Practical Ways to Assess Climate and Social and Emotional Competence

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Review: The Case for Climate AND (not OR) Social and Emotional Competence

In a recent blog post, I discussed the peculiar rivalry between those who advocate assessing school climate exclusively and those who advocate assessing student social and emotional competence. I made the case that zero-sum thinking by which assessment of climate competes with assessment of competence is misguided. I argued that in the best of all worlds, educators would assessair both climate AND competence and use what they learn to guide actions to create positive conditions for learning and to teach the social and emotional competencies students need to succeed.

(By the way, colleagues at AIR wrote a terrific brief on the topic…)

Let’s not join hands and start singing Kumbaya just yet though. After I wrote that blog post, I got to thinking…

Am I Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is?

On the one hand, I have argued, and I believe very strongly, that educators should assess both climate AND social and emotional competence. On the other hand, I’ve been focused exclusively on developing evidence-based social and emotional competence assessments, and supporting the field of competence assessment through work on the CASEL SEL Assessment Work Group and leading out the State of the Field Report, among other things.

Yes, there is a big need for high-quality competence assessments, which is why I’ve focused on it. Still, if I think competence and climate are both important, I wondered if I could do a better job of putting my money where my mouth is.


Climate refers to student perceptions of the learning environment, and typically focuses on perceptions of safety, sense of belonging, and instructional support.

Social and emotional competence refers to the skills and dispositions children need to interact effectively and to participate effectively in school and life. This includes things like social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, etc.

The Evidence Supports Assessing Climate AND Competence

And so, being an appreciator of evidence, I decided first to turn to the data. See, to me, it makes most sense to measure climate and competence together if they are related—if, say, a positive climate supports the development of competencies and vice versa.

My scan of the research literature finds lots of evidence that student perceptions of safety, sense of belonging, and teaching and learning are associated social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes. So far so good.

But what about the relationship between climate and the social and emotional competencies SELweb, our direct assessment, is designed to assess. Is climate associated with how well students solve social problems? With how well they manage their emotions? With how well they understand others’ thoughts and feelings?

We have data from 825 students in fourth through sixth grade who completed SELweb LE, and a brief questionnaire measuring their perceptions of safety, sense of belonging, and academic support (all important dimensions of school climate). We averaged each students’ responses to the questions and then averaged this total score across students in each classroom to create an index of the classroom climate.

It turns out that there is a significant association between student-reported classroom climate and student performance on SELweb’s measures of social and emotional competence. It seems plausible that this is because more positive climates produce competent students. It is also possible that higher competence produces positive climates. We’ll collect more data later this year to begin teasing this apart.

In short, evidence—from the literature to our own data—supports the complementarity of climate and social and emotional competence.

Making it Easy to Assess Climate and Competence Together

So I’ve argued that it’s best to assess climate AND competence; the research literature suggests that climate and competence are related; and our own data shows that climate is associated with performance on our evidence-based social and emotional competence assessments.

Here’s what all that adds up to: It’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is.

To that end, during the 2020-2021 school year, we will be releasing an optional brief climate survey for SELweb EE and SELweb LE. Our goal is to make it easy for our district partners to assess climate and social and emotional competence together, to look at climate and competence data together, and to use these complementary kinds of data to make decisions about how create the most positive climate possible and teach the competencies that matter most.


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