Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How Do We Measure Social and Emotional Learning?

Those concise assessments about social-emotional skills and character on the back of a report card can become valuable talking points between schools, parents, and students.

March 9, 2016
© Annie Spratt/Unsplash

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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