SEL, Dance, & Equity

How a Movement-Based SEL Program is Using Tech to Reach More Students & Assess Outcomes

By Margot Toppen, Founder and CEO, EduMotion

Imagine if every school day began with a few minutes of students dancing together.

Since 2006, EduMotion has been providing programs that aim to foster inclusion, respect and social awareness through the joy of dance. In Chicago, we provide our flagship outreach program (Dancing with Class) through direct service, sending professional Teaching Artists to schools to facilitate lessons. To measure SEL outcomes, we’ve identified key skills students work on related to each of the five competency domains that make up the CASEL framework and assess outcomes in these areas through student and teacher surveys.

Through student surveys, we have been accumulating data for many years around the following SEL related outcomes:

  • 95% of students say our program helps them build self-confidence (self-awareness)
  • 89% of students say our program helps them get motivated and set goals (self-management)
  • 99% of students say our program helps them practice showing respect for others (social awareness)
  • 90% of students say our program helps them feel more comfortable with their peers (relationship skills)
  • 94% of students say our program helps them make safe and healthy choices that are good for themselves and others (responsible decision-making)

Teacher-reported measures align to this, with our partner classroom teachers consistently citing relationship skills as the leading outcome.

Over the years, we began receiving inquiries from schools far beyond the geographic area we serve with our Teaching Artist-led programs. Eventually, we began to look at ways to bring our curriculum to life in classrooms using technology. If it worked, we reasoned, we could remove barriers related to cost, as well as access to qualified teaching artists (a resource not widely available in places outside of major cities).

Shifting the Definition of Student Success

Last year, EduMotion received some funding for a small-scale research project as part of the NewSchools Venture Fund’s “Expanding the Definition of Student Success” edtech challenge. Thanks to this, we are taking a closer look at our survey and data collection tools to ensure we are measuring outcomes in the most meaningful and effective ways.

“We found it really interesting to see how EduMotion has translated a face-to-face program delivery model and built a tech product that allows a wider range of educators to bring the benefits of SEL and arts integration to their students,” says Cameron White, Senior Associate Partner at NewSchools. “It becomes an equity issue at some point when we begin to re-define what behaving well in class looks like by giving students permission to move in a way that supports their learning – both academic and SEL.”

Equity considerations extend beyond inviting more movement into the classroom. A wide body of research indicates that dance is a way to engage culturally diverse and marginalized groups and promote understanding and trust between teachers and students (Gehris et al, 2014; Pereira & Marques-Pinto, 2017). Students in dance programs demonstrate increased respect for others, awareness and understanding of other cultures, and pride in their own cultural heritage (PRA, 2008). Further, some studies show that dance more effectively promotes SEL in students of non-White ethnic origin than do other arts (Clark, 2006).

Since launching our digital program in Fall of 2018, we’ve been able to expand our reach to a growing network of schools across the country and internationally. In addition to general ed classroom teachers, we’re working with physical educators, music teachers, school counselors and OST program leaders and are in the early stages of collecting data around their experiences with our digital curriculum.

CASE STUDY: Program Implementation with Turnaround Arts

In the Fall of 2019, we began partnering with the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts (TA) team with a program implementation in seven of its schools in California and Iowa. The TA program is based on the premise that high-quality and integrated arts education can strengthen school transformation efforts, boost academic achievement, and increase student engagement in schools facing some of the toughest educational challenges in the country. 

This implementation in K-5 general education classrooms provides an ideal opportunity to compare how our tech-based program performs in settings with comparable conditions to many of the schools we provide direct service to in Chicago.

In the first 3 months of this implementation, we used a pre/post survey with questions aligned to the survey data we collect on an ongoing basis for our direct service programs. As far as SEL outcomes, the data for both program models show strong correlations, with respect for peers/improved peer relationships emerging as the strongest outcome (94% of TA’s 3rd-5th grade students indicated the program helped them in this area). In other words, even with technology guiding the instruction, we have been able to design a program that fosters peer interaction and relationship building.

Turnaround Arts Implementation Director Winston Cox shared some insights about successes, challenges and opportunities related to measuring SEL outcomes through our program as well as the arts in general.

“Our principals speak highly of the response from students,” Cox says, which aligns with the teacher data indicating very high student engagement in the program content. Teachers also commented on their own engagement, noting that they were able to bond with their students through the activities as well.

When reflecting on challenges related to assessment, Cox notes that not all participating teachers completed the surveys. This emerges as an ongoing challenge for arts and physical education programs, where stopping the action to collect data disrupts the flow of an active classroom and takes away from the precious little time allotted for this kind of learning.

“Teachers already feel overwhelmed with the responsibilities of data collection for the academic standards that they and their students are held to,” Cox says. “Then, you add this area of SEL, which is a chance for teachers and students to deepen relationships/trust and adding the data collection can feel almost counter to the programmatic goals.”

Cox suggests that principals are the key to boosting survey data collection rates for non-traditional programs like ours, emphasizing the important role principals play in conveying messaging around how the measurement ties into school-wide priorities and goals.

Looking Forward

As far as opportunities for the future, Cox is curious to explore gender roles and how the arts might help empower boys and girls to express a range of emotions. “It would be great to capture what ideas and messages boys and girls have received about who dances, paints, acts, etc. and how that perception could be altered with experience,” he says.

As for White, he is curious to learn how making students more comfortable with interacting through movement can help address serious issues like physical violence and sexual harassment. He sees a powerful potential in how learning based on moving can empower students to set personal boundaries and communicate both verbally and non-verbally. “If we can do that, maybe we can help students be more comfortable in the world, moving around, being near other people different from you and interacting in a respectful way,” he says.

Through the joy of movement, our team at EduMotion believes that world is possible. Just imagine.

About the Author:

Margot Toppenworks at the intersection of SEL, arts, and physical education. In 2006, Margot developed Dancing with Class, which now serves hundreds of schools each year. This paved the way for the development of EduMotion: SEL Journeys, a digital platform that delivers an SEL-themed movement curriculum inspired by world dance. With a deep commitment to collective impact, Margot has served on SHAPE America’s Task Force for SEL, and the Professional Learning Panel for Ingenuity, a leader in arts education advocacy and research. She most recently joined the SEL Providers Council as a founding member.
For more information, visit edumotion.com or reach out directly to margot@edumotion.com



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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