A Look at Subgroup Differences in Social Emotional Skill Development

As we’ve spoken about in previous posts, social emotional (SE) skills are incredibly important for a host of outcomes, such as improved academic performance, lower dropout rates, good conduct in school, and workplace success. While all students naturally have some degree of SE skills, an obvious question is whether there are any discernable differences between different groups of students. Today’s schools serve a wide range of diverse students from varying backgrounds, and these students all differ in their abilities and motivations for learning. Given this, it’s important to consider how SE skills might develop for students from different subgroups. Students with lower degrees of SE skills are at greater risk of disengagement, poor achievement, and dropout. Knowing which students may be at the greatest risk helps inform how we target our interventions.

We turned to data from our social emotional skills assessment, ACT® Tessera®, to answer whether students from different subgroups differ in levels of SE skills. Tessera measures five key skills: Sustaining Effort, Getting Along with Others, Maintaining Composure, Keeping an Open Mind, and Social Connection. Our findings are based on a subset of middle school and high school students who took Tessera[1] during the 2018-2019 academic school year. We looked at students who identified as male vs. female and students who identified as White or Asian vs. an underrepresented minority group. The underrepresented minority group included students who identified as any racial or ethnic group other than White or Asian. Below are some of our key findings regarding subgroup differences for SE skills.


Gender Differences: Female and male middle school students had significantly different scores on all Tessera social emotional skills, with females scoring higher on all skills. As for differences that persisted into high school, females scored significantly higher on Sustaining Effort, Getting Along with Others, and Keeping an Open Mind. Males scored higher on Maintaining Composure, and no significant difference was seen for Social Connection. These findings are generally in line with other research findings for gender differences in SE skills during adolescence.


Race/Ethnicity Differences: Generally speaking, middle school and high school students in the underrepresented minority group scored higher on all Tessera SE skills than White students; however, these findings were only statistically significant for Keeping an Open Mind. This is consistent with other research showing very few (if any) differences in SE skills between students of different races/ethnicities.


Where Should We Go from Here?

As our findings show, there are some differences between male and female students, but we don’t see many significant differences between minority and nonminority students (and those we see tend to benefit students from minority groups). So what can we do about the male vs. female differences? These differences between male and female students can be seen as part of the normal maturation process. Perhaps one way to approach this is to simply acknowledge, understand, and monitor these differences. Alternatively, interventions can be an effective way of closing these gaps and increasing SE skills for all students.

Although we aren’t seeing many subgroup differences for SE skills, it is typical to observe greater subgroup differences on standardized achievement tests than on social emotional skills assessments. Achievement tests and grades are often used to predict many important outcomes; however, we tend to see subgroup differences arise in these measurements. SE skills give us a way to predict outcomes like academic success and dropout rates without needing to account for these differences in our conclusions. Plus, knowing that increasing SE skills can bolster grades and standardized test scores, we can leverage SEL interventions to close the gap. It is, therefore, critical that we continue to prioritize SEL and look for opportunities to integrate it into core school curricula.

It is interesting to note that while we didn’t generally see subgroup differences in school climate ratings in the current research (i.e., perceptions of things such as emotional/physical safety and relationships with school personnel), other research has shown lower climate ratings for minority students. This is important because school climate has been linked to several significant outcomes in schools (self-esteem, psychological well-being, absenteeism, and suspension, to name a few). More research is needed on these differences, but in the meantime, interventions can work to address this by creating a support network within the school and communicating to students that they are seen, heard, and cared for.

[1] Labels for each skill referenced in the Tessera technical manual have changed over time, but the construct definitions remain the same. Additional information can be found on how these skill labels map to the CASEL and Big Five frameworks.

Melissa Albert

Melissa Albert

Research Assistant, ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Research