Today, social-emotional learning can—and is—being measured at scale in districts. SEL is proven to improve students' academic outcomes, and offers a new lens to address issues such as equity, behavior, school climate, and chronic absenteeism.
Take Nevada's Washoe County School District, for example—where graduation rates are up by more than 25 points since beginning SEL in 2012. They've also seen that students who score higher on social-emotional measures do substantially better on ELA and math assessments.
We teamed up with CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) to host a webinar featuring CASEL Collaborating Districts Initiative (CDI) partners Washoe County School District (Nev.) and El Paso Independent School District (Tex.).
Here's what we learned about implementing and measuring SEL from our district leader presenters.
On Building Buy-in for SEL
→ Insights from Ben Hayes, Chief Accountability Officer, Washoe County Schools
Put SEL data in everyone's hands, including students. "Our approach has been to provide access to SEL data that is easy and understandable. One of the great things we've been able to do early on is connect our own SEL data and outcomes to other outcomes in the district... looking at things like graduation, suspension, attendance, and learning and assessment outcomes. We did find a strong relationship between SEL competencies and outcomes. Once we got that data in front of teachers, SEL became more relevant and engaging to them.
And if we generate the data, we want people to use it. We put the SEL data on a public website so that teachers and parents can see it and analyze it. We host Data Summits with our Board and invite teachers, staff, and principals to talk about main data points in our district. SEL has always been one of the most engaging points of that summit, which led to a student summit."
Include an SEL component in school improvement plans. "We did a study to see if the inclusion of SEL in school improvement plans was growing the work over time. Indeed, we found that schools were paying more attention to SEL and and making it part of their objectives to achieve."
"We did find a strong relationship between SEL competencies and outcomes. Once we got that data in front of teachers, SEL became more relevant and engaging to them."
– Ben Hayes, Chief Accountability Officer, Washoe County
On Measuring Social-Emotional Learning
→ Insights from Ray Lozano, Executive Director of Student and Family Empowerment, El Paso ISD
Start by collecting SEL data twice a year and build from there. "At this time, we are taking a 'pre and post approach' and have two data collection points; a beginning of year survey in September and the second in late April. We’d like to have three collection points eventually, but at this point, we are really trying to get our schools comfortable with the process. We focused on survey topics that are aligned to the five core SEL competencies since we have focused on adult SEL and strategies that provide opportunities for students to develop those competencies."
Build time into school schedules for SEL assessment and instruction, but allow for flexibility. "We provide campuses with a two-week window to complete the process, and give them the flexibility to use a process that best meets their needs. At our elementary schools, surveys may be done during time that is dedicated to SEL-specific activities such as morning meeting. At one middle school site, some teachers had their students complete the surveys during advisory time that is dedicated to explicit SEL-instruction, and others chose to complete the survey at other times. These schools all have time allotted for explicit SEL instruction, and that time is available for them to complete the survey."
Remember that SEL growth is not a linear process—there will be ups and downs. "So many times when we hear about other schools and districts engaging in this work, what gets highlighted are those moments when they are on the mountain top. What doesn’t get as much spin is the story before the success. SEL implementation is a process, and everyone has different challenges, opportunities, and starting points. From an intellectual standpoint, the work isn’t hard to understand. From a human standpoint, it’s hard to close that 'knowing-doing gap' that we are all too familiar with. I embrace our data, and I’m excited that we have it because it allows us to move forward with eyes wide open."
"SEL implementation is a process. Everyone has different challenges, opportunities, and starting points. I embrace our data, and I'm excited we have it because it allows us to move forward with eyes wide open."
– Ray Lozano, Exec Dir of Student & Family Empowerment, El Paso ISD
On Equity and SEL
→ Insights from Laura Davidson, Director of Research & Evaluation, Washoe County Schools
Seek to understand your social-emotional learning data through an equity lens. "Our social and emotional assessment data can tell us a lot about the landscape of SEL and equity in our district. Earlier this year, our research team published a paper looking at how students rate their social and emotional competencies. We found that there were a few gender, age, and race differences in how students responded to the questions, especially in areas related to emotion awareness and emotion self-management.
As students get older, males are more likely to rate their emotion self-management higher than females. For example, when we ask, 'How easy or difficult is it for you to stay calm when stressed?' we see that by 11th grade, there is a 13 percentage point gap in the percentage of males and females who say that it is easy for them to stay calm when stressed. When you layer on race, you see that difference increase substantially, with only one-third of white females reporting it’s easy to feel calm when stressed, but two-thirds of Hispanic males reporting the same in high school."
"Our social and emotional assessment data can tell us a lot about the landscape of SEL and equity in our district. It's a great jumping off point for deeper conversations about the issues."
– Laura Davidson, Director of Research & Evaluation, Washoe County
Partner with students to unpack the gaps you see in the data. "At our fifth-annual Student Voice Conference, we partnered with middle and high school students to run a session about the gender differences we see in our SEL competencies. They called the session, 'SLIME, So Like, I’m Majorly Emotional.' They used Inside Out movie characters, technichrome slime, emojis, and other activities to help 150 other middle and high school students have conversations about gender expectations related to how we understand, acknowledge, and express our emotions. We learned a lot about how students feel society encourages or discourages boys and girls to be aware of and express their emotions, and what causes some of the different perceptions we see in our data from elementary to high school."
To see a brief video and materials from the student voice session, visit the Washoe County website.
Ask your students how to make SEL instruction more inclusive. "We're now studying some of the differences we see in how students learning English report their SEL competencies. We see that although ELL students rate the climate at their school higher than other students, they tend to rate their social and emotional competencies much lower.
This year, we've partnered with about 90 students who are learning English at three schools to start exploring these differences. We're also gathering student recommendations about how to fix our SEL lessons so they are more inclusive. From there, the teachers in our project will be rewriting lessons using student feedback to ensure our SEL lessons are both more culturally inclusive and student friendly."
Washoe County's SEL data in Panorama pointed to SEL skill gaps between ELL and non-ELL students.
On Behavior and SEL
→ Insights from Ray Lozano, Executive Director of Student and Family Empowerment, El Paso ISD
Behavior, discipline, and SEL are intimately connected. "We have 17 middle schools—roughly 18 percent of our schools—yet approximately 43 percent of our referrals were being generated at that level, and one middle school accounted for about 33 percent. It really caused us some pause. So, this time, we went out into the field and started talking with students in focus groups. In students' eyes, the process of education has become transactional as opposed to relational. Students reported feeling disconnected from each other, their teachers, and their administrators. What they conveyed was a desire to be seen, valued and heard."
Build the capacity of principals and staff to use SEL as a lever to improve behavior. "Four basic things that principals can do to lead this work are to understand the value of it, communicate the importance of it, make time for it, model it, and look for it in classrooms. We provided principals with an overview of how advisory would be structured using either Random Acts of Kindness or Second Step. We also engaged them in learning some key strategies that they could model, such as staff circles and the Three Signature SEL Practices.
So you may be wondering, 'What’s that got to do with the discipline data and the feedback that students provided in the focus groups?' The answer is everything, because teachers, counselors, and administrators told us that prioritizing time for SEL was one of our biggest growth opportunities."
To learn more about social-emotional learning in Washoe County and EL Paso ISD, watch the full webinar.