SEL assessment provides a defined and effective means of empowering student choice

Promoting student choice through SEL self-assessment

SEL assessment provides a defined and effective means of empowering student choice

There is abundant literature on the many benefits of promoting student choice (for an accessible overview see, “The key to making improvements: as the students”).

Among the positive outcomes associated with giving students authentic choices in what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning are:

  • Better attainment of learning objectives
  • More engagement in the classroom
  • Better generalization of classroom learning to real life situations

I would like to suggest another reason for providing students, especially adolescents, with meaningful choices and then honoring those choices – they know better than adults what is really important to them.

This may be particularly true in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL). Although tremendous gains have been made in the past 25 years in terms of understanding the importance of SEL, best practices in implementing SEL, and the many positive outcomes associated with high quality SEL programs, it is still a budding field, as evidenced by the existence of at least 40 different SEL frameworks encompassing more than 100 social and emotional skills.

In my work in the SEL assessment field, I have advocated strongly for “data-driven SEL.” For example, in order to use data to drive SEL instruction, a K-8 teacher would rate how often they observe students engaging in various social and emotional skills and then use this data to identify skills that are not yet being exhibited. Then they would implement strategies to teach these skills to the student. The goal is to ensure that each student has a robust set of social and emotional skills to facilitate their success in school and in the community.

Data-driven SEL for 9-12th grade classes would leverage and honor the emerging self-identity and agency of adolescents. For example, a high schooler would rate their own social and emotional competencies, review their results, and then select what area(s) they would like to focus on. Unlike the teacher-driven model in which the results determine the next steps, in the student-driven model the results inform, but do not determine, next steps.

Here’s an example to illustrate why this is so important. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that both the high school teacher and the student have assessed the student for self-management skills (a youth’s success in controlling their emotions and behaviors, to complete a task, or to succeed in a new or challenging situation) and relationship skills (a youth’s consistent performance of socially acceptable actions that promote and maintain positive connections with others).

In both the teacher’s and the student’s assessments, self-management was rated in the low-average range of scores and relationship skills rated as a strength. The teacher chose to focus on strategies to strengthen the student’s self-management skills given the lower score in that domain. However, the student chose to focus on their area of strength. Why? The student had recently been informed that they had been selected as the drum major for the school’s marching band and the student wanted to do everything they could to bolster their relationship skills so they could excel in this new, valued, leadership role. Consequently, they chose to learn strategies related to encouraging others, making requests of others, and showing appreciation. Both approaches are reasonable, but the latter honors the student’s values and personal goals.

One of the challenges in promoting student choice can be getting the teachers to listen to, understand, respect, and support student choices. The use of a standardized tool, such as a student self-rating of social and emotional skills, especially one that measures the same skill set as the teacher-completed rating, can provide a shared frame of reference that facilitates student choice. A common vocabulary and understanding of key social and emotional domains, a common metric (assessment scores) that enables a discussion of results, and a curated set of strategies, as well as a defined goal-setting process, together facilitates productive discussions and shared understanding. Importantly, the shared framework makes it easier for the teacher to honor the student’s choices and also actively support the student’s efforts. A standardized approach also respects teachers’ time by providing a defined process to follow.

We all want our students to be able to make good, responsible choices. The use of a student-completed SEL assessment (i.e., student self-report) provides a defined, attainable, and effective means of providing students with meaningful choice-making opportunities.

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Paul LeBuffe

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