Storming the CASEL – Strengthening SEL in Schools

Jonathan E. Martin

on September 11, 2014

Storming the CASEL – Strengthening SEL in Schools

 Creativity. Self Confidence. Perseverance. Empathy. Don’t call these attributes noncognitive, because, if you really think about it, “Noncognitive means dead,” says Roger Weissberg, a national expert on what he prefers to call “social and emotional learning (SEL).”

Over the summer, SSATB staffers and members of the Admission Leadership Council had the pleasure of meeting with Weissberg, who is Chief Knowledge Officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL is affiliated with the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is a national leader in the field of social and emotional learning. Founded in part by Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, who established the popular conception of “EQ,” the collaborative conducts extensive research on, provides resources for, and advocates vigorously for SEL in schools.

CASEL defines SEL as containing five “core competencies":

  • Self-Awareness: Self-Confidence plus realistic self-appraisal,
  • Self-Management: Self-Regulation and Perseverance,
  • Social Awareness: Empathy, Perspective Taking,
  • Relationship skills: Cooperation, Peer Pressure Resistance, Conflict Resolution.
  • Responsible Decision Making: Ethics, Integrity, Contribution to the Benefit of Others.
CASEL logo

In conversation with the ALC, Weissberg made several key points. First, as noted above, he steers educators away from the term “noncogntive,” urging that we use a term to describe positively what these skills are rather than by (inaccurately in any case) defining them by what they are not. Second, he cautioned us to beware the idea that social and emotional learning are separate from academic learning. Rather, they are all intertwined: “If you care about academic performance, you have to care about more than academic performance,” he stated. Concentrating on SEL development doesn’t diminish academic achievement, but rather advances it.

He also believes “There is an imbalance between the focus on intrapersonal vs. interpersonal.” The scales are tipped more towards the intrapersonal, causing us to become too focused on predicting only academic success instead of the broader and longer-term categories of career success, relationship success, and life satisfaction.

If SEL is so important, how can educators (and admission directors) convey and demonstrate their commitment to it? He suggests they can by:

  • Being open to parent involvement/engagement
  • Involving students in project-based learning and service learning
  • Allowing prospective parents to hear directly from students about their experiences and about what they are learning
Cover SEL Doc

A focus for his research over the next five years will be better assessing SEL. CASEL recently published a concise, useful guide for educators entitled “Strategies for Social and Emotional Learning: Preschool and Elementary Grade Student Learning Standards and Assessment.”The report includes a review of state standards currently in place for social emotional learning, and then argues for the importance of making them more meaningful by better measuring them.

Roger WeissbergRoger Weissberg
Roger Weissberg

Teacher rating systems are the most common and useful assessments, the guide reports, explaining that “One advantage of teacher rating scales is that teachers are good informants about their students because they are familiar with children’s behavior in an important environment (school), and teachers are generally skilled raters because they know a large number of children with whom to compare any one student’s skills or behaviors.” To compare the teacher rating tools, a set of criteria is provided, including efficiency of administration, reliability, validity, and availability in both print and electronic options. Of the five tools profiled, only one is available for grades K-5 and rates students on all five CASEL criteria -- Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), a tool schools might consider when seeking to strengthen their SEL assessment.

How do you put all this into action? The guide offers some simple but useful advice. Seek to understand the data first, working hard to interpret it by examining trends, comparing sub-group performances, and comparing the assessment data with other school data such as attendance, grades, etc. Then share data with the people who can make a difference, such as administrators and teachers, and then “act on the facts.” The guide emphasizes the use of “evidence-based approaches” that are “systematic and meaningful,”and offers additional resources to find these approaches:

As the CASEL guide concludes, while it is important to understand the limitations of certain assessment tools and act judiciously so as to maximize benefits and minimize harm, it is also important to go forward and act to improve student SEL.

What are you doing to strengthen SEL in your schools?