We know from both research and practice that assessing and measuring social-emotional competencies is an important part of promoting social-emotional learning. For a long time, social and emotional skills were seen as something less tangible than academic skills and therefore also viewed as something that couldn’t be accurately measured. After decades of research and collaboration among educators, psychologists, psychometricians, and other practitioners, we now know that social-emotional competencies can be reliably assessed. However, there are many different approaches that schools use to get this type of social-emotional data. Below we outline some of the common approaches for measuring SEL and the pros and cons to consider when planning on implementing Social-Emotional Learning(SEL) surveys, assessments and screeners.
Surveys are questionnaires that students, teachers, and other school staff can complete to share their feelings, attitudes, and experiences related to their social-emotional skills as well as the social-emotional climate of their learning environments. Questions on a survey can be open-ended or ask the respondent to answer using a specified rating scale. Examples of student perceptions and school climate surveys can be found online, but schools can also develop their own surveys if they have specific questions or topics they would like to get feedback on.
The advantage of using a survey to assess social-emotional learning is that it can give students and teachers a way to express how they are feeling and their own perceptions and experiences. Schools can also get feedback on particular social-emotional programs and curricula that are being used. One of the major drawbacks of SEL surveys is that it can be difficult to interpret the results overall and sometimes more qualitative data analysis skills are required. Most surveys cannot be used to reliably track changes over time or understand the specific social-emotional needs of students. Nevertheless, surveys can provide important information and feedback for educators and administrators when making decisions regarding their SEL programs and practices.
An SEL assessment measures the social-emotional competencies of individuals and groups of students. Assessments typically provide a quantitative score or result, which can be used to compare individual students or groups of students to each other. Having this type of quantitative data also means that educators can calculate the average scores across groups as well as the variation, and use that data to track changes over time. However, these types of analytic approaches should only be used when working with assessments that have evidence of reliability and validity. This means that research has been conducted on the assessment showing that it truly measures the social-emotional skill(s) it claims to, and it is not measuring something else. These types of studies involve having large numbers of students answer many assessment questions at different time points to ensure consistency in responses, as well as collecting other pieces of information and data from the same students to compare their results to some kind of external criteria. SEL assessments can also be completed by different responders and through different approaches, which are outlined below.
Many student SEL assessments do not involve students at all; instead, classroom teachers report on their students’ social-emotional skills. Research shows that teachers' reports of their students’ social skills can be predictive of critical long-term outcomes. This is most likely because they see students in highly social contexts and also work with many students over the years and thus have a good sense of what is normative and what is not. Nevertheless, teacher-reported assessments can still contain a degree of subjectivity and bias. To reduce issues related to rater bias, it is important that teachers spend a good amount of time with their students (typically around 4 weeks) before they complete an assessment. Usually some kind of training is also involved to ensure that teachers understand the assessment and how it is to be used. Teacher-reported assessments can also be very time consuming for staff to complete so before embarking on this approach schools need to make sure that teachers have adequate time and resources to complete the assessments and a plan is in place for using the results so that the process is worthwhile.
Having parents complete an SEL assessment for their child can also be a good option and opportunity to learn more about students’ social-emotional skills outside of the school and classroom setting. The results can help teachers understand if there are specific aspects of the classroom that could be triggering social and emotional difficulties. However, there is a lot less control when sending SEL assessments to parents because schools often cannot verify who completed the assessment and when it was completed. It can also be a lot of work for teachers and administrators to get parents to fill out these assessments and might not be realistic or feasible for use across an entire school or grade level. But parent-reports can still be extremely valuable when conducting more in-depth diagnostic assessments related to SEL for individual students. It can also be a useful tool to further engage parents and caregivers in their child’s SEL progress as well as make them more aware of social-emotional skills they can be teaching and promoting within the home.
Some SEL assessments have been validated for student self-report, meaning that students can report on their own competencies and sense of well-being. The format of these assessments are similar to teacher and parent reports, but the language and terminology is adjusted so students understand each question and how to respond. In general, younger student’s reports on these types of assessments are less reliable than older students. It is recommended to not use a student-reported social-emotional assessment with students younger than 3rd grade. This is not to say that younger students don’t have a good understanding of their social-emotional well-being, but getting them to respond reliably in the standard assessment format is difficult. There can also be gaps when it comes to understanding and reading each question, especially in the elementary school years. Most self-reported assessments require teachers to read the questions aloud to account for differences in student reading levels. In addition, translated versions of the assessment should be provided for English Language Learners. Overall, self-reported SEL assessments can be a great tool for older students and can provide additional insight on students’ perspectives of their social-emotional strengths and weaknesses. Results can also be a valuable starting point for planning interventions and focusing on areas that students recognize themselves as needing support.
A direct SEL assessment is one where students complete a set of tasks or engage with an interactive game or program that can be used to measure different social and emotional skills. Students do not answer questions about their social-emotional skills, but how students respond to the tasks are indicators of social-emotional competencies. One well-known example of a direct assessment of self-control is the marshmallow test. Similar tasks can be used with younger children to measure competencies such as self-regulation and executive functioning. Recently, technology-based social-emotional assessments have been introduced as a more direct and less biased way to measure certain social-emotional skills. For example, students completing these assessments could be provided with some kind of social problem that they need to resolve, or be shown a series of faces and are asked to interpret the emotion that is being shown. This approach to measuring students’ social-emotional skills is definitely a growing area in both research and practice; however, schools may find it challenging to administer them on a large scale. Although these types of assessments may still be somewhat limited, this is definitely an area of SEL that will continue to grow and develop in the years to come.
Finally, all educators engaging in SEL assessment should be aware of the key differences between social-emotional assessments and screeners. A screener is a type of assessment that can be used to identify students who need additional support. All screeners are assessments but not all assessments are screeners. Screener results go beyond telling us if a student is low or high in their social-emotional skills by using research-based cut-points to ascertain if the students’ skills are lower than what is typical or normative. These cut-points are usually determined through large studies where nationally representative samples of students complete them as well as rigorous research to track students over time and see which scores are predictive of certain outcomes. A reliable and valid screener will tell us with a high degree of accuracy and certainty that students who score within a certain range are actually in need of support, and if they do not receive support they are at risk for more adverse outcomes.
Of course, not all screeners are perfect, and there is always some degree of error. Some social-emotional screeners may favor sensitivity over specificity, or vice versa. This will impact the number of false positives (i.e., students falsely identified as needing SEL support) you get in your sample compared to the false negatives (i.e., students falsely identified as not needing SEL support). For example, the DESSA-mini, which is an evidence-based social-emotional screener, has high specificity but lower sensitivity. This means that it is highly unlikely that students who do not need additional SEL support will be identified as needing support; it is more likely that some students who do need SEL support will be “missed”. This decision to favor specificity over sensitivity means that schools using this screener will not run the risk of overidentifying students, especially given the limited resources already available to teachers. However, they will need to be aware of the fact that there may be a few students who do not score below the identified thresholds but still require some additional support in the area of SEL.
At Branching Minds we have the ability to integrate social-emotional data from several surveys, assessments, and screeners with our platform so that educators can use this information to guide decision-making and best practices within an MTSS framework. We also provide all of our district partners with free access to the SECA, which is a student self-reported social-emotional assessment. Through our partnership with Aperture Education, our district partners can also have teachers complete the DESSA-mini screener and DESSA diagnostic assessment for their students directly through the Branching Minds platform and use those results to ensure all students receive the social-emotional support needed to succeed. If you are looking for more information about different evidence-based SEL assessments, we recommend checking out CASEL’s free assessment guide or the RAND organization’s education assessment finder.
Interested in Learning How to Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds?
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
✅ Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA
✅ Understand Students Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA
✅ Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering
✅ More effective problem-solving
✅ Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner
✅ Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL
✅ Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents
✅ Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.