for teachers and parents covering the PreK-to-18-years age range, and self-report versions for students at the grade-school level and beyond.

Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale

The Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale (BERS) and the Preschool BERS (PreBERS) are strength-based SEL instruments. Both show robust, replicable factor structures, as well as reliability and validity (i.e., both convergent and subgroup difference validity for Teacher, Parent, and Youth self-report versions; the publisher notes that school psychologists, as well as children's mental health, juvenile justice, and social service workers may also complete the BERS-2). A Spanish version is available for parent completion.


  • Dusenbury, L.A., Newman, J.Z., Weissberg, R.P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C.E., & Mart, A.K. (2015). "The Case for Preschool Through High School State Learning Standards for SEL." In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Illinois State Board of Education (2006). Social emotional learning standards: Goals 1, 2, and 3. Chicago: Author.
  • Kendziora, K., Weissberg, R.P., Ji, P., & Dusenbury, L.A. (2011). Strategies for social and emotional learning: Preschool and elementary grade student learning standards and assessment. Newton, MA: National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, Education Development Center.
  • McKown, C. (2015). Challenges and opportunities in the direct assessment of Children’s Social and Emotional Comprehension. Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. New York: Guilford.
  • National Research Council (NRC) (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills for the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • Raver, C.C., & Knitzer, J. (2002). Ready to enter: What research tells policymakers about strategies to promote social and emotional school readiness among three- and four-year-old children. Chicago: Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
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An Educator's Guide to SEL
From the benefits of social and emotional learning to practical tips for implementing it in your school, this series is your guide to SEL.

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Ahmed Qabbary's picture
Ahmed Qabbary
I'm a Professional Developer.

I think Personality is not something unchangeable. Personality is formed and shaped according to the environment a child lives in.

Barrie W. Mizerski's picture

Emotional and social intelligence must be initiated as part of the curriculum in the school system in the earliest contact with the students. We are now aware of the societal stressors affecting families of all incomes. Therefore self-confidence, awareness and social confidence and communication should be utilized in all classes and can be introduced easily through the performing arts, i.e., walking, singing, etc., per appropriate kinesthetic and age level.

All of this knowledge is now published and accepted by the major educational neuroscientists of our time. I have spoken directly with Sir Ken Robinson, Howard Gardner and David Sousa. We all agree that the arts can be where EI and SI start.

Test is a four letter word used by political poseurs who seek to take public school taxes and direct them to their private charlatan charter schools. Succinctly put, emotional and social intelligence and communication is a skill set and must start as early as possible. You need to do some research on how the performing arts have shaped mankind's history and worry less about tests.

As a professional trumpet player in New York City, I had the good fortune to study with the legendary Carmine Caruso, a performance specialist. His theory was simply that we don't worry about yesterday, but start tapping your toes, training your mind, and away we go. Yes, it is as simple as that. And Pearson Testing Services need not make a dime.

"The idea of cognitive performance [such as emotional and social intelligence] as skill...[these] are skills that can be practiced and refined, and because they can be practiced out loud (as can a violin trill or a multiplication table or the conjugation of a Spanish verb) they can provide the teacher with an objective gauge of the child's skill development." Belmont, John M. University of Kansas Medical Center in American Psychologist, 1989.

Specifically, skill sets from Zen mindfulness, yoga breathing, aphorisms and music inspired rhythmic breathing change the brain from its beta state (conscious awareness) through alpha (relaxed and meditative) to theta (focus or concentration). And you don't need to buy a Pearson testing assessment app to see if a student is breathing. A section of my book that should be out next year is called Positation: Change Negative Stage Fright to Positive Stage Might.

kchealey's picture

As a middle school teacher, this fascinates me. I find myself ever returning to family of origin matters with regard to development and/or personality. Indifferent, apathetic parent wield so much power socially and culturally that not enough focus targets it as a main problem

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