Students sitting and talking in a school corridor

commentary

(The Wallace Foundation)

February 5, 2019

Choosing the Right Social and Emotional Learning Programs and Practices

Photo by Don Mason/Getty Images

by Stephani L. Wrabel and Laura S. Hamilton

Educators have become increasingly interested in supporting students to cultivate inter- and intra-personal skills such as collaborative teamwork, self-management and responsible decision making—skills that are developed through the process of social and emotional learning (SEL). The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has created new opportunities for educators to incorporate evidence-based SEL interventions (such as curricula, programs, and practices) into their schools and classrooms. Educators across the country are not only expressing support for SEL but are adopting programs and practices to promote SEL. A new guide we developed with colleagues at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation is meant to help educators adopt evidenced-based interventions that fit the needs of their students and communities.

Identifying evidence-based interventions is one important step in reaping the benefits of SEL-related investments. Educators can use our 2017 report to learn more about SEL interventions that align with ESSA's standards of evidence. Another guide (PDF) by Harvard University professor Stephanie Jones and colleagues synthesizes key information about SEL interventions, including the focus of the intervention, the ages or grade levels of students for whom the intervention was designed and the instructional approach utilized.

Another important step in maximizing the benefits of investments in SEL is matching these investments to the local context. Just as we would expect educators to select academic curricula based on their alignment with local education standards and the needs of students in their communities, the selection of SEL interventions should be based on similar criteria.

To support state and local education leaders in selecting evidence-based SEL interventions, our new guide shows how to conduct an assessment for SEL to identify the needs of their specific students and community. A needs assessment is a systematic approach to identifying strengths and areas that need improvement, as well as other contextual factors that might influence the adoption and implementation of new interventions. A needs assessment enables educators to be more confident that the SEL interventions they choose focus on areas of need and are therefore more likely to produce the desired improvements. An assessment is also required for certain ESSA funding streams.

Carrying out a needs assessment involves several steps: (1) identifying a range of data sources that provide information about student performance, behaviors and attitudes and about classroom and school-level practices and resources; (2) analyzing and synthesizing these data; (3) and seeking input from stakeholder groups including educators, parents, students and community members.

Educators conducting a needs assessment to inform decisions about SEL may want to consider the following guidance:

  • Identify assessments that measure students' social and emotional skills to understand where students are starting out and to monitor progress. Online tools can help provide information about these assessments and their features, but educators should interpret results from assessments cautiously and in the context of other information such as student academic achievement, school attendance and behavioral data.
  • Interpret student data with consideration for the broader context in which student learning takes place; the classroom environment, school policies and surrounding community conditions can all influence students' social and emotional development.
  • Consider partnering with researchers and technical assistance organizations to analyze and make sense of data on SEL needs.
  • Where multiple needs are identified, focus on those needs most aligned with local goals and educational priorities.
  • Promote the goal of equitable opportunities across student groups by ensuring that the collection and analysis of data, and the decisions that result because of the data, are designed to meet the needs of all, rather than just some, students.

It is important to remember that needs can change and will likely evolve as schools see students developing the skills that led educators and administrators to seek out evidence-based SEL interventions in the first place. Educators across the country are working to help their students develop the capabilities that will maximize their opportunities to achieve productive, engaged, and rewarding lives. Being attuned to student and community needs—and the ways these change over time—could also help dedicated educators focus their time and resources on the areas where they might have the greatest impact.


Stephani Wrabel is an associate policy researcher and Laura Hamilton is distinguished chair in learning and assessment and a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Both are members of the faculty of the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

This commentary originally appeared on The Wallace Foundation on February 5, 2019. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.