Committee for Children Blog

SEL Assessment Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

social emotional learning, assessment, Mental Health Through SEL

Originally published: May 17, 2018
Updated: February 2, 2021

We’ve been working with educators for over 40 years, and we’ve learned from their feedback and from randomized control trial (RCT) studies that the Second Step® family of programs can have significant positive impact on school culture and students’ social and academic outcomes. It was developed by education experts to help children acquire essential social-emotional skills, from preschool through middle school, using active learning techniques such as games, stories, songs, and videos. Any difficulties with implementation, such as inconsistent use or low teacher engagement, can often be addressed with additional training or support. But the area that schools usually need more help in is assessment. The question we’re often asked is: “How can we tell if Second Step is working?”

 When it comes to assessing social-emotional learning (SEL), there is a spectrum of complexity. Some schools and districts shy away from it out of fear of punitive outcomes or common misconceptions that assessments are challenging, time-consuming and costly. While that is true for some assessments, it’s quite possible to check whether learning goals are being met in easy, more economical ways.

Gather Meaningful Data Quickly & Easily
Everybody wins when students gain social-emotional skills, and we want you to get the most out of Second Step family of programs. So, we’ve included a number of resources to help you assess what’s working well and where there might be room for improvement.

The following free resources are available to customers online at They can help you collect useful information to guide funding and strategy decisions, identify inconsistencies in how your staff is teaching Second Step® programs, and highlight areas for improvement.

  • Implementation Preparedness Survey: assesses staff readiness for teaching the program and determines how much support or training may be required (Second Step® Elementary)
  • Lesson-Completion Checklists: short surveys to help assess teacher and counselor fidelity to suggested implementation (Second Step Elementary)
  • Lesson Reflection Logs: guidance to help staff consider how their teaching is going (Second Step Elementary)
  • Post-Implementation Survey: briefly reviews the full range of implementation readiness and actual implementation (Second Step Elementary)
  • Knowledge Assessments: teacher and student versions available by grade, in both English and Spanish, to provide a snapshot of how much students have learned about the skills, behaviors, and attitudes taught in the Second Step Program (Second Step Elementary)
  • Formative Assessments: include writing prompts and Home Link activities among the lesson features that help educators regularly track what students are learning and assess when a lesson might need to be reinforced (Second Step Elementary)
  • Lesson Observation Rubric: an easy-to-use tool for observing lessons and providing coaching and support to lesson instructors across four areas. (Second Step® Elementary digital program and Second Step® Middle School)
  • Mid-Year and End-of-Year Check-Ins: short presentations, designed to be facilitated by a principal or other SEL leadership team member, that give staff the opportunity to reflect on their experiences with the program and discuss opportunities for improvement (Second Step Elementary digital program and Second Step Middle School)
  • Performance Tasks: Activities included at the end of each unit that provide a fun, engaging way for students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they acquired from that unit. These formative assessments help teachers identify specific areas where the class is strong and those where students might benefit from further instruction or reinforcement. (Second Step Elementary digital program and Second Step Middle School)

Educators have different reasons for wanting to evaluate Second Step programs, from providing stakeholders with required data to satisfying inquiring parents and community members. For those who are not trained in program evaluation, we’re putting together a guide (available in spring 2021) to help you better understand the type of information that can be useful, how to gather it, and what to do with evaluation findings. For more information on how to better understand evaluation goals, see our Second Step Student Assessment page.

Check Your Assumptions When Using School Data
Most schools routinely collect operations data, such as discipline referrals, and sometimes they use that data to evaluate how teaching Second Step programs is influencing their students and school community. But results can be misleading, so it’s important to carefully review all dynamics at play.

We know from years of evaluation that reported behavior incidents, such as bullying, can fluctuate throughout the year. Rigorous research has shown that effective bullying prevention works best as part of a holistic social-emotional learning effort. (Read our “Bullying Prevention in Schools Starts with Social-Emotional Learning” white paper to learn more.) If school administrators want to know how their SEL program is impacting bullying, they would need to look at more than one data point. They would first need to establish baseline data, then track reports over several years and take into account other factors at play (e.g., other schoolwide initiatives or changes in policies).

For example, one of our clients wanted to know how the Second Step family of programs was contributing to their steady improvements in school climate reports. It’s very likely that Second Step programs directly impacted school climate, but research indicates that the success or failure of a school’s entire climate rarely can be attributed to a single program or initiative. Rather, a school or district that is implementing a research-based SEL curriculum is highly likely to also engage in multiple other programs that could impact school climate, such as providing tiered student support and staff training.

In another case, some teachers at one school did not complete all the Second Step® lessons for their respective grades. Does that mean the program did not work for them? Not at all! Many of the teachers raved that they saw near-immediate results with Second Step programs, even when they didn’t implement it with full fidelity. They simply hadn’t made it a habit yet. When talking with these educators, we reminded them that adopting any new program requires diligence, and typically it helps to provide some monitoring and support. To get the best results, it’s important to check in regularly with teachers and ask if they need any extra training or support.

Review . . . and Repeat
To recap, no assessment is 100 percent foolproof, and one year of data is not much when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of any program. That’s certainly true for Second Step programs, which is designed to have a cumulative effect across multiple years and be part of an integrated approach. With that in mind, use any data you collect as an indicator of progress, not as absolute truth.

The more data you gather from year to year, the better you’ll be able to make sense of averages and see where to strengthen support for teachers and counselors working with Second Step programs. Surveying teachers pre– and post-implementation and using formative assessments are practical ways to check in and see where additional support may be needed. Doing this kind of simple assessment can help ensure that Second Step lessons are taught and reinforced as intended, with students being given ample opportunities to practice what they’ve learned.

Effective schools value real results, but that doesn’t mean all data collection has to be intense. What’s most important is being committed to continuous and authentic improvement. Our research-based programs have gone through rigorous studies and been endorsed by leading SEL evaluators like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—so with a trustworthy curriculum, you can just focus on delivery. Together, we can help students use the transformative power of social-emotional growth to reach their full potential.

Learn More
To learn more about assessing Second Step® skills, how to set your assessment goals, and finding third-party vendors who can help you reach those goals, visit our Second Step® Student Assessment page.