Consistency Creates Success: Finding Parallels in Our Approach to Academic and Social and Emotional Learning

Guest Author: Michael Ammons, School Counselor, Mossman Elementary School, Texas

As an elementary school counselor, one of my primary roles is promoting social and emotional learning (SEL) across my campus. And increasingly, this critical responsibility is taking on the utmost importance.

This focus on SEL is supported by mountains of data; countless studies, journal articles, classroom observations, and conversations with colleagues which unanimously attest to the importance of designing relevant, impactful, and comprehensive SEL approaches to meet the needs of each student. Thankfully, the impetus to respond to growing SEL demands in schools has been met broadly by stakeholders within the education community. State legislatures have begun creating policies directing school districts to include SEL standards in their curriculum. School districts have been provided funding to allocate toward implementing SEL programs. Administrators, counselors, and teachers have responded by investing in their students’ SEL development. These efforts have begun the process of equipping students with the prerequisite social and emotional skills they will need to achieve their best possible outcomes, but more is required.

Sadly, data reveals that young people today are distressed. They are experiencing more anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal than any previous generation. Consequently, this is leading to concerning trends; statistics show a sharp increase in self-harm, substance abuse, risk-taking behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicides among school-aged children. Furthermore, statistics also show self-harm and suicide attempts are being attempted by children earlier in life at younger ages.

Despite the rise in mental health concerns among young people, alarmingly, large percentages of these children are not getting professional support. Simply observing the challenges facing students across the country who are grappling with social unrest, observing the polarized division of millions of citizens, and facing unprecedented hardships due to a global pandemic emphasizes the urgency to maximize SEL opportunities in schools.

But how?

Within the formal educational setting, school professionals (administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers) have become adept at using quantitative data to respond to their students’ academic needs. Each school has its own verbiage for this process, but in generalized terms, highly effective instructional patterns have been developed to meet curricular needs for each student. Typically, this instructional pattern, commonly referred to as response to intervention or RTI, includes the following steps:

  1. Conducting a pre-assessment using quantitative measures to determine each student’s academic baseline and identify strengths and deficits
  2. Processing the pre-assessment data to develop instructional plans for students
  3. Implementing the instructional plans with fidelity using research-based interventions to address a student’s identified academic needs
  4. Re-assessing routinely to measure progress and recalibrate instructional plans to support continual academic growth.

This instructional pattern (pre-assessment, processing data, implementing interventions, and re-assessing) informs school personnel’s critical decision-making that will largely determine the academic success of students. Each step is important and necessary to continually sustain academic development. This methodology is broadly used and accepted in school districts across the country because when implemented correctly, it yields positive results. Certainly, schools might tweak this formula at times to meet specific students’ needs — and there are a wide variety of resources and strategies that will be used to provide specific interventions — but following this instructional pattern creates a strong foundation for academic success.

By contextualizing our approach in meeting our students’ academic concerns with our methods for addressing SEL instruction, we will take a necessary next step in more proficiently meeting the SEL needs and mental health demands of our students. The same instructional pattern (pre-assessment, processing data, implementing interventions, and re-assessing) that we are now familiar with and have followed to address academic concerns can be directly applied to our approach for addressing students’ SEL needs.

Here is what a step-by-step SEL approach would look like if it were to mirror our tried-and-true academic instructional pattern:

Pre-assessment: Meaningful social and emotional data

Meaningful data is the linchpin and initiating step of both academic RTI and the approach being proposed here for SEL instruction. Typically, when attempting to address students’ SEL or behavioral needs, schools rely upon qualitative data such as teacher input, classroom observations, conferencing with other professionals, behavior charts, etc. While these are all necessary activities schools must continue to use to support students, they do not represent an exhaustive analysis of any student’s current social and emotional skill levels.

Unfortunately, qualitative input, even from the most well-intentioned source, can be permeated by personal biases, emotions, misinformation, miscommunication, lack of relevant information, etc. Making plans regarding any student’s SEL or behavioral needs based solely on qualitative measures is like building a house on sand— it is certain to fail. Providing students with a firm foundation for SEL development begins by using a pre-assessment tool to extrapolate quantitative data.

My campus accomplishes this critical first step using Aperture Education’s DESSA suite of assessments. The online Aperture platform provides a pre-assessment tool that enables schools to quickly screen students to determine their current SEL skill levels. Further, to get a more thorough SEL skills profile for students, DESSA offers a more comprehensive norm-referenced assessment tool that rates students’ skill levels in each of the CASEL competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, goal-directed behavior, personal responsibility, decision making, optimistic thinking). Having access to this tool and the data it provides fulfils the first step, pre-assessment, in the previously mentioned instructional pattern. This data solidifies our understanding of our students’ SEL strengths and indicates areas of concern we can work toward developing.

Processing: Developing instructional plans based on social and emotional data

With a clear picture of our students’ current SEL needs, we have a firm foundation in place to develop a solid plan for growth. The data provided by the DESSA during our pre-assessment is then processed and discussed to develop a plan to support our SEL instruction, fulfilling step two in the instructional pattern. This data focuses our planning because it indicates specifically what skills our SEL instruction should address, enabling us to find appropriate resources for meeting our students’ identified needs.

Lastly, because the DESSA can tie a numerical rating to our students’ SEL skill levels, we are able to introduce measurable goals to our intervention plans. For example, if decision-making skills are being addressed, we could set a goal of seeing 8% growth in that competency by the end of the intervention. Having a numeric, quantitative measure to establish our students’ SEL baselines and subsequently measure their growth provides a level of accountability by ensuring our intervention efforts are effective. If our interventions are not effective, it allows us the opportunity to self-reflect and adjust instruction. This approach benefits both the school professional teaching the intervention plan and the students receiving the interventions.

Implementing instructional plans + re-assessment

With an informed plan in place, targeted skills are taught to students for a predetermined amount of time. As with academic interventions, teachers and counselors have flexibility as to how these skills are taught and what resources are used. However, it is critical that research-based materials and growth strategies are utilized throughout the intervention.

At the conclusion of the intervention period students are re-assessed. Re-assessing students provides a wealth of meaningful data that can be further processed to determine what adjustments are necessary to SEL instructional plans to ensure every student is receiving the support they need for their social and emotional development. This part of the process fulfils steps three and four in our instructional pattern.

In conclusion, paralleling our approaches for meeting students’ academic and SEL needs will inherently improve student outcomes. Noted educational researcher Dr. John Hattie has identified the most potent, high-yield strategies schools can employ to improve student learning. Among the most valuable influences his research has identified are collective teacher efficacy and RTI. Contextualizing the way campuses approach students’ academic and SEL development using a systematic process like RTI will create a framework for improving collective teacher efficacy. SEL planning and implementation will become less ambiguous and more data driven. Solid data will inform highly relevant intervention plans which will lead to greater student success. Student success will lead to increased knowledge and confidence among school professionals in meeting their students’ SEL and mental health needs. When school professionals trust in the process they are using to develop meaningful SEL opportunities for students and reinforce their belief in that process with quantitative, measurable data, greater teacher efficacy will be achieved.

With an assessment tool, such as the DESSA, and a systematic, RTI-like approach in fulfilling students’ SEL needs, schools can be certain they are engaging in their students’ SEL in a consequential way that will dramatically improve student success.

About the Author

Michael Ammons is a school counselor at Sandra Mossman Elementary School in League City, Texas. Mr. Ammons has been in elementary education for ten years as both a classroom teacher and a school counselor. Over the past three years, Mr. Ammons has focused on developing a comprehensive approach to his students’ SEL development. This has guided his passion to transform the campus’s approach to meeting all students’ mental health needs.