The Center is Getting Emotional about Assessment

Dec 16, 2020

Part 4: How School Leaders Can Use SEL Data to Support Student and Staff Wellbeing During a Global Pandemic

This is the final post in a four-part series on social and emotional learning (SEL) assessment by Center associate Chris Brandt and guest author Katie Buckley, Managing Director of Research & Learning at Transforming Education. Across four posts, they make the argument that balanced systems of assessment must effectively support SEL and offer recommendations for how states, districts, and schools can and should support social and emotional learning in responsible and useful ways through assessment.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic persists, school leaders are scrambling to keep the proverbial train on the rails. Teachers are burning out and many are questioning their ability to teach (Cipriano and Brackett, 2020Kraft, Simon and Lyon, 2020). Similarly, students are reporting feelings of loneliness, depression, and neglect at alarming rates (Huckins et al, 2020Aiyer et al., 2020). In the midst of this difficult time, how can school leaders use SEL data to support students and staff wellbeing so all individuals in the school can thrive? 

SEL data from recent studies has shown that teaching SEL strategies improves resilience and counters negative effects of the pandemic (Cipriano, Rapolt-Schlichtmann, & Brackett, 2020), and that positive working conditions influenced smoother transitions to remote and hybrid learning environments (Kraft, 2020). Research by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and others (see Braun et al., 2020) suggests that teachers who report higher levels of SEL experience less burnout and stronger relationships with students. Therefore, while there is not a silver-bullet solution, school leaders who cultivate SEL skills and positive learning conditions can improve their school community’s wellbeing during the pandemic. 

With this in mind, we offer guiding principles to inform school leaders’ decisions regarding robust SEL assessment administration and use. While these principles are not comprehensive, we believe they can serve as a helpful starting point for school leaders who want to use assessment to support the well-being of their school community. 

Making SEL and School Conditions a Top Priority through the use of SEL Data

A central aim of school leaders during the pandemic should be on the social-emotional development of their students and staff. Multiple formal and informal tools can be useful for gauging staff and student social-emotional development and identifying emerging concerns. School leaders can implement measures to help teachers understand their social and emotional strengths, target areas for improvement, and model SEL skills for students. Additionally, leaders can help their teachers understand and use SEL data from student SEL assessments and formative strategies to support students’ SEL development in remote or hybrid environments. 

Surveys of school supports and learning environments should supplement these measures in order to monitor remote/virtual learning environments and address individual or subgroup needs (e.g., access to technology, barriers to student engagement). For example, one Chicago-based charter organization provides semiannual reports from SEL and school climate survey data. After a comprehensive review, each school leader creates informal student focus groups to probe for further insight into the results found in the survey. The school staff work in grade-level teams to problem-solve the results, looking for ways to address needs that students express at each grade. 

Collect and Review SEL Data Frequently 

Pandemic-related school closures and economic uncertainties influence higher stress levels, depression, and disengagement among students. Furthermore, students’ mindsets may change daily, so a single measure at a single point in time will not tell the full story. Thus, schools should collect data on students’ well-being frequently, allowing them to address concerns before they spiral out of control. The Executive Director of a charter school in Phoenix had the following to say about collecting and reviewing SEL data and wellbeing data – both formal and informal – on her students when the pandemic hit in March: 

“I don’t want my school to ever be in a place where we feel we don’t need [feedback from] our kids. It’s doing a clear disservice to not take advantage to have every opportunity to know how your students are doing emotionally, psychologically, academically…We can’t pretend that [the problems] are not there – the reality is that if our kids are not doing well, we need to know about it.” 

Informal check-ins with students (e.g., “how’s everything going? How are you feeling today?”), in combination with formal surveys, can help teachers monitor students’ wellbeing and seek more information when something seems “off”. 

Managing feelings of stress, depression, and disengagement are not unique to students. Adults in the school are battling these same challenges. School leaders can extend these same systems by administering and using data to support the social and emotional well-being of their staff. 

Prioritize Assessment Choices 

The need for credible and timely SEL data and school climate data must be balanced with the need for school leaders to reduce the assessment burden on students and teachers. To accomplish this objective, school leaders can prioritize assessments for which feedback can be acted on immediately, remove duplicative measures, and collect data through means other than formal assessment. 

During the fall, many schools rushed to administer new SEL assessments without a strong SEL infrastructure to ensure that staff would review the SEL data and act on results. Students and parents took countless surveys without any clear benefit. Before administering an assessment, school leaders should understand its intended purpose and use(s). Prioritize data that will drive decision-making around needs, supports, and practices for students and staff. Whenever possible, use extant data or informal measures to assess needs and supports. For example, earlier this fall, school specialists in Baltimore City began tracking daily student attendance and called parents of students who repeatedly failed to attend virtual classes. The personal phone calls allowed the school to understand and address specific reasons why some students were not attending class. 

Address Bias 

It is tempting to rationalize alarming results or blame students instead of using data to deeply examine the systems and beliefs that perpetuate inequities and racism (Lyons, 2020). School leaders, however, have a responsibility to ensure student equity in opportunities and outcomes. Many existing assessments were developed to identify the strengths of a white middle-class culture as opposed to the strengths of all cultures represented in schools. 

School leaders have an obligation to actively examine and remove biases in the measures administered and interpretation of results (Chin et al., 2020). For example, school leaders in Washoe County use an equity audit framework to review and reflect on the extent to which their social-emotional and opportunity to learn indicators and strategies ensure equitable supports to all students. Below are questions to consider when examining potential bias in SEL data use:

  • Who do you invite to join data conversations? How do you ensure a diversity of perspectives when interpreting and acting on data?
  • When school staff review data, do they use a strengths-based lens to explore the data (i.e., identifying strengths of students that can be capitalized on and student needs for the school to further support)? How might implicit or explicit biases be skewing an individual’s interpretation of the data? 
  • Does the school provide equitable access to assessments and supports in a virtual or hybrid learning environment? 
  • How might leadership or staff be unintentionally using the data to evaluate students? How can data reporting/communication processes shift to discourage such use? 

As school leaders strive to ensure their students and staff feel safe and supported during a time of tremendous stress and upheaval, they should focus on utilizing measures of SEL and school climate.  Administering equitable measures that can provide immediate and actionable data can allow school leaders to gather the necessary information required to fully support their school community and foster opportunities for greater success during this time.