How much do schools and educators impact students’ social-emotional learning?

By: Libby Pier (Education Analytics) & Heather Hough (Policy Analysis for California Education)

In 2014, the CORE Districts—a consortium of eight of the largest school districts in California serving more than one million students—began measuring students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) as part of a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver enabling CORE to develop a holistic school quality measurement system. In collaboration with researchers and SEL content experts, CORE curated items to measure four social-emotional competencies: growth mindset, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. Although the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) nullified the NCLB waiver, CORE has continued to measure students’ SEL annually since 2014 and reports school-level averages for informational purposes.

Before CORE began administering annual SEL surveys at a large scale in 2014, we didn’t know much about how changes in students’ SEL might be reflected in self-report measures, or how much schools and educators might actually impact such measures. For the last several years, Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) at Stanford University and Education Analytics (EA) have collaborated with CORE to conduct practitioner- and policy-relevant research on the properties and potential uses of these large-scale SEL measures. 

Over the course of our research, we have found that CORE’s SEL measures are related to other outcomes educators care about—like academic assessments, chronic absenteeism, and suspension rates—but that students’ self-reported SEL does not consistently increase over time, with pretty marked drops as students enter middle school. We also found gaps in self-reported SEL among different gender, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic student subgroups. 

Learning how students’ responses on these SEL measures typically evolve over time is a crucial first step to understand appropriate and valid uses of the measures—but the most important question to ask is: Can teachers and schools have an impact on these measures? Our research suggests that they can. We find that we can explain more of the differences in students’ SEL depending on the classroom they are in, compared to just the school they attend, which suggests classroom contexts specifically might be especially important for affecting students’ SEL development. We also see that the impact a school has on students’ SEL over the course of a school year may not be stable from one year to the next—although some schools having the largest (and the smallest) impacts may be more consistent than those schools that are in the middle.

It was by studying some of these consistently high-impact schools that we learned what practices teachers and school leaders enacted to positively support students’ SEL. We studied 12 “outlier schools” in the CORE Districts that had strong student SEL outcomes (i.e., in the top quartile of SEL scores in both 2014-15 and 2015-16), particularly for Latinx and African American students. Six categories of practices emerged from this research. First, these schools reported enacting strategies to promote a positive and welcoming school climate, such as through greeting studies daily by name and with a handshake, establishing advisory periods, and focusing the first 1-2 weeks of the school year establishing school culture through school- and classroom-wide activities focused on relationships, expectations, and values. 

Second, these schools highlighted the importance of a supportive (rather than punitive) approach to setting behavioral expectations for students, such as through adoption of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and restorative justice approaches. Relatedly, adults at these schools reported using elective courses, clubs, and afterschool programs as key for promoting student engagement, supportive relationships, and a positive school climate. 

Beyond these building-wide strategies, these schools enacted several classroom-specific SEL practices, such as seating students in groups, allowing students to redo homework assignments and tests to help build a growth mindset, and providing concrete protocols for communication among students. 

Outside the classroom, building leaders reported aligning their hiring, organizing, and training of school personnel to their emphasis on SEL. Examples included hiring psychologists or social workers (or interns in psychology or social work programs), creating a staff leadership team to oversee student behavior and school climate approaches at the school, recruiting staff members who are a good fit with the school’s values and the racial/ethnic makeup of the student body, and providing professional development focused on social-emotional learning. 

Finally, one of the key practices identified at these schools was the measurement of SEL and use of SEL data to guide and improve their SEL initiatives. Using the SEL survey administered across the CORE Districts, one school was able to pinpoint the growth mindset construct as an area of focus for the school year. Another school launched and leveraged a monthly SEL survey to supplement the annual CORE survey, and paired this formative SEL data with attendance, suspension, and discipline referral data to identify students for intervention. 

Two key takeaways from the findings from these 12 outlier schools were that (1) educators tailored their approaches based on the school’s strengths and areas of need, and (2) student-led efforts emerged as particularly powerful strategies for promoting positive behaviors and school culture. Nevertheless, there were two cross-cutting challenges that emerged: (1) there is still wide variation in how educators define SEL (both within and across schools), and (2) programs, practices, and curricula are not necessarily consistently implemented across a school or district. 

It is clear from our work to date that educators can and do impact students’ social and emotional wellbeing—and that it is possible to measure these impacts for continuous improvement. But the field of education is still early in its journey to fully understand not only what specific practices, programs, and supports directly improve students’ SEL, but also how to most rigorously and reliably measure those improvements—and in turn, what the appropriate and valid uses of those measures are. What our work does show, though, is that it is within our reach to develop and validate such measures in order to help teachers and school leaders continually learn what is working to support all aspects of students’ success.

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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