What School Leaders Need to Advance SEL

What School Leaders Need to Advance SEL

By Jennifer DePaoli, Civic Enterprises


In a prior blog post, a call was made to elevate practitioner voice in the conversation about SEL assessment, and in our recently released report, Ready to Lead: A National Principal Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Prepare Children and Transform Schools, we aimed to do just that. The report, a follow up to the 2013 teacher survey, The Missing Piece, examines the beliefs of principals, superintendents, and district research and evaluation specialists on social and emotional learning to better understand their views on SEL, the extent to which it is being implemented in schools, what school and district leaders need to advance social and emotional learning, and for the first time, asked school and district leaders about the state of SEL assessment.


So, what did they have to say? Well, much like teachers before them, school and district administrators have wholeheartedly embraced the belief that an increased emphasis on social and emotional learning will benefit all students and have profound impacts on the school environment. They believe that a greater focus on SEL will promote a positive school climate, lead to improved relationships between teachers and students and students and their peers, help young people become good citizens as adults, and make learning more engaging. They also see a link between developing students’ social and emotional competencies and better academic outcomes – and the principals who are currently implementing SEL are already seeing these positive results in their schools.


The voices of principals in our survey can be added to the growing mound of evidence showing why SEL should be an integral part of American education. These findings can also teach us about what school leaders need to make sure it becomes a reality. At the top of the list? Access to research and training to improve understanding of what high-quality SEL looks like in action and how to best implement it. This is particularly true in regards to assessing social and emotional learning. Just 24 percent of principals are currently assessing all students’ development of social and emotional competencies, while a nearly equal number (23 percent) said they are not assessing their students’ SEL skills at all. The low levels of SEL assessment come in spite of the fact that most principals (71 percent) say they are optimistic that students’ development and acquisition of SEL skills can be accurately measured and assessed.


Why the discrepancy? Only 17 percent of principals report having any level of familiarity with SEL assessments, and when asked what they are using to assess students’ social and emotional development, most pointed to standard measurements such as behavioral observations and analyzing disciplinary records. Of the school leaders who say they are using SEL assessments, only about 4 in 10 say those assessments are useful. Additionally, 61 percent of principals believe their teachers have little to no knowledge of how to use SEL data to improve instruction, compared to just 16 percent who think their teachers have a fair to great amount of knowledge. These findings point to a significant need for knowledge sharing on SEL assessment, support for principals and teachers on how to assess students’ SEL competencies, and training on using the data that comes from SEL assessments.


The reports of principals on SEL implementation and assessment also speak to a larger conversation in the field, particularly in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act, on whether SEL is ready for the shining spotlight of state and federal accountability. In fact, a recent EdWeek article on the lack of states including SEL measures in their ESSA plans, asked whether SEL backers had missed an opportunity or if they had avoided the consequences of attaching it to high-stakes accountability. In light of these findings, it is evident that the answer is the latter. The provisions set forth by ESSA are right to move states toward a broader set of accountability measures, including school climate and engagement indicators. At the same time, from what school and district leaders told us, it is clear that the focus of SEL assessments should be less about top-down accountability and more about giving teachers and school leaders the tools they need to address and advance students’ social and emotional competencies and a school climate and culture that can help to facilitate their social and emotional growth. To do so, assessments for SEL must take a formative approach, in which the goal is to improve curriculum, instruction, and an overall understanding of social and emotional competence, and must forego the summative approach favored within state and federal accountability systems that focuses solely on measuring outcomes. This is especially true now, as principals and teachers are still learning about SEL and how to implement and evaluate it, but it will continue to be the case into the future to ensure that enhancing teaching and learning remains the primary purpose of SEL programming and assessment in schools.


As with most things in education, there are often calls to move forward on big ideas faster than they can be thought through, and SEL is no exception. It is therefore incredibly important to heed the words of school and district leaders about where most schools truly stand on implementing and assessing social and emotional learning. Though work in the SEL field is advancing with every passing day, listening to practitioners tells us they need more time, guidance, training, and support to carry it forward in a meaningful way.


What do you need to enhance and advance your work in SEL?


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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One Comment

  1. We screened every student in our school district this fall. At the data meetings, the elementary school meetings went very well because we had a core SEL curriculum in place to address needs.

    At the secondary level, the data meeting discussions went very different. Teachers did not have the ownership of the problems and were defensive, feeling like they were going to have to do “one more thing”. We are struggling with moving from screening to intervention at our secondary schools (grades 5-12).

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