Education Opinion

The Power of Measuring Social-Emotional Learning

By Matthew Lynch — November 17, 2016 4 min read
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By Greg Wolcott

As districts around the country work to broaden our definition of student success, one of the most challenging questions we face is: How do we measure social-emotional learning (SEL)? At Woodridge School District 68, our social-emotional learning work started with a CASEL District Partnership Grant that paid for program materials and staff training for our social workers. We started out by using the Caring School Community program once a week for an hour.

As we started implementing this program, we quickly saw that addressing social-emotional learning was showing early progress, including decreased office discipline referrals and teachers and parents commenting on noticeable changes in the school environment. Based on this momentum, we wanted to deepen our commitment to social-emotional learning beyond one hour per week. Social-emotional learning is so much more than one class or one session. And we found that the key to social-emotional growth is setting up a classroom environment that promotes ongoing relationship-building: the relationship between the student and him or herself, as well as the relationship with the classroom teacher and peers.

Putting Relationships at the Center of Education

While we were focusing on social-emotional learning, we had also been doing a lot of work inspired by John Hattie’s work with visible learning. One of the statistics that really jumped out was that teacher-student relationships have a .72 effect size on academic growth. That means strong teacher-student relationships lead to two years’ growth in one year’s time.

While discussing the impact of a .72 effect size, we realized that staff start each school year with students on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday--three days, or 72 hours. This was the spark for our Significant 72 initiative, which is now being used in more than a hundred schools in the United States. The concept is that we spend those first three days of the school year focusing solely on building relationships. Teachers get to know kids, kids get to know each other, and students do activities that better help them understand themselves.

To catalyze building strong relationships between teachers and students in the first few days of the year, we started using Panorama Education’s online “Get to Know You” survey. True to the name, it helped teachers get to know the kids quickly and to more depth. And it gave students insight into hobbies, interests, and perspectives that they have in common with their teachers right from the beginning of the year. Knowledge of these commonalities served as conversation-starters and got the year going with teachers and students well on their way to warm, nurturing relationships.

We didn’t want Significant 72 to end after those first three days, so we looked at how we could extend it throughout the school year. After three-day weekends, we found that kids were coming back needing time and space to get grounded back in the school community. So we took the Significant 72 concept a little bit further and, after every three-day weekend, we set aside time for relationship-building. We did the same thing after winter break, after spring break, and after Thanksgiving break.

Measuring Growth in Social-Emotional Learning

To understand the effect that Significant 72 and our other social-emotional learning initiatives were having, we started using questionnaires for teachers to answer about their students. The data we got back was helpful, but it wasn’t complete. We found that teachers were identifying strengths and weaknesses in students that they were already aware of.

To truly understand what was happening, we needed hear from the students on their perspectives on their own social-emotional learning. We used Panorama for Social-Emotional Learning to gather that information. Having students reflect on their own social-emotional skills has been immensely helpful in identifying what students need.

The surveys helped us look at children from an angle that we hadn’t been comfortable looking at before. We hadn’t been comfortable asking kids about their feelings. But as of this year, every school in the district has given surveys to students, and principals are looking at them as an important piece of data in their school-improvement plans. Now, instead of social-emotional learning being a part of the RTI training goal, social-emotional learning is the foundation of everything we do.

Our teachers understand that all academic success is based on social-emotional learning. If we don’t build those skills in all students, we’re not going to be able to prepare them for academic challenges and for life beyond their school years. We are in the midst of a sea change in how we look at things, and how we provide interventions and supports for students.

For me, the major achievement of our social-emotional learning efforts has been getting the teachers to better know the students and the students to know each other, and themselves. When that happened, it became a moral imperative for the teachers to reach deeper, to know their kids differently, and to start looking at students’ growth beyond academics. By gathering data on social-emotional learning, relationships and social-emotional competencies sit at the center of how our teachers support their students -- and we are all better off for it.

Greg Wolcott is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Woodridge School District 68 (IL). He can be reached at wolcottg@woodridge68.org or @GregJWolcott

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