As school systems hammer out their budgets, it is important to remember that measurement is a critically important part of SEL programming.

In SEL budgets, measurement matters

As school systems hammer out their budgets and consider the future of SEL, it’s important to remember that measurement is a critically important part of SEL programming

Key points:

  • A data-driven approach enables school districts to truly assess whether their SEL investments are working
  • There are many options for measuring SEL–a behavior rating scale is one popular approach
  • See related article: 5 essential SEL reads

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs in schools have skyrocketed in the past few years, with spending exceeding $1.7 billion in the 2021-2022 school year alone. Experts anticipate this to grow by another 23 percent this coming school year, but are these investments making an impact? 

Studies show that SEL benefits students in the classroom and long after graduation. But proving that a school’s particular program is impactful is another story. Why are so many schools content to determine SEL effectiveness without hard facts?

Schools assess the effectiveness of their reading and math curricula based on assessment data, and in doing so, better understand each child’s progress and challenges so that teaching can fit the student. It’s time to apply the same logic when it comes to assessing a child’s social-emotional learning. 


There is no shortage of studies showing the value of SEL. One Columbia University analysis revealed positive SEL impacts extending even beyond the classroom, attributing improved mental and physical health, reduced juvenile crime and higher lifetime earnings. The report noted that SEL benefits outweighed the costs by a ratio of 11:1. In real world terms, that means that for every $1 spent on effective programming, the return on investment is $11 in long-term benefits to students, schools and communities. 

Each school needs a clear understanding of how its SEL programs are performing in order to fine-tune the curriculum while also  justifying continued spending. This is especially true given the frequency with which school districts modify evidence-based programs or even build their own curriculum. Moreover, as school districts evaluate their budgets without Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, they need hard data to back up which programs work, and which do not.  

Measuring what matters

There are many ways to implement SEL, but the most impactful ones go beyond curriculum to provide valuable data about students and the programs themselves. Efficacy data plays a critical role across the board – from selecting the right SEL program from the start to justifying program continuation and, most importantly, ensuring that all students benefit from improved social-emotional skills. 

Measurement can:

  • Ensure schools are using high-quality SEL tools: Within any given district, schools use a variety of programs, including a comprehensive SEL curriculum that includes professional development, lesson plans, and integration into the academic day; supplemental content libraries; and tools to support teaching practices and organizational systems. About one in five school district officials said they develop their own SEL materials, while nearly two-thirds use a mix of materials they create in-house and purchase from external vendors. Without a universal measure of SEL that can be used across the district, it is impossible to determine definitively if implementations across the varied tools result in high-quality learning that delivers true ROI.
  • Clearly identify student progress and need for additional support: Traditional methods for identifying students in need of additional SEL support can be wrought with bias or miss students who are struggling in less obvious ways. Being able to regularly measure students’ social-emotional skills using reliable, validated measurement tools enables schools to minimize bias, help those who need additional support to succeed in the classroom, or identify where there may be gaps to support early intervention and prevent the need for more costly services later in life.
  • Demonstrate the true impact of SEL investments to key stakeholders: By including high-quality measurement as part of a comprehensive approach to SEL programming, school systems can show the direct connection between their efforts and student success. This data offers evidence to stakeholders, such as the policy makers, parents, taxpayers, and critics, that the investments in SEL are worthwhile and should continue, instead of being arbitrarily defunded.

There are many options for measuring SEL. A behavior rating scale is one of the more popular approaches. These quick assessments allow educators or parents to consider students’ actions by assessing observable behaviors. Ratings take a couple of minutes to complete, allowing for regular progress monitoring to see how students’ skills change over time.

A few forward-thinking states and districts are taking the lead. Connecticut is the first in the nation to offer a statewide, data-driven program to identify students who may need intervention. New York City Schools – the largest school district in the U.S. – has invested in SEL assessments administered citywide to identify students needing support in building critical life skills. These programs impact student learning: In Texas, Boerne ISD was able to change IEPs and behavior plans, achieve an 80 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions and an almost 50 percent reduction in referrals – all by using data to strategically build strength-based SEL skills. 

As school systems enter the budget process and consider the future of their SEL programs, consider these questions: 

  • Can you quantify how much your district has invested in treasury and time on SEL?
  • Are these investments improving students’ social and emotional skills?
  • Can you identify which schools are succeeding in improving SEL, and which may need more support?
  • Have you invested more in student support staff? And do they have access to universal screening data so that their work with students can be productive from day 1, as well as progress monitoring tools to evaluate the effectiveness of their interventions?

As school systems hammer out their budgets and consider the future of SEL, it’s important to remember that measurement is a critically important part of SEL programming that many districts are missing. Given the amount of money and educators’ time being allocated to SEL programs, a data-driven approach enables school districts to truly assess whether their investments are working and justify why these programs must remain to benefit the students, schools, and community at a time when budgets are being tightened around the country.

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