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How Do We Measure Social and Emotional Learning?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Two young kids are walking away from the camera along a gravel path with tall grass and trees on both sides. They're both wearing jeans and sweatshirts and one of them is wearing a beanie.

We all know that whatever gets measured usually gets attention and focus. Right now, there is no widespread, practical way for all schools to assess children's social-emotional skills and character development (SECD). Or is there? If one looks at student report cards, one often finds on "the other side" of the academic grades a set of comments about behavior, character, preparation, motivation, and more.

Teacher comments have long been provided alongside academic grades to recognize the essential role of many abilities and competencies in academic performance and future potential. And we know that academic ability and potential are not always directly related. We have all served on committees with colleagues who are extremely smart but not productive members of the team -- indeed, their actions often impede the collective work. In the world that our students will enter as adults, there can be no either/or of academic or social-emotional and character competencies. Students require both/and. Therefore, feedback about students in schools must incorporate both aspects, systematically and carefully.

Improving Report Cards

In The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students' Social, Emotional, and Character Development, J.J. Ferrito, Dominic Moceri, and I analyzed report card comments and their ubiquitous drop-down menus, and we found many flaws in the current system. Taking what we learned, we've provided a downloadable guide for you to analyze your own report card's comment section.

The upshot is that current methods are far from systematic. We can, should, and must do a lot better in assessing and reporting on SECD, and the technology exists for this to happen. But making any change in educational practice -- even the most obvious and necessary -- asks many individuals to look at what they are doing and then do things differently. We can't consider asking this without well-thought-out justification. In that light, start by reflecting on the following driving forces for making changes in current report cards:

  • Pedagogical requirements of Common Core State Standards and related standards require social-emotional and character competencies.
  • Teachers already allocate time to assigning report card comments but almost never receive summary feedback based on those comments.
  • Comment sections are often the only formal rating of student behavior.
  • Finances are already allocated for producing and distributing report cards three or four times per year.
  • Parents and students could receive feedback on student progress toward demonstrating specific skills that have been shown in research and practice to influence academic achievement, as well as feedback identifying a number of positive and negative behaviors.
  • Student progress toward the skill and/or character development deemed most meaningful by your school can be tracked on individual, school, and district levels.
  • Ratings of SEL skills and character can be used as early indicators of students at risk or who may be able to serve as positive role models and resources for their peers.
  • SEL and character ratings present a natural opportunity to emphasize positive behaviors. There's a big difference between "not bullying" and actually being an asset to one's classroom and peers.

These will become important talking points with colleagues as you consider moving in this direction.

Framing Essential Conversations

The gifts of individual students include their academic abilities, personality, character, and skills of relating and interacting. We can use SECD in our report cards to frame essential, multiyear conversations between students and teachers, teachers and parents, and parents and students. Some of the most important of these conversations, particularly for parents and guardians who aren't closely attuned to schools' academic rigors, revolve around that "other side of the report card." Our current comment systems too rarely address the behaviors most worth talking about, i.e., those best aligned with our ultimate goal of educating the future citizens of our society.

Integrating SEL and Character Development Into Report Cards

Schools generally arrive at a decision to integrate SEL and/or character into their report cards in one of two ways:

  1. Schools have made a commitment to build students' social-emotional competencies and/or character and now wish to have a formal, explicit, systematic way of assessing progress.

  2. Schools realize the importance of SEL and/or character for their broader purposes of developing the whole student, fostering academic achievement, promoting positive behavior, and creating a positive culture and climate for learning.

Either way, the best process is to create assessments aligned with your school and district priorities. And what is most valuable is indeed the process of dialogue, conversation, and selection of SECD priorities and focus. The resulting system is tailored to your school and truly owned by the school community. No specialized school or outside personnel are needed to score or interpret these assessments, which reduces cost and increases efficient use of in-school expertise.

Examples of SEL skills and character indicators can be found in our downloadable guide (see the link above). The Other Side of the Report Card provides developmental guidance and examples at all grade levels for how to design and implement a report card comment system aligned with your own SEL and/or character goals, including:

  • Guided exercises for analyzing existing report cards
  • Samples and suggested report card designs
  • Tips on improving communication with parents
  • Case studies highlighting common challenges
  • Testimonials from teachers and students

We know that our students' social-emotional and character development is essential for their success in school and life. Since it matters so much, we should give serious thought to assessing it in ways that are much better aligned with theory, research, and practical utility than our current report card comment systems allow.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Maurice, I'm curious about your thoughts on this: my biggest hang-up around the idea of measuring social/emotional skills is that we jump the gun on measuring before we actually teach them. We wouldn't measure a student's progress in math if that student wasn't taking a math class. In the same way, if schools are not explicitly and transparently teaching social and emotional skills and strategies, we should be very hesitant to start measuring or tracking a student's progress in those areas.

I know many of your other articles talk about exactly that - ways to teach social and emotional skills - I would just add to this piece that we should hold off on giving feedback about progress on SEL if we aren't doing much to support the growth.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Alex, this is an important concern but I think the answer is, both/and. Sometimes schools select curricula that are not focused adequately on the primary SEL or character virtues they most wish to focus on. We have found that having the conversation before developing the intervention approach works equally well in creating sustainability, as does creating one's own local metric. The SEL or character program then becomes highly aligned to what schools most value and they have in place a mechanism for assessment from the outset. Besides, as we discuss in the Other Side of the Report Card, report cards contain comment menus that typically are quite disconnected from efforts to build what the comments assess. Finally, by selecting SEL skills that matter-- such as emotion regulation-- or character virtues that are important-- such as responsibility-- schools are on solid ground to be giving feedback to students and parents about how kids are doing in these areas. And they are on even more solid ground as they seek to systematically build what they value.

Allan Katz's picture

I like to quote the late ' Joe Bower' - assessment is not a rubric but a conversation. I fear we may become behaviorists looking for data and how to measure behaviors and other static skills rather than looking at a big pictiure - relatiionships and dynamic intelligence.We don't need to measure behaviors but have a clear understanding of the unsolved problems underlying behaviors and examples of cooperative learning and pro-social activity usually expressed when using PBL. When it comes to discipline and good character , the question is how do we promote our goals and what are our goals - is it with rewrds, punishments, consequences, praise, is about compliance, respect for authority or is it about supporting kids autonomy , cooperation and callobration and problems solved by using CPS - collaborative problem solving and trying to help the student engage in the moral act of restitution in an autonomous way. It is far more important knowing what school environment supports SEL rather than ways to measure , which have an automatic behavioral bias.

Matthew Smith's picture
Matthew Smith
Owner of a leadership camp for teens. Co-leader of a community of practice for camps measuring outcomes.

Thrilled to stumble upon this conversation! So important. Thank you Maurice and Alex and Allan.

Maurice, I was surprised to see you advocating for internal assessment because of the high bars of validity and reliability. (I imagine you know this better than I do.)

Are you advocating against independent instruments such as those listed on United Way's Toolfind and Minnesota's CYFERnet?

RYPAF_Org's picture

This is such an important conversation to have. As one who mentors through the creative arts, we work extensively with students who rank high in the emotional intelligences. We also work with others who struggle with the sequence of learning sometimes experienced in the classroom which can distort the measures of academic intelligence / achievement and result in a reduced motivation to learn. I am wondering how we do measure these things, noting that many of the emotive dispositions are established well before entering school and that families are a central part of this process. I believe Allan raises some good points particularly in respect to the collaborative approach. Thanks for the conversation - i will give this further deep thought. Keep it going :)

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

A very important article in Education Week affirms that teacher observation of student competencies can be as powerful, and at times, more powerful, than standardized assessments. And that is the approach we are recommending for pragmatic assessment of SECD- social-emotional and character development-- at scale, through report cards or related reporting systems.

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