IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Measuring Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been embraced by many schools and districts around the country. Yet in the rush to adopt SEL practices and support student SEL competencies, educators often lack assessment tools that are valid, reliable, and easy to use.

 

Washoe County School District in Nevada has moved the needle on SEL assessment with support from an IES Researcher-Practitioner Partnership grant. The district partnered with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to develop the Social and Emotional Competency Assessments (WCSD-SECAs)—free, open-source instruments that schools can use to measure SEL competencies of students in 5th through 12th grade.

Long and short versions of the SECA are available to download from the school district’s website, along with a bank of 138 items across 8 SEL domains that schools around the country can use to modify SECA assessments for their local context. The long-form version has been validated and aligned to the CASEL 5 SEL competency clusters and WCSD SEL standards (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making). The assessment is also available in Spanish, and the Metro Nashville Public schools offer the assessment in 8 additional languages.  

Students complete the long-form SECA as part of Washoe’s Annual Student Climate Survey by rating how easy or difficult SEL skills are for them. Under the Social Awareness domain, students respond to items such as “Knowing what people may be feeling by the look on their face” or “Learning from people with different opinions than me.” Under the Responsible Decision Making domain, students rate themselves on skills such as “Saying ‘no’ to a friend who wants to break the rules” and “Thinking of different ways to solve a problem.”

The SECA is one component of Washoe County’s larger School Climate Survey Project that is marking its 10th anniversary this year. Washoe provides district-level and school-level reports on school climate to support the district’s commitment to providing safe, caring, and engaging school environments for all of Washoe’s students and families.  

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER’s Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Building Partnerships to Support Mental Health Needs in Diverse Rural Schools: The National Center for Rural School Mental Health

About 1 in 5 school-age children experience serious mental health issues yet few receive services. In rural schools, geographic isolation and limited resources make receiving services even more difficult. The IES-funded National Center for Rural School Mental Health is addressing this challenge.

The 5 year, $10 million National R&D Center is supporting partnerships with a wide variety of rural school districts in three states (Missouri, Virginia, and Montana) to develop and test ways to support the mental health needs of their students. I recently spoke with Dr. Wendy Reinke, the Center’s director, about the unique mental health needs in the rural settings where the center is working and how she and her colleagues are approaching this work.  

Tell us a little bit about the rural communities you are partnering with in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana.

Each state provides a unique geological context that we anticipate will inform the tools and interventions we are developing for wide use in rural schools. For instance, Missouri sits in the middle of the country where half of the school districts are considered rural and another third or so are considered small towns. Virginia encompasses central Appalachia which struggles with issues of under-employment, mental health, and school dropout. In the northwest, rural residents are scattered across Montana’s 56 counties, 30 of which are classified as “frontier” counties with three or fewer persons per square mile.  The tools and interventions we develop will need to be feasible and effective across these very different contexts.

What are the most common mental health challenges being faced in the different rural communities you are partnering with?

Part of the work of the Rural Mental Health Center will be learning more about the types of  mental health challenges faced by rural communities. From my current work in Missouri’s rural schools, common areas of concern include youth with depression, anxiety, conduct problems, substance abuse, and suicidality.  Identifying youth early can help to prevent or reduce the burden of these problems.  Accordingly, we plan to not only offer interventions for youth facing mental health challenges but work with schools to prevent and identify early, youth who would benefit from supports.

The work you have planned for the center builds on prior IES-funded work. Tell us more about how this work provides a foundation for launching the work of the center.

A cornerstone of the Center is the use of an assessment tool that will allow schools to gather data to determine their needs for school-level prevention, group-based interventions, and individualized interventions.  This tool was developed in partnership with six school districts (five of which are rural) and University of Missouri researchers.  Through the IES partnership grant we were able to validate the measure and gather stakeholder input to improve the tool and the overall intervention model.  These data collected using this tool will be linked to evidence-based interventions, several of which have been developed and evaluated through IES funding.  It is very exciting to have the opportunity to pull all of these projects together to support our rural schools.

Much of your earlier research has been done in urban school districts. How did you become interested in research with rural schools? What would you recommend to other researchers interested in doing research with rural schools?

I grew up and attended school in a rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Missouri, I had access and opportunity in working alongside rural school districts.  One recommendation, which I think goes for research in any schools, is to operate as a partner with them. For instance, the six school districts we worked with formed a Coalition, and we include the Coalition as co-authors on any publication or presentation that comes from this work.  Further, we present with partners at conferences and report back findings to the community.  I think an open and collaborative relationship gains trust, allowing for additional opportunities to conduct research alongside our school partners. Additionally, our ideas for studies are nearly always driven by the needs expressed by our schools based on the pressing challenges they report to us.

The Center also has a policy focus with work that will be led by your Montana partners. Tell us more about this aspect of the Center’s work and the types of policy issues the Center will address.

We will be working with rural school district partners across the three states to identify important issues facing rural schools.  Dr. Ryan Tolleson-Knee from the University of Montana will be leading this initiative.  At the Center kick-off meeting held in June, a subgroup of rural school partners interested in policy was formed.  The plan is for this subgroup to develop a toolkit that can be readily used by public school personnel and state and national policymakers to improve outcomes for youth.  One topic of interest is how might rural school districts partner with one another (similar to the Coalition described earlier) to maximize and share resources across the communities.  Over the next five years, the toolkit will expand and connect to issues faced by our rural schools.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Are You What You Eat? Understanding the Links Between Diet, Behavior, and Achievement During Middle School

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what exactly does it mean for student learning and achievement in middle school? In 2018, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham received an IES Exploration grant to investigate the direction and nature of the relationships between middle school students’ diet, behavior, and academic achievement. These relationships have not been fully studied in the United States, nor have longitudinal designs been used (most existing studies are cross-sectional) making it hard to determine the precise nature of the links between what adolescents eat and potential implications for learning and achievement.  

Because children in the United States consume about half of their nutrients at school, the need to identify school nutrition policies and practices that benefit student behavior and achievement is great, especially given newly published findings that motivated this IES research and that have attracted lots of media interest in recent days (see this story from CNN and this press release). The Alabama researchers found that specific nutrients (high sodium, low potassium) predicted depression over a year later in a sample of 84 urban, primarily African American adolescents (mean age 13 years). In the IES study, these researchers are expanding their work with a larger and more diverse sample of 300 students. In the first year of this 4-year study, the researchers recruited about two thirds of their sample (186 students across 10 schools) who completed the first of three week-long assessments as 6th graders and who will complete assessments again in the 7th and 8th grades. During each week-long assessment period, each student reports on their own diet and academic functioning, and on their own and their peers’ emotions and behavior. They also complete objective tests of attention and memory. The researchers observe each child’s actual food and beverage consumption at school and behavior during one academic class period. They also collect school records of grades, test scores, attendance, discipline incidents, and information about each school’s nutrition policies and practices. Parents and teachers also report on student diet, behavior, and academic functioning.

This school year the researchers are recruiting the rest of their sample. If their findings suggest a role for school practices and dietary factors in student behavior and achievement, they can guide future efforts to develop school-based programs targeting students’ diet that could be easily implemented under typical school conditions.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Now Available! New Nationally Representative Data on the Socioemotional Development of Elementary School Students

In an earlier blog post, we shared that one of our survey programs—the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) program—was collecting data on socioemotional development to better understand how different academic and nonacademic factors may influence a child’s early schooling experiences. New data are now available from the spring 2016 public-use dataset for the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011). This file contains data from every round of the ECLS-K:2011, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

For decades, the National Center for Education Statistics and other researchers have used ECLS data to examine questions about elementary school students’ socioemotional development. For instance, as seen in the excerpt below, an earlier wave of data was used to develop an indicator in the America’s Children report that looks at first-time kindergartners’ scores on socioemotional scales and how these students may victimize their peers. ECLS data are rich with information that can be used to analyze the influence of family, school, community, and individual factors on students’ development, early learning, and performance in school.

In the most recent ECLS program study, the ECLS-K:2011 collected information on its sample of kindergartners during the 2010–11 school year and then at least once during every academic year thereafter until 2015–16, when most of the students were in fifth grade. The ECLS-K:2011 data allow researchers to study how students’ socioemotional skills develop over time through reports from the students themselves and from key people in those students’ lives, including their parents, before- and after-school care providers, teachers, and school administrators.

Here’s a peek into the socioemotional development measures included the ECLS-K:2011:

  • Students completed questionnaires about their relationships with peers, social distress, peer victimization, and satisfaction with different aspects of their lives.
  • Teachers used their experiences with students in their classrooms to provide information about students’ approaches to learning (e.g., eagerness to learn, self-direction, attentiveness), social skills, and problem behaviors, as well as their own closeness and conflict with students.
  • Parents provided separate reports on much of the same information reported by teachers to provide a richer picture of their child’s development through a different lens.

For more information on the measures of socioemotional development included in the ECLS-K:2011, please see our study instruments or email the ECLS study team. Also, keep an eye out for future online training modules for the ECLS-K:2011, which will be released in fall 2019 or early 2020. To be alerted about the release of the free online trainings, email the ECLS study team at ECLS@ed.gov and ask to be added to the ECLS listserv.

 


Excerpt from America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2017


 

By Jill Carlivati McCarroll and Gail M. Mulligan

 

Teaching Organizational Skills to Adolescents: Bringing Clinical Practices into Schools

Organizing, planning, and managing time influence student achievement and become increasingly important as adolescents enter middle school. Clinical research offers promising practices for improving these skills in students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the key is getting these practices into schools. That’s where IES-funded researchers come in.

In 2009, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University used an IES grant to develop Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS)—a program that teaches middle school students with ADHD to use checklists to organize, plan, and manage their schoolwork.

In 2013, IES funded an initial efficacy study to test HOPS in public middle schools, comparing HOPS with more traditional homework support. Researchers found that parents of students using HOPS and traditional homework support reported fewer homework problems and better organizational skills at home. In contrast, teachers reported improved organization and management skills in the classroom only for their students who used HOPS, not the homework support. HOPS also provided greater benefits overall for students with higher levels of hyperactivity and oppositional behavior and greater deficits in organizational skills.

In June, IES awarded a grant to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to conduct a five-year effectiveness study that will test whether HOPS is beneficial for all students who have organizational skill deficits, rather than just students with a formal ADHD diagnosis. This is important because organizational deficits affect student achievement regardless of whether a student has been diagnosed with a learning disorder. This study will determine whether schools can implement HOPS effectively and inexpensively in a school environment.

Written by Greg Shanahan, IES Presidential Management Fellow, and Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research