One way SEL assessment can support school community thriving

By Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Early in March I shared an update on the conclusion of a project- Catalyzing the Future Directions of Social and Emotional Learning Assessment. As part of that work, stakeholders from across the SEL field mobilized to embark on curating an initial set of open-source learning modules aligned to five areas identified as essential next phases of work for SEL Assessment – Leverage Existing Resources and Expertise, Promote SEL Data Literacy, Enable Equity, Engage Youth Voice, and Integrate SEL Assessment at the System Level.  

Just days after the report was published, the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon our country, the field of SEL rushed to the calls for action from our school communities. We asked ourselves, How can we support teachers, students, and families to thrive through this unprecedented time? When I started to write this update I intended to share that as a result of the pandemic, this work was paused while the essential work took place. In many ways, however, the next steps of SEL assessment have indeed continued onward- our work was swiftly reimagined in collaborative response efforts from across the field to serve our school communities. Organizations shared resources- pooling science and best practice to provide districts and leaders with support in real time. Researchers curated and continue to offer free webinars and professional development opportunities for teachers, parents, and students to support in the fostering of SEL skills. Students raised their voices to seek support and inform policy and practice across all levels of the system. Institutions of policy and practice banned together to offer cross-community resources, and major organizations in the field put out guidance on what and how to leverage SEL science at the system level to navigate the challenges that lie ahead. These collaborations were accelerated and took on new agency by our collective witness to the murders of George Floyd and countless others, requiring an immediate and urgent attention by each of us to interrupt and dismantle systematic racism and prejudices in our systems and communities.

Our work is far from over. As we look with curious and tired eyes at the uncertainty of the upcoming school year, let’s take a moment to consider one way SEL assessment can support our thinking and rebuilding moving forward. 

Let’s consider empathy as formative assessment.  

Empathy is the awareness of your own and others’ points of view, where you are able to understand and demonstrate compassion for both how another person is feeling and what is contributing to their feeling. A hallmark of social-awareness, fostering empathy is a critical component of SEL programming. 

The lived experiences of your past 14 weeks is personal- what it felt like then and feels like now differs across time for each student, teacher, leader, and family. These experiences vary greatly from one household to the next, just as a districts’ ability to respond to the needs of each classroom and student varies from district to district. We know many teachers and parents reported high levels of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion throughout this sensitive time- overwhelmed and under resourced through the evolving conditions of their respective lives. We know that the ripples of loss have hit some communities harder than others, exposing existing and deepening inequities in our country’s systems and structures with vigor. 

We can use empathy as a tool for perspective-taking. We can lean into our SEL training to support school leaders, teachers, students, and families to take an inquiry stance with their peers and classmates. We can remind  ourselves and each other that this experience is and will continue to be different for everyone. We can help our school communities to be aware of our responses to our lived experiences and the differences within by putting words on our feelings to better support our collective ability to thrive hereafter. We can create opportunities for connection, ask open ended questions, and lean into both what is and isn’t being said through our digitally mediated or socially-distanced interactions. We can use these feelings and responses as information to inform what comes next- in our teaching, our work, and our families. 

We can use empathy as a tool to support decision-making.  We can embrace empathy to support making decisions that are in the best interest of the entire school community. We can support district leaders to make the most informed decisions possible as they plan for the upcoming school year. Leaders can use empathy as a tool by asking teachers, students, and families how they are feeling about remote learning and  socially-distanced in person instruction, and why they are feeling this way. Leaders can intentionally hold space to allow for dialogue and sharing about experience and use process to inform making decisions around remote learning requirements and in-person instructional settings. We can support teachers to ask their students to share not just how they are feeling in response to an assignment or the remote-learning/socially distanced circumstances, but also why they were feeling that way. Teachers can use empathy as a tool by putting a check-in at the beginning of each zoom instructional meeting, or end early to allow for time to connect with students and caregivers. Teachers can also invite students and their families to brainstorm about strategies to improve their experience and work with district leaders to share and act upon these needs and requests. And teachers can use these assessments to inform their teaching, assignments, and next steps with students.

Lastly, empathy provides the foundation for prosociality– and our collective healing and growth requires our prosocial actions to be visible now more than ever. We can commit to use empathy to keep equity at the center of our interactions and to use this assessment to inform our actions hereafter. Although many questions remain in the weeks, months, and school year to come, what is certain is the necessity for SEL to be at the foundation of our practice. Let’s use empathy as our preferred formative assessment tool to thrive.

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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