One Standard Does Not Fit All: Creating Levels of SEL Effectiveness across School and Work

By Steven Manning, Ph.D. candidate, Jason Way, Ph.D., Alex Casillas, Ph.D.; ACT, Inc.

Educational leaders continue to recognize the value of enhancing social and emotional learning (SEL) and the importance of developing and measuring these skills in youth. Along with core academic skills, such as math, science, and English language arts, developing SEL skills has a positive impact on students’ success through their education and into their professional careers. Because measurement of SEL is relatively new when compared to core academic skills, it is often unclear which skills are appropriate to expect of students from elementary through postsecondary school settings.

Clearly, we expect a difference between the typical high school and elementary student, but how do we determine which skills and specific behaviors are effective for different developmental and grade levels? Additionally, how can we leverage these different levels to more effectively develop students’ skills? In this post, we address these questions by using ACT researchers’ development of performance level descriptors (PLDs) as a guiding example for addressing the effectiveness of various behaviors in social and emotional learning skills.

To begin identifying and understanding the different levels of effectiveness of behaviors in SEL from elementary school through the workforce, we followed several steps.

  • First, through focus groups and surveys with experts in education and the workforce, we developed specific descriptions of behaviors required for success across education and work settings, such as “Completes work on time” and “Treats others with respect”.
  • Second, the descriptive behavioral statements were categorized within ACT’s behavioral skills framework (see pages 30-33) and compared with existing assessments and standards to ensure they adequately represent critical SEL skills.
  • We then gathered a large group of experienced professionals including workforce supervisors and educators from elementary, middle, high, and postsecondary schools. These experts rated the importance of various SEL skills within their areas of expertise and categorized the specific behavioral statements as describing “ineffective,” “somewhat effective,” “effective,” or “highly effective” behavior for students or employees.

We found high agreement in the experts’ ratings of the behavioral statements. In general, we also found significant differences between the levels of effectiveness. Based on these findings, we improved the wording and layout of the behavioral statements to better align with the expert ratings. Specific details about the development of the behavioral statements and levels of effectiveness – including statistical analyses, statement comparisons, and procedures used with experts – can be found in a recently-released report.

The distinct levels of effectiveness are developmentally appropriate and describe a range of ineffective to highly effective SEL performance, allowing educators to properly identify areas for improvement in SEL skills. As outlined in a recent issue brief, an understanding of the different levels of effective SEL skills across the education continuum is an important step for developing (a) assessments to appropriately measure SEL skills at different ages and grade levels and (b) focused, developmentally-appropriate interventions. For example, to demonstrate highly effective conflict management skills, elementary and middle school students are expected to remain polite to others during disagreements. Highly effective conflict management among high school and post-secondary students, however, requires students to understand when discussions are becoming contentious and make suggestions to avoid or mediate conflict. Assessing and developing elementary students’ conflict management skills should be focused on the developmentally appropriate use of polite language rather than steering a tense conversation away from conflict.

Educators have long recognized the importance of “building on what came before” when developing core academic skills by using learning progressions and other tools. Creating descriptions, assessments, and inventions for SEL skills from education through careers will allow for a similar development of these skills for students and will lead to improvements in educational, work, and life outcomes for individuals.

How would you use developmentally-appropriate levels of SEL effectiveness to achieve positive outcomes for students?

What do you see as the barriers to incorporating incremental SEL development into students’ education?

Beyond developmental levels, what are the other important factors to consider when assessing students’ SEL skills?


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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