Measuring Students’ Social-Emotional Growth: It’s as Easy as ABC

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Measuring Students’ Social-Emotional Growth: It’s as Easy as ABCIf only I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard the expression “The proof is in the data.” And though I couldn’t agree more, I’m still on the fence about being able to truly measure a child’s social-emotional learning (SEL) and growth. There are ways, however, to measure whether our students are thriving socially and emotionally, and they are as easy as ABC.

A: Attendance. An important indicator of our students’ social-emotional connection to their school family is whether they’d rather be at school than at home. Is your school paying attention to and measuring students’ attendance? How does your leadership team keep the attendance rate high? What are your teachers doing if and when a student is absent? Children can’t connect if they’re not in school.

I’ve seen many practices for letting students know that their absence is felt, including the teacher making phone calls home after just one absence and students sending get-well or missing-you cards after three absences. Some teachers assign a note-taking friend to help absent students and/or an accountability buddy who helps re-acclimate students when they return to school. After seven absences, our assistant principal phones home to see what we can do to help.

As a school counselor, I am involved in helping connect students and encourage attendance through leadership classes, minute meetings (which often turn into two-minute talks), small group counseling classes, and individual counseling sessions. All of these services provide students a place to practice their emotional literacy. I work closely with the school nurse because chronically absent children sometimes will use her clinic as a refuge or escape. Students need to know that they matter and that people at school care about them and want them in class. When students feel safe, secure, and connected, that will be reflected in their attendance.

B: Behavior. Because thoughts and feelings drive behavior, tracking your students’ behavior and character choices on their report cards can be a great way to chart their social-emotional growth. Use this reflective practice not only to measure learning, but also to showcase strengths. Additionally, let it spotlight areas for growth so students can set self-improvement goals. Teachers and students can work together to decide which character traits or virtues students would like to work on strengthening. Maybe they can do a better job at keeping their promises or being more honest. It could be that they need to be more reliable at getting their homework done and turned in. Or, they may need to manage their time better. Perhaps their goal is to show respect and manners more consistently, or to take turns, share, and play by the rules. Assessing anecdotal evidence isn’t always easy, so you may have to get creative. One idea is to involve parents in supporting these goals by asking them to cosign a contract and help monitor students’ progress at home.

Use discipline referral reports to evaluate how your school is doing in encouraging healthy choices and nurturing and promoting social-emotional advancement. Are your students solving their problems respectfully and peacefully? If so, your data should show a decrease in referrals to the office for fighting or violence. Track those numbers and see. At my former school, we were able to show a 59 percent decrease in discipline referrals over a five-year period, during which we were implementing strategies from the Capturing Kids’ Hearts classroom management approach. A strong aspect of that approach is that teachers greet students and shake hands with them at the door to get a quick read on students’ emotional barometers each morning.

C: Climate. When schools commit to creating a climate of caring, students and adults alike feel a strong sense of belonging because they are being welcomed in as a part of the fold. Trust starts to build and relationships begin to take root and bloom. But how do we know, much less measure, how our school family is feeling? One way is by asking students, staff, and stakeholders to take a survey. Survey data will very quickly paint a poignant picture of how you’re doing at meeting the wants and needs of your school community.

Be warned: It isn’t always easy to hear what climate survey data has to say. One year in particular, our survey results really bothered us. That year, 93 percent of our students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “My teacher really cares about me.” While that might seem like a pretty high percentage, I couldn’t help but wonder, What about the other 7 percent? What this important information gave us, however, was a starting point to continue implementing our Capturing Kids’ Hearts approach.

Another data point that gave us pause was that 97 percent of our students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I feel safe at this school.” Wait, what? Three percent of our students don’t feel safe? It was clear that we had more concerns to address and more work to do.

What do you want to know about how your stakeholders are feeling? Write your own questions, or find an assessment that you can tailor to mine the information you need to help you grow. Getting participation in a survey sometimes is tricky, so try using an online survey tool, such as SurveyMonkey, or opening up your computer lab at your springtime open house and inviting your parents and students to take your survey right there.

If you are looking for additional tools, our friends at Edutopia published some helpful information and behavior rating scales for SEL assessment as well as reflections about the assessment process.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

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