SEL Assessment Must be Strengths-based, But What Does That Mean?

By Jeremy Taylor and Lindsay Read, CASEL

It’s been about three months since the SEL Assessment Guide was released. Nearly 8,200 users from all 50 states and 131 countries have visited the Guide and hundreds have shared feedback with us. One of the many excellent questions we often receive is: “what does it mean that a measure must be “strengths-based” to appear in the Guide?” In this blog post, we attempt to provide an answer to that question, and also bring more clarity to the similarities and differences between the fields and practices of SEL and mental/behavioral health.

What does strength-based competency assessment mean? 

SEL competencies are essential knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets that individuals need to succeed in life. These strengths and assets are the product of social and emotional learning (SEL), which is the process through which schools and districts implement practices and policies that allow children and adults to acquire and effectively apply those competencies. The SEL Assessment Guide contains only measures that are explicitly focused-on those competencies. The SEL competencies we aim to assess and subsequently promote in young people are defined in the frameworks of CASEL and others. These competencies include things like self-awareness, empathy, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, collaboration, and growth mindset.

Doesn’t the presence or absence of an emotional or behavioral problem equate to the presence or absence of SEL competence?

No. Consider that you have two assessment tools in front of you, one that measures student problem behaviors and another that measures student self-management. Assume both are validated for their respective purposes. If a student scores a 1 for behavior problems (along a 1 – 5 scale, where 1 means “exhibits no problems”), does this mean she has also mastered self-management for her developmental level? Not necessarily. The measure of problem behaviors was designed and validated to measure problem behaviors, NOT self-management.

While possessing strong self-management skills may help to avoid problem behaviors in some circumstances, they are not opposite sides of the same coin. We know from research that a wide range of factors determine whether a child has emotional or behavioral difficulties, many of which are environmental or the result of stress or trauma, and have little to do with a child’s social or emotional knowledge, skills, attitudes, or mindsets. Equipped with this knowledge, we encourage educators looking to determine whether their SEL program is having an impact or whether their SEL instructional approach is gaining traction to choose a measure that is focused specifically on SEL knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets. This is why our SEL Assessment Guide includes only these strengths-based assessments.

Should assessments of students’ SEL competencies be used to screen for emotional or behavioral problems?

No. We strongly recommended against using assessments of students’ SEL competencies to diagnose or screen for deficits (e.g., behavioral or emotional problems). Just as measures of problems are not accurate indicators of SEL competencies, the reverse is also true; measures of social and emotional knowledge, skills, attitudes, or mindsets are not a reliable or valid indicator of emotional or behavioral problems.

We want to be clear that our decision to include only strength-based competency measures in our Guide is not a statement against schools assessing for emotional or behavioral problems in students. To the contrary, because young people spend such a large portion of their time in schools, it is essential that caring adults in these settings be on the lookout for signs of trouble so that students receive the supports they need, when they need it. There is an array of tools available that were designed, tested, and validated to determine when intervention is needed. We encourage that these tools be used when trying to diagnose or screen for problems, as they are better equipped to support educators and students with the purpose for which they were developed.

Aren’t social and emotional issues the work of psychologists and mental health professionals?

Yes, but not exclusively. It is certainly true that supporting kids’ social and emotional development is within the purview of psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals. However, SEL adds an essential ingredient to the recipe of supporting kids fully, which is the important role of schools, communities, and families in preventing issues from emerging.

In the mid-1990s, SEL emerged out of the positive youth development field, which included a wide range of programs focused on things like drug prevention, violence prevention, civic education, and more. Though the context and goals of these programs varied, they had an important common focus on promoting students’ strengths and assets in order to prevent problems from emerging. SEL was introduced as a framework that addressed the needs of young people and helped to align and coordinate school programs and programming. Since that time, SEL has grown rapidly and evolved in many ways, but its focus on strengths and assets as a mechanism to prevent problems and help students thrive has remained constant. A strength-based approach assumes that competencies equip students with the positive relationships, effective coping mechanisms, and overall knowledge, skills, attitudes, and mindsets that support healthy development and success.

This positive orientation and prevention focus distinguishes SEL from related disciplines. Unlike the diagnostic approach used in the mental health field, SEL emphasizes promoting the development of all students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes (i.e., competencies) before problems emerge and in an effort to prevent them. By contrast, the prevailing model used in the mental health field is to intervene when problems are identified, in order to reduce or eliminate the issues. Both are important parts of an equation that comprehensively supports kids, but they are different in important ways and the tools and strategies that each of them use are also distinct.

Finding a measure that is focused on students’ strengths and assets is one important factor in choosing and using SEL competency assessments, but there are also others. Learn more about the equity and cultural factors, concerns about high-stakes use, and developmental stages here. For a look at where these considerations fit into the bigger picture of SEL competence assessment, head to the homepage of the SEL Assessment Guide. For a deeper dive on assessment, download the full guidance document.


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