tools to measure and assess sel
Sep 14 2023
Updated at: Sep 14 2023

3 Best Tools to Assess and Measure Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Positive Action Staff
Humans put a lot of emphasis on hard skills, such as reading, writing, and computing. These skills require both knowledge and proficiency to complete specified tasks. Teachers and educators can easily measure these abilities, thanks to standardized tests and assessments.

In contrast, social-emotional learning (SEL) is a soft skill that, almost by definition, is difficult to measure. SEL is an intangible ability that we can perceive but only evaluate subjectively. It has led some people to question whether we can teach emotional intelligence in the first place.

Social-Emotional Learning Across Age Levels

Assessments give us a way of tracking and measuring students’ educational experience. They let us see what students are doing well and where they might improve. While SEL assessments are inherently imperfect, they provide valuable insights that can guide students toward their goals.

SEL plays a crucial role in children’s daily lives. During their developmental years, SEL skills include recognizing and managing emotions and forming positive relationships with peers and adults. These tasks emphasize self-control, which can be challenging at a young age.

We expect adolescents to master these fundamental skills while making close friendships and interacting with large groups of people. Adolescence also comes with empathy development, giving students the ability to see the world from other people's perspectives. The emotional maturity provides a stepping stone toward independence from parents and other adults.

At Positive Action, we want children and adolescents to maintain this trajectory. SEL assessments provide quantifiable evidence that ensures that students get support when and where they need it. The direction that comes from these assessments is almost as valuable as the SEL skills themselves.

The Best Tools to Measure Social-Emotional Learning

Before we talk about the best tools to measure SEL, we need a brief history lesson. The oldest SEL assessments were “good old paper and pencil.” Teachers and educators would write down their observations and extrapolate their findings manually.

We've come a long way since that pre-Internet era. Computing technology not only lets us track more data, but it also allows us to process and understand it faster. The increasingly streamlined approach makes it easier to give students the nudge they need toward their educational goals.

At Positive Action, we still offer forms of the traditional method. Why? Because it’s useful. Positive Action assists anyone that wants to use Google Forms or Survey Monkey.

1. Randomized-Controlled Trials

Randomized-controlled trials (RCT) are the gold standard for assessment. The process involves assigning students to different groups. At least one group is the control, while the others are experimental.

The control group serves as the linchpin for the assessment. We cannot definitely know the effects or results of SEL education upon each individual. The control group provides a baseline to see whether or not a student's SEL skills develop in a positive or negative direction.

Once we complete the trials, the only difference should be between the control and experimental groups. The control group should remain the same as it was before the assessment. Some of the advantages of this approach include:

  • Clear identification of participating students
  • Ease of administration over blind studies
  • Randomization that minimizes the chance of population bias
  • Minimization of confounding factors
  • Statistical tools to evaluate data

The straightforward methodology lets us translate research results into practical resources. RCTs provide a clear picture of what students need to learn and how we can fine-tune their lessons. The last thing we want is to apply takeaways that came from another cause instead of from the program.

The Chicago Trial

Positive Action has used RCTs in Chicago and Hawaii. Each trial took several years to complete and assessed thousands of children. The projects focused on social and character development for students before they reached high school.

The Chicago trial took six years and included 4,230 children from grades three through eight. These students often tested poorly on standardized tests and were eligible for reduced price or free lunches. We also made sure that none of the participants had used Positive Action before our assessment, to eliminate bias.

Some of the processes we tested included:

  • Active learning
  • Climate-change programs for the school
  • Detailed curricula with daily lessons
  • Parent-involvement and -support plans
  • Positive classroom management
  • Teacher training

The trial started in September 2004 and finished in June 2010. It took us another year before we were able to publish the results. Some of the conclusions were that Positive Action had reduced:

  • substance abuse by 31%
  • violence by 37%
  • bullying by 41% the fifth grade

The school-wide approach allowed us to distribute the benefits of the study across many students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even endorsed the school-based method to reduce aggression in adolescents. Our Chicago trial also improved our RCT from Hawaii, which didn't account for challenges related to large, urban schools.

2. Impact Implementation System (IIS)

If RTCs are the present, then Impact Implementation Systems are the future. The creators developed the IIS specifically for evidence-based programs like Positive Action to provide documented ways to improve SEL results. The combination of rigorous testing, controlled settings, and proven effectiveness makes it ideal as an SEL assessment.

Positive Action developed the software in a partnership with the 3C Institute, a research and development company in Durham, NC. Both 3C and Positive Action work to improve the social and emotional well-being of youths and their families, so the collaboration was natural. The resulting IIS gave us a new means of tracking and monitoring SEL efficacy.

At Positive Action, we believe in working smarter, and IIS allows us to do that. The software provides an up-to-the-minute look at how students are progressing towards their educational goals. If they veer off course, the system helps us recognize the issues, develop a personalized solution, and implement it accordingly.

IIS took more than seven years of development and consultation to create. We worked with a variety of evidence-based program experts to ensure that it delivered the highest-quality results. Some of our other goals included:

  • Increasing the number of desired outcomes
  • Documenting changes over time
  • Determining if a student has reached the desired outcomes
  • Adjusting students goals midstream
  • Targeting and solving key performance issues
  • Streamlining support services
  • Decreasing overall service drift

IIS might sound technical and hard to use. It’s not. The software works on any web browser and doesn’t require any specialized plug-ins or add-ons. IIS is currently in beta testing, and we expect to release it to the public shortly.

3. Archived Surveys

Sometimes the best way to understand the present is to look at the past. It can give us clues about how students progress socially and emotionally. Positive Action has a data-rich archive of SEL assessments for this precise purpose.

Our extensive collection provides first-hand evidence of students’ development over time. The archives include a combination of past SEL assessments along with ones that are still in use. While we do not offer archived surveys for public download, you can contact us to get a copy of a post-test or answer key.

Benefits of Early Childhood Assessments

Imagine that you have a leak in your roof. If you catch the problem while it's small, it will be easier to fix. The longer that you put off repairs, the more extensive and expensive the issue becomes.

The same logic applies to social and emotional learning. At Positive Action, we want to put children on a path to success as early as possible. Part of the process involves identifying potential issues and implementing creative solutions to solve them.

The cycle repeats–instruct, observe, document, analyze, plan–with students making gradual progress each time. When the students go through the assessment cycle, we can more clearly understand their needs and align them with their goals. The hands-on instruction and personalized attention ensure that students of all abilities can benefit from Positive Action.

SEL skills have gained more attention in recent years. According to researchers, 95% of individuals believe that social-emotional learning competencies are teachable and can benefit all students, regardless of their backgrounds.

Learn More

It doesn’t take long to see the benefits of SEL. Studies indicate that students who learn social and emotional skills have 10% fewer behavioral, psychological, and drug abuse issues. They're also less likely to experience emotional distress while showing increased social positivity and altruism.

Give your students the educational resources they need to become the best versions of themselves. Positive Action is a research-based SEL curriculum that offers a wide range of kits, and other learning materials for students of all ages. You can contact us to see how we can work together.