When it comes to measuring growth and proficiency in schools, the conversation tends to center around academics. But what if alongside grades and test scores, teachers also had a way to discuss students’ social and emotional skills, with quantitative data to boot?
Dr. Clark McKown, director of the RUSH NeuroBehavioral Center in Skokie, Ill., has spent the last five years working to make this a reality. He’s the man behind SELweb, an online tool designed to assess K-3 students’ social-emotional learning (SEL), their ability to recognize and manage emotions and build healthy relationships.
A growing body of research has linked SEL instruction to positive student outcomes, including improved focus, stronger relationships and higher test scores. For McKown, along with an increasing number of educators and parents, teaching SEL is not just beneficial, but imperative. “The true mission of education,” McKown says, “is preparing students to be active participants in a democracy. When viewed through that prism, social-emotional training is just as important as academics.”
As far too many educators know, however, testing is not the same as teaching. As SELweb is piloted across Illinois, questions remain about how teachers can best turn the data they’re getting into tangible outcomes for students.
A unique approach to SEL
In the last few years, there’s been a flurry of new products targeted at bolstering students’ SEL skills, including interactive curriculums, often consisting of videos and computer-based exercises, and digital games that promise to build empathy and regulate emotions.
But SELweb offers a different approach. The assessments are meant to work in tandem with SEL curriculums—a supplement rather than replacement. And unlike traditional assessment tools, which rely on self-reporting by students or teachers, SELweb is made up of online tasks that test skills directly. One task asks students to identify facial expressions in order to assess social awareness. Another provides a simple game with an intentional glitch built in. Self-control is measured by how long students are willing to persist amidst the mild frustration.
For teachers looking to understand the social network within their class, there’s also an optional peer nomination module, which allows students to report on classroom relationships, checking off who in the class they’re close with (and telling teachers who might be socially isolated).
After students complete the test, teachers receive a report with information about each student. The reports are similar to those generated by standardized tests. They score students across four areas: emotion recognition, perspective-taking, self-control and social problem solving--how well students cope with stressful, everyday situations. The reports also provide data on peer acceptance and social connections within the class.
For Valerie Patterson, superintendent of district 308 in Illinois, which serves over 18,000 students, the program is groundbreaking. Patterson’s district has been using SELweb since its creation in 2011 and she believes it represents an important shift in SEL instruction. “I’ve been an educator for 27 years,” Patterson says, “but when I look at [SELweb], I’m like ‘Holy smokes!’ This is something that, if structured right, could be life-changing for students.”
Room to Grow
It may not be there quite yet. Some of the biggest challenges include time and concerns about over-testing. Patterson, whose district initially committed to testing all K-3 students with SELweb twice a year, ultimately cut back to testing only first and third graders, and only in the spring. She says teachers found it “a little repetitive” to test so regularly. Similarly, Catherine Wang, the superintendent at Illinois’s Glencoe School District, says while “social-emotional instruction is a top priority” for her district, administering SELweb with the “necessary regularly” can be difficult.
The technology is also not as robust as other tools on the market. Tests cannot currently be administered on a Chromebook, a major impediment for schools without desktops or traditional laptops. And for larger districts like Patterson’s, there is also no easy way to upload student roster data easily; currently rosters need to be entered manually, 100 students at a time.
McKown, who works directly with districts throughout the implementation process, acknowledges these struggles. For him, the biggest concern is ensuring teachers are effectively using the data provided through the assessments. “Curriculum and [SEL] programs can be very time-intensive,” he says. "It's not always easy to do it right."
Interpreting the data can also be challenging for teachers. That was certainly the case for Patterson, who brought in McKown for professional development after testing. She says his visits improved teacher buy-in, though how scalable this support is remains to be seen.
In the meantime…
Despite these shortcomings, many of districts and teachers currently using the product remain committed to SELweb and its mission. One of the most useful features, says Wang, is the peer nomination feature, which allows students to report on their relationships. This information helps educators better understand who needs more attention. “If we see there are kids without social connections, that data is reported to social workers, and students are invited to facilitated lunches,” Wang explains. “We also increase SEL lessons, and when we retest and see progress, it affirms what we’re doing.”
Joab Oberlander, a first grade teacher in Glencoe, feels getting computer-generated data on student relationships is especially helpful during parent-teacher conferences. “If a parent’s concerned their kid doesn’t have friends, it makes it easier to find who’s in a similar boat and suggest a playdate. And if their concern isn’t valid, the data helps demonstrate that. It doesn’t have to just be anecdotal anymore.”
Oberlander says his school has also benefitted from the reports on other SEL skills. The data on social problem solving, for example, has led to the formation of a small problem-solving group run by the school psychologist. “[SELweb] helped us target those in need,” Oberlander explains. “Next time we tested, we saw an increase in scores for those students.”
This, ultimately, is the intention of SELweb: to give teachers information about students that leads to appropriate intervention. It’s the cycle that good data-driven instruction is built on: assess, evaluate, instruct, and repeat until mastery has been reached. But whether it’s SELweb or some other yet-to-be designed test, one thing is clear: the need to address students’ social-emotional needs has never been as popular—or essential.