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.

8 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. Hi Kelly and Selma,

    I appreciate the “whole child” perspective in the article of 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 by Sheila Robinson. As a British Columbia educator, I found that it is pleasing to see that our new curriculum is focus on the “whole child” curriculum design. The new BC curriculum has a huge emphasis on students’ communication, thinking, social and personal core competencies instead of putting emphasis only on academic outcomes. Murphy and Caal highlight the five key SEL skills that help students excel in school that is mentioned by Kelly Murphy and Selma Caal: self-control, persistence, mastery orientation, academic self-efficacy, and social competence. I thought these skills are important to children/students, especially during our navigation of the pandemic. I am a huge advocate on social and emotional development and learning for children and adults. I believe that our emotional health is imperative to our growth and ability to successfully navigate difficult or stressful situations in life. I also believe that social emotional learning (SEL) is important to students and adults’ mental health, social skills, and academic achievement. These are SEL’s importance and effects (Castilleja, 2014):
    ? SEL helps students and adults develop specific social and emotional competencies that have been linked to positive outcomes
    ? SEL teaches these skills explicitly and provide opportunities for practice, feedback, and application within content areas and throughout the school setting
    ? SEL aims to reduce problem behaviours and increase pro-social behaviour
    ? SEL believes that students learn best in a safe and well-managed learning environment
    ? SEL focuses on preventing problem behaviours before it occurs
    ? SEL supports using assessment information to help establish organizations that are committed to effective practice
    ? SEL promotes caring and positive interactions between staff and students
    ? SEL contributes to positive school environment
    Lastly, Murphy and Caal provide Rad Resources on measuring social-emotional learning outcomes. We use self-assessment and self-reflection to measure students’ social-emotional learning. For example, understand personal and social core competencies, through self-reflection, students identifies strengths and areas for growth, identifies and manages emotions, solve problems in peaceful ways, contributes to the learning community, sets goals and works towards achieving them etc.

    Thank you so much for your inspiration!
    Vicki Situ

    Castilleja. (2014). Counselling and Social Emotional Learning. Retrieved from: https://www.castilleja.org/page.cfm?p=942902

    Robinson, S. (2015, May 5). 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. [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://aea365.org/blog/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/

  2. Radica Bissoondial

    Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as:

    “… process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, 2021).

    Over the years, the application of SEL within school curriculum has shown significant benefits to students, parents, communities, and educators. In the initial stages of SEL, the intention of practices was to enhance academic outcomes, however, significant evidence has shown improvements in areas not considered academic. The areas of improvements have been student’s anxiety, behavior problems, mental health, and substance abuse.

    As part of an assessment with myself and group members completing a professional graduate educate degree at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, we decided to focus exploring how the removal of SEL support used in face-to-face teaching impacted learning and development of students during the transition to online/hybrid modality. The premise for the transition was driven by many school boards using online/hydrid delivery due to the current global pandemic. At this point, the group and I are at a crossroads of developing next steps in evaluating SEL during the pandemic and what the future should/will look like. We have decided on an interview process with educators to identify impact to students. However, I am reaching out to this AEA365 blog as an avenue to ask ‘What potentially other ideas or thoughts you may have to enhance my team and I collaborative inquiry into our question/focus above’.

    Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (2021). What is SEL? Retrieved from What is SEL? (casel.org)


  3. Hello Kelly and Selma,

    I really enjoyed reading through your article. I currently work in an elementary school where many of our student population have challenges with their self-regulation skills. Prior to the start of the pandemic last year, our school was working towards a goal of integrating a “whole-child” approach to each child with a heavy focus towards social emotional awareness. Some of the strategies included changing the bell schedule, doing mindful minutes each day, and using a consistent approach to SEL. We also recently began using specific resources to measure some of the students’ progress in SEL. Using a consistent approach in the classroom has helped to achieve some of these goals. Also, having the students self-assess their own progress has really helped them to reflect on their growth throughout each term. One of main questions or wonders that I have been reflecting on or considering lately is the benefits or lack thereof of having a school-wide approach to SEL versus an individual classroom by classroom approach. Furthermore, I have been wondering if having a school-wide approach to SEL would be helpful in determining clear outcomes for students in the school? I have seen the progress of many of our students of the course of this year with the implementation of these goals. The different resources you have highlighted are some of the ones we have looked at collaboratively as a staff and have found extremely helpful in guiding our process. I also really like how you have included student voice here, as that is a powerful tool in determining SEL based outcomes for many of our students including through some of their individual education plan development. Thank you for such an enlightening post around social emotional learning and how to measure these outcomes.


    Taylor Weakes

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

  6. 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.


  7. 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.

  8. 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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