Buncombe County Schools in Asheville, NC, has made social-emotional learning a core priority for long-term district improvement. For years, the district focused on its curricular strategy, teacher development and instructional frameworks, but academic achievement gaps persisted.
With the help of a school counselor grant during the 2014-15 school year, Buncombe County Schools created an emphasis on social-emotional skills. Administrators decided closing the gaps in these skills would be equally important as closing academic skills gaps — in part because improving social-emotional skills would help students access good instruction.
David Thompson, director of student services, said the initiative first focused on elementary schools. A social-emotional learning curriculum, Second Step, creates a backbone for teaching these skills, the Mindful Schools curriculum helps students learn strategies for self-regulation, and the Compassionate Schools framework provides an understanding of the impact of trauma and chronic stress on learning and children’s brains.
While evidence-based strategies have been identified at the district level, individual schools are free to choose which ones make most sense for their student populations and school cultures. And all elementary schools use the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, or DESSA, to measure students’ social-emotional competencies as well as the impact of any interventions they implement.
Deborah Luckett, the district’s grant coordinator and a licensed school counselor, said DESSA offers an important evaluation tool. All schools screen students in the fall to get a baseline of four social-emotional skill areas — emotional management, problem-solving, empathy and skills for learning — and again in the spring to measure growth. Schools use the fall screener to identify students who need additional supports in certain areas and develop plans for individuals or small groups.
Importantly the assessment identifies strengths as well as weaknesses. Whereas educators may have been likely to focus on deficits and strategies for addressing them, the DESSA specifically draws attention to where a student is strong and how those strengths can be used to make progress.
“It really changes the conversation,” Luckett said.
School districts across the country have made new commitments to social-emotional skill-building in recent years as a steady stream of research has connected these skills with academic achievement and better preparation for work and life. The Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing No Child Left Behind, has also opened the door for a greater focus on “whole-child” education, and its new accountability framework gives states the option of considering it in assessments of school quality.
Paul LeBuffe, vice president of research and development for Aperture Education and an author of the DESSA, said the marketplace is filling up with social-emotional curricula and assessments of student skills, which can be good and bad.
He recommends looking for three things when considering social-emotional assessments. They should be:
- Rigorous. Assessments should have established reliability and validity for a representative sample of students in U.S. schools.
- Reasonable. Both the cost of the assessment and the time commitment necessary for training and implementation should be practical for schools.
- Relevant. The assessment should measure things that are in line with the mission of the district and the skills it is trying to foster among its student body.
The DESSA was created based on the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s widely respected framework. CASEL highlights five core competencies under the umbrella of social-emotional learning — self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness. LeBuffe and his team kept those intact and added optimistic thinking as one final dimension.
LeBuffe said the goal of the assessment is to arm educators with actionable information.
“It’s not just to get a score that characterizes performance and goes in a report,” LeBuffe said. “It’s really to lead to a better understanding of the child to guide strategies that can lead to better outcomes.”
That’s how educators in Buncombe County have used it. And researchers from Western Carolina University studied pre- and post-test scores of students in the district’s elementary schools, finding their growth in social-emotional competencies was statistically significant, meaning school interventions contributed to greater growth than might be expected had the district not focused on the skills at all.
One school that has made a particular commitment to social emotional learning, Fairview Elementary, saw fewer discipline referrals and higher-than-average growth on state tests in part because of its interventions, which have made a marked impact on school culture.
Looking ahead, Buncombe County Schools plans to scale up its emphasis on social-emotional learning into the middle and high schools. And it approaches this work with useful hindsight — like how difficult it can be for teachers to wrap their heads around SEL assessments.
“We’re great at assessing academics,” said Thompson, the student services director. “It was a very new task for them to evaluate behavior.”
Slowly but surely, though, teachers are buying into the value of the district’s new system, recognizing the benefits they see in their own classrooms. And one day administrators expect it to be embedded in every school.