How It’s Done: Assessing and Teaching SEL Competencies

Who: Kirsten Johnson, Director of Social Work Services, LCSW 

Where: Dover Area School District in Dover, PA 

When I was hired by Dover Area Schools for the 2017-2018 school year, I was given the freedom and support of the administration to implement a curriculum for social and emotional learning (SEL). While our schools have become adept at managing behavioral issues and PBIS systems, staff did not have a common vision of what SEL competency looked like or how to teach those skills the same way we teach academic skills. 

I was looking for a mechanism to get something into the hands of the teachers, so while they were learning what SEL competencies were, they would also have a tool to measure those competencies and apply it directly to teaching in the classroom. 

We chose DESSA. It is an easy-to-use, web-based tool that assesses SEL competence; specifically Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Decision Making. Teachers are asked to rate students three times each year. I see the assessment as a form of intervention for our teachers. While they are assessing, they are becoming attuned to what the competencies are and how to determine what additional instruction students need. DESSA provides a rating that is used to determine exactly which lessons students need to meet their SEL learning needs. 

The DESSA assessment allows us to target certain classrooms and specific skills—like how to broaden emotional vocabulary, understand the body cues to different emotions, or how to self-manage when students are having uncomfortable emotions. We also teach students how to feel empathy, interpret the feelings of other people, problem solving, and working as a team. The reason we selected DESSA is that it allowed us to target different classrooms and different student subsets in a way we had not been able to do before.

Increasing Growth in SEL Skills Development

Initially, we targeted grades K-2. We added third grade this year. There is a marked decrease in the number of students who need intervention across our four elementary schools. Using DESSA to measure our progress, we are able to drill down to see the decreasing need for intervention. We also see an increase in SEL growth across the district. Our teachers readily adopted DESSA because it is quick and easy to use, and didn’t require a heavy lift on their part. 

However, the challenge is finding time for teachers to build this into their day. Building administrators are providing structure for this to happen. One way we’ve done this is to ensure that instructional materials are easy to pick up and run with. While DESSA provides the assessment, the lessons that we select, based on the data, are from Sanford Harmony. There is a strong alignment between outcomes from DESSA and Sanford Harmony lessons. The lessons are free and web-based. They are quality materials and it’s been a user-friendly curriculum for our teachers.

School and Student Outcomes

We also use Responsive Classroom as the foundation of our classrooms. This is a student-centered social and emotional learning approach to teaching and classroom management. It is the combination of DESSA, Sanford Harmony, and Responsive Classroom that is making such a difference in our schools. These three programs working together, as well as providing our teachers professional development about trauma-informed classrooms, have completely shifted our teachers’ perspectives. The classrooms are warmer—creating community. It’s really beautiful to see. Kids are relating to each other differently and notice when their peers are absent. Teachers describe student behavior in a new way, and teachers feel empowered to help their students manage. 

It is our philosophy that teaching these skills holistically in elementary grades provides an immunization for students’ older selves, protecting against mental health challenges, risk taking behavior, and a myriad of other risk factors. Continuing to bring resources to them is how we’re going to protect our students in future years. We have the privilege of providing students a warm, nurturing, safe place for them to be. The influence we have on a child is immense and an awesome responsibility.

Technology Used

Annie Galvin Teich has more than 25 years' experience in education writing and publishing. She is an edtech industry expert in content marketing and copywriting. As a regular contributor to Tech & Learning she focuses on the information needs of district decision makers.