The View of Social and Emotional Learning from the Principal’s Office

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Last month, CASEL released an important report, Ready to Lead (2019 update), about principals’ views of social and emotional learning. That report closely followed the release of a report by the RAND corporation focused on teachers’ and principals’ views of SEL. The CASEL report summarizes findings from a survey of 710 elementary and secondary school principals around the United States. It is chock full of important information, and I encourage you to take a look for yourself.

Three Takeaways

A few things struck me, particularly about the principal’s survey. Let me jump to the conclusion first: Principals want to and often do assess student social and emotional competence, but too often, they are not using the best strategies to do so.

Consider the following.

  1. The vast majority of educators are actively working to nurture student social and emotional competencies:
    • 71% of principals report that they have developed a plan for teaching SEL skills and have partially or fully implemented that plan.
    • 70% of principals believe that a formal curriculum is important for teaching social and emotional skills.
    • 53% of principals report that their school has implemented an evidence-based program for teaching students social and emotional skills. Other surveys put this number even higher.
  2. Many educators are assessing SEL, but for the most part, they’re not using the best available assessment tools:
    • Three-quarters of principals believe that social and emotional competence can be accurately assessed.
    • 83% report that they are currently using some type of assessment of student social and emotional competence.
    • 40% are using social and emotional assessments with all students. The rest are focusing on specific populations—typically, students in special education.
    • The most common ways principals assess student competencies are classroom behavioral assessments and administrative records, including discipline referrals.
    • Only thirty-two percent are using social and emotional assessment to improve instruction.
  3. Most principals report that if high-quality assessments were available to them, they would use them:
    • A whopping 82% of principals would use SEL assessment to improve instruction, if they knew that such assessments were available.

SEL Assessment Can Do More than Educators Know

About that last point: To my educator colleagues: high-quality social and emotional competence assessments are available that can guide instruction. We offer one of several assessments currently available for educators who want to go beyond administrative data and who want to collect benchmark competence data to guide social and emotional instruction, much in the way benchmark reading and math assessments guide reading and math instruction.

If principals are often unaware that high-quality competence assessments exist, they’re not alone. More and more, I’m running workshops for educators on SEL assessment and social and emotional assessment data use. I often ask for a show of hands of educators who are using SEL assessment. Typically about half of workshop participants raise their hands. When I ask what they are using, inevitably the vast majority report that they are using a screener to identify children with problems.

Use SEL Assessment Data to Guide Instructional Practice

I’m a clinical psychologist by training; I understand the importance of screening. But the goal of screening doesn’t fit well with the goals of the SEL enterprise: screening is about identifying problems to remedy; SEL assessment is (or should be) about measuring student competencies so we can teach the right skills to students when they are ready to learn them, and then measuring their progress.

When an educator adopts the goal of screening to identify problems and make placement decisions, the mindset is, “How do I diagnose a problem to be eliminated?” This is very different from the SEL mindset, which is, “How do I use assessment data to help me teach competencies I want my students to learn?” 

I understand why educators default to screening–it is familiar, and it is important. But for supporting teaching and learning of social and emotional competencies for all students, there are more productive ways SEL assessment can be put to work.

Imagine, for example, assessing all students’ social and emotional competence, using the assessment data to identify student strengths and needs, and focusing whole-class SEL instruction in a way that builds on strengths and addresses needs. Our free Guide to Data-Informed Social and Emotional Instruction describes how to do this.

SEL assessment can and should be pressed into service to help educators nurture the competencies we want all children to acquire. Educators will be a position to do this when they know what assessments are available and how to use them to guide instruction. It will also be important to consider how to shift mindset from a focus on identifying pathology to a focus on assessing competencies to support teaching, learning, and student outcomes.

Principals tell us they are doing a lot to support student social and emotional development. It seems to me we have an opportunity to help them use assessment more effectively to support this work.

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