Committee for Children Blog

SEL Assessment Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

social emotional learning, assessment, Mental Health Through SEL

We’ve been working with educators for 40 years, now, and we’ve learned from their feedback and from randomized control trials (RCTs) that the Second Step Program works if used as designed. 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. Lessons include multiple opportunities to practice skills, including take-home activities to reinforce lessons at home.

If problems are identified, or if there are dramatic variations across classrooms or schools, they can often be addressed with additional teacher training or support. 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, and some schools and districts shy away from it simply out of fear of punitive outcomes or common misconceptions about what’s involved. While some assessments can be challenging, time-consuming and costly, it’s quite possible to check whether or not learning goals are being met in much easier, 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 the Second Step Program. 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 resources, free and available to customers online at, can help you collect useful information to guide funding and strategy decisions, identify inconsistencies in how the Second Step Program is being taught, 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
  • Lesson-Completion Checklists: short surveys to help assess teacher and counselor fidelity to suggested implementation
  • Lesson Reflection Logs: guidance to help staff consider how their teaching is going
  • Post-Implementation Survey: briefly reviews the full range of implementation readiness and actual implementation
  • Summative 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
  • Formative Assessments: writing prompts and Home Link activities are among the lesson features that help educators regularly track what students are learning and assess when a lesson might need to be reinforced

School educators and administrators have shared that they particularly like the summative assessments because not much class time is needed (~5-10 minutes), yet they provide enough information for schools to evaluate progress and identify areas for improvement.

Our customers have different reasons for wanting to evaluate the Second Step Program, from providing required data to investors to satisfying the inquiring parents and community members. For those who are not trained in program evaluation, we’ve put together a guide to help you better understand the type of information that can be useful, how to gather it, and what to do with evaluation findings. GET THE GUIDE [PDF]

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 the Second Step Program is influencing their students and school. But results can be misleading, so it’s important to carefully review all dynamics at play.

For example, we know from years of evaluating data that reported behavior incidents, such as bullying, can fluctuate throughout the year. 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; rigorous research has shown that effective bullying prevention works best as part of holistic social-emotional learning effort. (Read our “Bullying Prevention in Schools Starts with Social-Emotional Learning” white paper to learn more.)

One of our clients wanted to know how the Second Step SEL Program was contributing to their steady improvements in school climate reports. It’s very likely that the Second Step Program 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 the Second Step Program, 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 the Second Step Program, 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 the Second Step Program. Surveying teachers pre- and post-implementation and completing summative knowledge assessments is a practical way 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.

Download Samples of Evaluation Tools

K-5 Implementation Preparedness Survey [PDF]
K-5 Implementation Survey [PDF]

Learn More

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