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Before we try to measure their skills, let’s assess the environment in which they are learning

This post was first published on the CASEL Measuring SEL Blog on 6th February, 2019.

Like many teachers, I focus the assessment in my classroom on formative as well as summative measurements of what my students can do. While I am interested in the knowledge they have gained following a five week mathematics program for example, I pay just as much, if not more attention to the knowledge my students bring with them to the classroom on the first day. By taking care to understand what I must build upon, I can ensure that my students develop in the most efficient manner possible.

The same perspective applies to the measurement of social and emotional development. In my role as both a classroom teacher and consultant, I see schools introduce social and emotional learning programs with the best of intentions, aiming to increase the wellbeing and resilience of their students through explicit instruction. In order for this to be effective, they must pay attention to the pedagogy they are utilising to ensure that the messages they are teaching are translated into practice. Is it sufficient, for example, to merely teach students resilience strategies or about positive relationships, or do they need to be nurtured in a certain type of environment for these skills to be transferable?

We could make a pretty accurate prediction of how well social and emotional skills will be understood and translated into practice by the kids if we look first at how well their psychological needs are being supported in the classroom. Thus, when measuring SEL, we should not only be assessing the skills students have gleaned from SEL interventions but also the environments in which they are being taught. This way, we will have the information we need to create really successful programs that cover both the content of SEL programs as well as the pedagogy that should be utilised to go with it.

In my research as well as my own classroom, I use self-determination theory (SDT) as a framework with which I can measure my actions. SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000) is a theory that emerged through extensive studies of social and psychological determinants of intrinsic motivation, wellbeing, personality, interest, and developmental processes. The theory links wellbeing with three primary human needs—autonomy (students’ perceived agency and control), competence (students’ belief they can meet the demands of their schoolwork), and relatedness (students’ feelings of security, belonging and attachment) (Shankland & Rosset, 2017, Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). SDT is used as a theoretical basis for how a classroom environment should be managed because it targets students’ intrinsic motivation. Students are fundamentally curious, interested creatures who have a natural love of learning (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). It is this natural desire to want to learn that educators should be making use of in order to better the chances that students will internalize the social and emotional skills and use them in their everyday lives.

This is important for teachers because they are the main actors in providing supportive learning environments in terms of all these three basic needs for the students. The implication for the measurement of SEL is that we should be assessing the degree to which the three psychological needs are supported in the classroom before focusing in on specific skills.

Measuring SEL in terms of the environmental factors supporting students’ autonomy, relatedness and competence seems reasonable, as long as there are clear guidelines for what practices constitute needed support. This will vary from context to context, indeed from student to student, though some universal strategies do exist. Examples of autonomy supportive teaching strategies include taking the students’ perspective, creating opportunities for students’ input and initiative, providing explanatory rationales for teacher requests and acknowledging students’ negative affect as reasonable, for example “it’s okay to be sad sometimes” (Cheon, Reeve, Lee & Lee, 2018). Students’ feelings of competence can be supported through activities that are optimally challenging, i.e. are sufficiently differentiated to their ability level, allowing them to test and expand their abilities (Niemic & Ryan, 2009). Finally, psychological relatedness is associated with the students’ feeling that the teacher genuinely likes him or her (Niemic & Ryan, 2009), while connections with peers can be promoted through cooperative learning activities (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

Having established a needs supportive environment within the school with use of the above strategies, SEL should be fostered through explicit teaching via a targeted program. In addition, these skills should be developed through discussion of and reference to the core SEL competencies such as kindness or courage throughout everyday communication (Jacobs & Renandya, 2016).

So what does this mean for teachers on the ground? I have a note on my desk that reminds my of my priorities when I am writing my programs or organising my classroom. “To what degree does this support autonomy, competence and relatedness?” If I measure my classroom management by asking myself these questions, I can be confident that I am promoting SEL across the board, from my academic programs through to the way I talk to the students.



Cheon, S. H., Reeve, J., Lee, Y., & Lee, J. W. (2018). Why autonomy-supportive interventions work: Explaining the professional development of teachers’ motivating style. Teaching and Teacher Education69, 43-51.

Jacobs, G. M., & Renandya, W. A. (2017). Using positive education to enliven the teaching of reading. RELC Journal: A Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 48(2), 256-263.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational researcher38(5), 365-379.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. School Field7(2), 133-144.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology25(1), 54-67.

Shankland, R., & Rosset, E. (2017). Review of brief school-based positive psychological interventions: a taster for teachers and educators. Educational Psychology Review, 29(2), 363-392.

Rose Pennington