The Importance of Measuring SEL Skills

By Sarah Ura, Texas A&M University

School-based SEL interventions demonstrate promising evidence to increase positive outcomes in students, such that students’ SEL skills are associated with increased academic success and well-being, and decreased risky behaviors (Durlak et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2017). My colleagues at Texas A&M University, Sara Castro-Olivo and Ana d’Abreu, and I recently examined how SEL outcomes have been measured in previous school-based research.  Specifically, we analyzed 111 studies included in Taylor and colleagues’ (2017) meta-analysis of school-based SEL intervention follow-up studies and categorized their measurement of direct skills versus broad outcomes, instruments used, and alignment with CASEL’s 5-competency model.

First, we extracted information from each study and identified whether the intended outcome was skill-specific and fell under one of CASEL’s 5 competency domains (Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Skills, or Responsible Decision-Making) or was broader in nature. For example, a goal of increased assertiveness is skill-specific and would be categorized under the Relationship Skills domain, but a goal of decreased aggression is a broad outcome because it is comprised of many interlocking skills, such as social problem-solving and emotion regulation.

Overall, we found that about 75% of studies measured only broad outcomes rather than specific skills.  This is not surprising given that all studies included in the meta-analysis were follow-up studies. However, SEL interventions aim to improve broad outcomes by teaching specific skills.

Skill-based measurement is parallel to progress monitoring, a common practice used in education for intervention planning, program evaluation, and decision making. Measuring just reading fluency works only if the student has already mastered its component skills. However, if they are still learning to put the pieces together, it’s most useful to test those underlying skills to determine where additional instruction might be needed (Black, 1993). A teacher interested in getting a non-reader to read, would employ different assessment tools to determine which skills the student has yet to master and use that information to plan an intervention and monitor progress.

Just as learning to read requires multiple, complimentary processes, such as letter-sound correspondence and blending, social-emotional competence also requires a set of overlapping, interconnected skills.  Social emotional competence develops over time and represents a summation of mastered individual skills. For example, a goal of increased empathy involves development of skills in all five of CASEL’s competency areas. A show of empathy means that the person recognizes the emotion of others (Social Awareness), understands or approximates those feelings (Self-Awareness), regulates their own feelings about the situation (Self-Management), decides to console the other person (Responsible Decision-Making), and does so appropriately (Relationship Skills). When helping kids learn social-emotional skills, measurement is important for determining each student’s current level, identifying where to intervene, and marking progress. 

Given our findings and the nature of social-emotional development, we advocate measuring specific SEL skills related to targeted outcomes. Additionally, we support measurement across SEL domains. Social-emotional skills are interrelated and represent overlapping constructs. In the case of empathy, a broad measure of empathy might target perspective-taking and awareness of others, but might not give any information about the students’ emotional knowledge or ability to regulate their own emotional reaction in order to help another student. Thus, we would know they were not meeting the specific target (exhibiting empathy), but would not have information about where to intervene (specific skill areas requiring extra intervention).

We value the early work intervention/prevention researchers from past decades, who helped establish the value of SEL in school settings. Their efforts have led many state and local school systems to establish standard or support programs that provide SEL instruction to all students. Our goal for this project was to complement those efforts by examining common research practices and identifying potential ways to refine scholars’ and practitioners’ approach to SEL measurement. We hope this work will promote the development of new skills-based systems of SEL measurement to better evaluate the effectiveness of intervention/instruction for children’s development and most effectively deploy efforts to give children the SEL skills they need to be successful and productive members of society.

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Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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