Should social-emotional learning (SEL) be assessed?

Recently, I read an article by Chad D’Entremont—Executive Director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy—proposing that social-emotional measures should be included in assessments.

His article outlines several important points about social-emotional learning in schools. He underlines the many benefits of teaching social-emotional skills, which include a positive impact on academic performance as well as gains beyond the classroom. Overall, I agree with his message in that social-emotional intelligence is a key skill which should be developed in children as they move through school to equip them with transferable life skills. This message is clearly illustrated in his comments:

“…a troubling trend remains: Too many students are leaving our high schools without the tools they need to succeed in college or in the workforce.”

“…a majority of Massachusetts business leaders report difficulties finding local graduates with workplace-ready skills, particularly so-called “soft skills” like self-awareness, goal-setting, and critical thinking.”

“…in the 21st century, teaching students reading, writing, and arithmetic isn’t enough; we need to help them learn cooperation, compassion, and persistence as well.”

Putting the comments into practice

However, there are a few points I will explore in considering how teachers can successfully translate his points into effective classroom practice. The first point involves his comment regarding assessments: “What if we could use assessments to make social-emotional learning a priority? Assessments measure student progress, but they can also help educators adjust their lessons and identify what is or isn’t working for each child. The same way effective assessments can help improve the way we teach math, certain measurements can also help improve the way we attend to children’s social-emotional development and well-being.”

There are several things to unpick here. First, assessing something doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in that area. The UK Government introduced end of Key Stage tests at the end of Year 2 and Year 6 to improve results in English, maths and science. However, the results plateaued after a while and there was no further improvement. In fact, the Cambridge Primary Review found no evidence that the end of Key Stage tests led to individual pupils reaching higher levels of attainment than they would have done if the tests had not been introduced.

It’s true that assessments can, and should, help teachers adjust their lessons and tailor learning to the child. However, in my experience, it’s also true that assessments can become just another another administrative task which has to be undertaken which don’t translate into any meaningful impact on children. To me, the vital difference lies in the assessment itself and how the individual teacher then uses the data. The concept of an effective assessment is an also interesting one. Effectiveness might rely on the statistical testing and validation of an assessment, demonstrating it to be reliable. There is absolutely a place for this type of assessment. However, in line with Black and Wiliam’s (1998) findings, I suggest that the criteria of effective assessment might be rather different. Black and Wiliam (1998) suggest training pupils in self-assessment to make formative assessment productive. They state that tests may provide a valuable guide to learning, but the test exercises must be clear and relevant to learning aims. Students’ test feedback should give each pupil guidance on how to improve, alongside the opportunity and help to work at the improvement (Black and Wiliam, 1998).

Teachers’ SEL expertise must be developed

In order to give pupils guidance on how to improve, I believe it is vital to develop teachers’ own knowledge and understanding of social-emotional learning. From my own doctoral research and my teaching experience, I know some teachers feel they lack knowledge or confidence in recognising and assessing children’s social-emotional skills. Providing teacher training on social-emotional learning during initial teacher training and as a continued professional development opportunity for existing teachers would have a huge impact. The context for teacher assessment would become much more rich and meaningful. In this way, assessments would not be used in isolation. Instead, they would be part of an integrated approach to developing a social-emotional curriculum in school.

Risks of assessments

Using assessments can sometimes result in a narrow curriculum focus, which seems to be very much the opposite of Chad D’Entremont’s aim in using assessments. Certainly in the UK, my own experience and evidence from my peers pointed to teachers teaching to the end of Key Stage test, particularly in Year 6. One other factor to consider is the level of potential stress and anxiety for students in the approach to tests which I have witnessed first-hand. This ends up being completely counterproductive and, needless to say, has a detrimental impact on students, not to mention their assessment outcomes.

The Benefits of Circle Time

A final point to address is the author’s observation that: “some elementary school teachers lead circle time where students talk openly about problems in the classroom, like teasing, and work on finding solutions.” On an anecdotal basis, I know of many teachers who view circle time solely as a technique to resolve issues which may arise in the classroom. However, I would suggest this is a limited perception. In my own experience, circle time has a huge amount of potential. It is excellent for developing speaking and listening skills while also promoting collaboration, respect and kindness. During my doctoral research, my students pointed to circle time as a key strategy in developing trust and inclusion in the class as a whole. Jenny Mosley (1996) is a well-known and influential advocate of circle time. She describes it as a carefully structured activity which can enhance self-esteem and encourage positive relationships through the sharing of thoughts and feelings.

The classroom as a systemic whole

To summarise, it is helpful to draw upon Brown’s (1992) comments. She emphasises the synergistic nature of classroom life, stating that aspects that are often treated independently are actually part of a systemic whole. She points out that it is rarely possible to isolate components: “the whole really is more than the sum of its parts” (p.166). As such, a careful and integrated process—of which assessment might be one aspect—would perhaps provide the best opportunity to provide meaningful and long-lasting social-emotional learning for children. I would urge any policy-makers to consider this before taking action.

If you’d like expert input on SEL in your school, please get in touch.


Alexander, R. Armstrong, M., Flutter, J., Hargreaves, L., Harrison, D., Harlen, W., Hartley-Brewer, E., Kershner, R., MacBeath, J., Mayall, B., Northen, S., Pugh, G., Richards, C. and Utting, D. (2010). Children, their World, their Education: Final Report and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. Oxford: Routledge.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 80(2), p.139-144, 146-148.

Brown, A.L. (1992). Design Experiments: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges in Creating Complex Interventions in Classroom Settings, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.

Mosley, J. (1996). Quality circle-time in the primary classroom: your essential guide to enhancing self-esteem, self-discipline and positive relationships. Cambridge: LDA.