How to Make Use of SEL Data

By Jill McVey & Kate Walton

Think about all the ways that you use student data in your school or classroom. Imagine you are a 4th grade teacher and consider the following example. On last spring’s summative assessment, Xavier scored in the 80th percentile in math, but you notice that while he excels at performing algorithms, he still needs to work on his number sense. He is great at working with other students in the classroom, but you try not to pair him with Jacob because they tend to get too silly and lose focus on the work when they’re together. Overall, your class is progressing well in math this year. The formative assessment about fractions you gave at the end of yesterday’s lesson showed that most of the class is grasping the content, but there are a few students who may need some additional support, so you plan to work with them in a small group later today.

In that short description, there are at least eight data points for the teacher to consider:

  1. Xavier scored in 80th percentile
  2. Xavier excels at performing algorithms
  3. Xavier struggles with number sense
  4. Xavier works well with others in general
  5. Xavier should not be paired with Jacob because they act silly
  6. The class is progressing well in math
  7. Most of the class is doing well with fractions
  8. A small number of students need additional help with fractions

That is a lot to consider and may be overwhelming! Teachers and administrators are inundated with data, from academic data to personal information to running records. You want to get an answer on something, but when seemingly every point of data is cataloged, it’s hard to know where to begin. Add social emotional learning (SEL) data into the mix, and you may be ready to throw up your hands in defeat. Fortunately, the same process can be used to examine your data, whether academic or SEL, and this post will guide you through each step.

Steps to take to make use of your data

Step 1: Determine what kind of data you have  

The type of data you have will vary depending on the survey or assessment you used. Some examples of data types include averages, percentiles, scaled scores, percentages, and frequencies. Determine how your data are represented, so you know how best to interpret the results. For example, Mosaic by ACT SEL assessment (formerly ACT Tessera) uses percentiles to show students’ SEL skills and percentages in the school climate indicators. Most assessments have guides or manuals to help you understand and use your results, so this may be a good place to start.

Step 2: Determine what information can be gleaned from the data and what the limitations are

It’s important to keep in mind that all data have limitations, so understanding the scope of the data is necessary to make the best use of your results. For example, you wouldn’t expect a reading test to give you information about a student’s math ability. Likewise, the results of a social and emotional skill assessment should not be expected to tell you everything there is to know about that student’s social and emotional development. It should, however, give you a snapshot of that student’s social and emotional competencies at the time of testing, which can help you make decisions about next steps, such as what kinds of SEL programming would be most appropriate for the student.

Step 3: Formulate questions

Once you understand what kind of data you have and what kind of information they can provide, you can begin to formulate questions. These questions will depend on what kind of data you have as well as issues specific to your school or classroom. Questions that are clearly defined will provide you with more actionable data. Take a look at the table below for examples of general and specific questions. Notice that answering the specific questions can guide you to more actionable strategies than the general questions. It’s fine to start with general questions but refining them as you dive deeper into the data analysis process will help you more deeply understand the information you have.

General QuestionsSpecific Questions
What is our school climate like?What percentage of our 8th grade students report feeling safe at school?
Did students improve their SEL skills this year?Which SEL skills showed growth from fall to spring? Does this pattern vary by grade level?
Is our SEL program working?Did the skills addressed in our SEL program show growth after the intervention? If so, in which students?

Step 4: Look for trends

Examining data closely can allow you to see trends or patterns that you might otherwise miss. For example, you might notice striking differences in SEL competencies between different grade levels. Or you may see that certain groups of students tend to score lower or higher in particular social and emotional competencies. Pay attention to trends in your data, particularly ones that persist over time, as these are usually worth a deeper dive to understand what the issue may be and how it can be addressed if needed.

Special considerations when examining your SEL data

For Teachers

As a teacher, your primary role with student data is probably specific to the students you have in your class(es). You will want to examine your students’ SEL data individually and as a group. Looking at students’ individual data can give you a sense of their strengths and areas where they need support, and the data can help validate or collaborate your observations in the classroom. You should also examine the results of your class as a whole – are there any particular areas where most or all of your students need support? Just as you plan for instruction using academic data, SEL data can provide you with a starting point for adding SEL into the classroom, whether it’s infused throughout your day or as part of an SEL curriculum.

For Administrators

As an administrator, more often than not, you need to consider the “big picture” when it comes to data. You will want to examine students’ SEL data by classroom, grade level, and school. This will allow you to see any trends or disparities that exist in your data and help measure student progress. Ideally, SEL data and strategies to help students develop social and emotional skills should be addressed collaboratively among staff members, perhaps in a PLC setting. Measuring SEL data should be done to help ensure that all students receive the support they need to be successful. It should not be used in a high-stakes or punitive way. Providing an atmosphere that is welcoming of social and emotional skill development will help set the tone for collaboration. Student progress and personal success should be the goal – not perfection.

In summary

Analyzing SEL data can be a valuable exercise that provides the information your school needs to help answer questions related to things like student social and emotional skill development or school climate needs. Having a process and plan for analyzing the data will help you use it most effectively and determine the next steps on your journey of continuous improvement.

Jill McVey, PhD

Jill McVey, PhD

Jill McVey is a research scientist In ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Research Methods and Statistics at the University of Denver. Her primary research interests are in education, particularly the impact that social and emotional skills have on academic achievement.