Ed Eval TIG Week: Kelly Murphy and Selma Caal on Evaluating the “whole child” in educational contexts: Defining and assessing social-emotional learning (SEL) skills

Greetings! We are Kelly Murphy, Program Chair of the PreK-12 TIG, and Selma Caal, Research Scientists from Child Trends, a non-profit, nonpartisan research center that works to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth. As developmental psychologists and program evaluators, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to best measure program impacts on youth and strive to develop measures that are rigorous, developmentally appropriate and feasible for program contexts.

While we are pleased to see a shift from a narrow focus on academic performance and problem reduction, to a broader “whole child” perspective that encompasses outcomes, such as social-emotional learning (SEL) and “soft” skills, we realize this shift has brought new challenges for educational evaluators:

  • Defining SEL outcomes, and distinguishing them from other positive youth development outcomes;
  • Identifying which SEL outcomes are relevant to the population served; and
  • Identifying reliable, valid and brief measures of SEL outcomes.

Today, we’d like to share some rad resources you can use to assess SEL outcomes in your own evaluations.

What is social-emotional learning? Broadly, SEL encompasses a number of skills that promote positive relationships, ethical and conscientious work, and productivity. Child Trends recently identified five key SEL skills that help students excel in school over time: self-control, persistence, mastery orientation, academic self-efficacy, and social competence.

If you’re interested in learning more about SEL check out these Rad resources:

How do you measure social-emotional learning outcomes?

Rad Resources: If you’re interested in findings measures of SEL that are relevant across various developmental periods:

  • Child Trends, in collaboration with the Tauck Foundation, has published a report on measuring elementary school students’ social and emotional skills, which includes teacher-report and student-report measures of social and emotional skills that are free to use;
  • Additionally, Child Trends, in collaboration with the Templeton Foundation, published a book on measures of flourishing children, which includes free measures that have been tested rigorously with adolescents. These measures can also be accessed online;
  • StriveTogether has also published reports that include a summary and a compendium of SEL measures; and
  • Performwell, a collaborative effort initiated by Urban Institute, Child Trends, and Social Solutions is a searchable database of measures.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Ed Eval TIG Week with our colleagues in the PK12 Educational Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Ed Eval TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

5 thoughts on “Ed Eval TIG Week: Kelly Murphy and Selma Caal on Evaluating the “whole child” in educational contexts: Defining and assessing social-emotional learning (SEL) skills”

  1. Hello Kelly and Selma!
    Great article! I am a primary teacher and work in British Columbia, Canada. The past 4 years, BC educators have been operating under a new “whole-child” curriculum design, putting the focus on fostering competencies in students instead of just academic outcomes. As you pointed out, this has created new challenges for educators. The new curriculum does a wonderful job of integrating SEL into its outcomes, however, it is lacking in how teachers can plan, instruct, and assess for it. Although there are many resources out there, there is no one manual for teachers to follow as SEL is so complex and context-specific. One of the bigger questions out there is how can we evaluate program impact (the areas of the curriculum specific to SEL) if we don’t have a clear sense of how to measure and assess its outcomes? These are some of the thoughts I, and many of my colleagues, have been grappling with the past few years, which is why I really appreciate the resources you have shared. The resources concerning “measures of SEL that are relevant across various developmental periods” have already proven insightful to my teaching practice, thank you! Lastly, your article has made me aware of the communities that are out there who are striving to support educators support their students!

  2. Dear Kelly and Selma,
    I was very interested to read your article because I am thrilled about the educational transition from the academic performance -based environment I was educated in, to one that is much more about whole-child. I am happy that my daughter can experience a more balanced education that emphasizes her social-emotional learning as well as her academics.
    I recognize that social-emotional learning can be difficult to define and measure – especially for teachers like me, who did not grow up with a whole-child centered program – so I really appreciated the list of the 5 key SEL skills. I thought all these skills were very important and having them in a concise list of 5 is useful to anyone trying to evaluate a program about SEL. I particularly agree with your inclusion of persistence and academic self-efficacy on the list of key skills, as children who can develop a self-regulated learning and growth mindset are definitely those who are most successful as they progress through the grades.
    Unfortunately, many of the links to your rad resources are broken now, but I was able to view the Child Trends document about measuring elementary students social and emotional skills and check out your website, which I enjoyed. I was interested to read about the student and teacher surveys that were used to identify and measure these key 5 skills. I think including the students in the survey process was very important as they likely learned a lot about their baseline SEL skills from this survey, and would be able to use it as a starting point from which to begin their growth.
    Thanks very much for your article about this timely topic!

  3. Hello Kelly and Selma,

    Thank you for your inspiring post regarding social-emotional learning skills in children. My interest in SEL comes from my school’s goal of self-regulated learning. We began investing in this goal about five years ago but have yet to identify a way to properly evaluate its success. I agree with your sentiment that evaluating the “whole child” creates new challenges for educators and evaluators alike. My hope was to find some direction or suggestions for determining the effectiveness of our existing program. Although we have observed dramatic and positive changes in self-regulated behaviour and learning in our student population as a result of the concerted efforts, we have struggled to find a reliable and applicable method of collecting such data.

    I perused your recommendations of rad resources with interest and was pleasantly surprised to come across the Child Trends report developed in conjunction with the Tauck Foundation. The report detailed social-emotional learning in context and importantly provided a useable tool for collecting data regarding SEL. After further investigation I am inspired to use the student and teacher survey as part of my own classroom data collection process. It certainly has the potential to be used school wide to inform our practice and support our goals regarding self-regulated learning. I particularly liked the scoring benchmarks which have the ability to track and indicate progress and change over time.

    Thank you for your informative post regarding social-emotional learning with the associated resources. I look forward to spending more time investigating your recommendations.


  4. Social and Emotional Learning is a key component of students success in the classroom. I appreciate that this is discussed as an important element in program evaluation. The 5 key Social and Emotional skills: self-control, persistence, mastery orientation, academic self-efficacy, and social competence, allow for students to acquire skills, rather than knowledge accumulation and performance skills alone.

    Two SEL skills that are particularly interesting are mastery orientation and academic self-efficacy. This connects to a growth mindset and students belief that their intelligence is dynamic. In addition, they can persist in times of challenge and influence the outcomes (Measuring Elementary School Students’ Social and Emotional Skills, Childtrends.org). By fostering these essential SEL skills, students can see long term success in schooling.

    As both measures address motivation, it can be difficult for a teacher to make accurate observations. What may be required to assess such motivations are child interviews or child-completed surveys (Measuring Elementary School Students’ Social and Emotional Skills, Childtrends.org). This involves students in the evaluation process and helps to provide a more comprehensive overview of program success. Although this may take time, the benefits seen from long-term acquisition of these skills in a program would be very beneficial. This may also lead to greater student engagement and achievement as the program progresses.

  5. This blog stood out to me because as adults we often say we just want our children to “be happy”. I wish it were just this easy. It can be challenging to define “a happy child” or how to go about getting there when things aren’t evolving quite as we had hoped.

    This blog speaks to the ‘soft skills’ we can be cultivating in our students or our own children from an early age.

    I also can’t help but think about the implications to bullying prevention (among other things). Empathy and resiliency not withstanding, I would be willing to bet these same 5 character traits are associated with some of the same ‘soft skills’ we see in children that are less likely to be bullied, less likely to bully and more likely to be up standers.

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