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September 22, 2021

Social-Emotional Learning and Suicide Prevention in Schools: Part 3

Dr. Lori Vollandt

Supporting social-emotional learning (SEL) is a way for schools to create healthy environments for students and provide them with lifelong skills for successfully navigating life’s challenges. For Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we’re sharing advice from Dr. Lori Vollandt in this 4-part series about how SEL is an important part of suicide prevention. Learn how the two in tandem can safeguard students from becoming vulnerable and at risk in the first place.

Dr. Vollandt is an education leadership expert with over 30 years experience in education and 15 years at the district level. She is currently the Coordinator of Health Education Programs for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the nation.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

How can schools assess their SEL efforts and measure impact?

Primary Approaches to Implementation

There are two common approaches to implementing social-emotional learning: 

1. Utilizing formal SEL curricula or manual programs

2. Working to integrate support for student social-emotional competence throughout the school day

These two approaches complement each other, and the most efficacious approach is perhaps a combination of the two, but they do differ when it comes to assessment.

Tracking What's Actually Happening

One aspect of SEL assessment that primarily applies to the first implementation approach of utilizing formal SEL curricula is tracking and measuring implementation metrics. Research shows that SEL programs are most effective when students receive all, or close to all, of the planned program lessons or content. By tracking how many lessons are actually taught, schools can check whether any disappointing outcome data could simply be due to students not receiving a sufficient dose of the curriculum. A program cannot be expected to work if it's not delivered.

Immediate Competencies Versus Long-Term Outcomes

There are two key categories to measure how well SEL efforts are working:

  1. Improvements in social-emotional competencies
  2. Positive outcomes

Measuring student social-emotional competencies allows schools to assess the content and skills that SEL initiatives teach students. These elements may include direct impacts such as improved empathy, emotion management, self-awareness, or impulse control. Schools can also measure changes in student competencies as a way to gauge program impact. That data can be used formatively to help schools shape and improve SEL efforts as they are applied.

Outcomes are the changes in student attitudes and behavior we hope will result from improving student social-emotional competencies, such as greater school connectedness, better peer relationships, less problem behavior, fewer disciplinary referrals, etc. 

Many school districts look at data from the School Experience Survey for both formative and summative assessments of their SEL efforts. Survey results provide schools with important feedback from teachers, staff, students and parents.

Responsible decision-making is a core SEL competency. To help improve this skill, schools can provide opportunities for students to influence school decision-making  through expanded learning time, after school, or during class. To assess this SEL competency, questions could be asked and answers checked every few weeks to see if the survey results were shifted by the actions taken. This targeted short-term assessment can help schools see if they are moving toward their goals without waiting a year for a survey to take place.

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Giving Students a Voice in SEL Assessments

Another effective way to actively engage students is to share anonymous data with them regarding SEL competencies and empower them to use that data to make recommendations to improve the school's SEL programs. This approach adds another dimension to SEL instruction by empowering students to have a voice in improving SEL competencies and outcomes within their school community, while learning in tandem how to assess these core competencies and objectives.

Resources for SEL Assessments

The field of SEL assessment is growing rapidly and the number of assessment tools is large and increasing:

  • CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) – A useful resource for SEL research, policy, and assessments.
  • Panorama Education – A widely used SEL assessment service that includes surveys on a range of SEL-related topics and provides schools with an excellent user-friendly data-dashboard. 
  • The Devereux Student Strengths Assessment – A standardized, behavior rating scale measuring the social and emotional competencies of children in kindergarten through 12th grade. 
  • The Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scales (SSIS) – A set of rating scales that address the need for an evidence-based, multi-tiered assessment and intervention system to help students develop, improve, and maintain important social skills. 
  • The Social-Emotional Assets and Resilience Scale (SEARS) – Focusing on a child's strengths, the SEARS can be used with children and adolescents who exhibit a variety of clinical problems or who are at high risk for developing such problems. 

Criteria for Finding a High-Quality SEL Program

One way to ensure quality SEL programming is to look for evidence-based programs supported by research and evaluations that document positive impacts on student behavior and/or academic performance. High quality, evidence-based programs should demonstrate effectiveness in at least one evaluation that includes a comparison group, and pre and post measurements. 

Other important factors for SEL effectiveness include:

Enthusiastic buy-in from school staff. Programs that are not widely embraced and not implemented well cannot work. 

Ongoing training and implementation support. As CASEL adeptly points out, “From our experience, the quality of [SEL] program implementation is also a function of how prepared schools are when they adopt an SEL program, the extent to which all staff members are involved in that decision, and whether or not there is real commitment to training and implementation support.”

Resources to guide selection of effective programs and practices are becoming more common as SEL becomes a larger part of the education landscape. An easily accessible example is the CASEL Guide to Effective Social-Emotional Learning Programs, offering both a Preschool and Elementary Edition and a Middle and High School Edition.

Tips for School Site SEL Implementation

Below are a few best practices I've found to be essential to successful school site SEL implementation:

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel: One helpful approach to rolling out an effective SEL program is to look at what other schools are already doing and build upon those programs and practices. This can help administrators introduce the skills and outcomes that SEL addresses to staff, which allows them to see the connections. Start small with some visible successes. Small changes can have big impacts and yield greater outcomes in improving social connectedness and inclusion in your school community.

Coordinate School-Wide Events that Support SEL: Coordinating school-wide events, like Character Day, that support and advance the goals of SEL programming, can set the stage for making connections as well as help communicate that social-emotional learning is a priority and vital to the welfare of the entire school community.

Take Pause to Assess Effectiveness: Often the problem is not lack of SEL resources; the problem is that teachers and site administrators are overwhelmed and do not always have the time to reflect upon what they are doing and how it supports SEL implementation. 

Create a SEL School Team: A strong suggestion would be to create a designated team focused on integrating SEL into the school day. Ensure this team represents a broad spectrum of the school community, potentially including: students, teachers, administrators, mental health professionals, and parents.

Resources to Support SEL and School Culture

Here are some free resources that can be used to support your SEL program's success, while also bolstering school culture and climate:

Character Day: A day where students, families, and educators from around the world screen films to spark dialogue around character education. Character Day can help improve social and school connectedness, while supporting character education and SEL programs.

Start with Hello Week: Sandy Hook Promise, founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, developed Start with Hello Week. Start with Hello asks students, educators, parents, and other school community leaders to take steps in class, the lunchroom, or on the bus to create a culture of inclusiveness and connectedness.

No One Eats Alone Day: A nationwide student-led lunchtime event that teaches everyone(including school administrators, teachers, and parents) how to make friends at lunch, often the most difficult part of the school day. Created and organized by students, No One Eats Alone Day takes place at schools in all 50 states.

Changing Minds Now: Changing Minds Now offers resources for educators, school staff, and caring adults to help children who have been exposed to traumatic stress heal and thrive.


If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feeling hopeless, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

This segment is one part of a series on SEL and Suicide Prevention in Schools being released throughout Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Read Part 4, the final chapter, of the series.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Suicide among youth.  
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). QuickStats: Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15-19 Years, by Sex – United States, 1975-2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 66, 816. DOI:
  3. CASEL. What is SEL?
  4. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. Wyman, P. A. (2014). Developmental Approach to Prevent Adolescent Suicides: Research Pathways to Effective Upstream Preventive Interventions. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 47(3 0 2), S251–S256.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Risk and Protective Factors.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Strategic direction for the prevention of suicidal behavior: Promoting individual, family, and community connectedness to prevent suicidal behavior.
  8. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432.
  9. Bridge, J. A., Reynolds, B., McBee-Strayer, S. M., Sheftall, A. H., Ackerman, J., Stevens, J., ... Brent, D. A. (2015). Impulsive Aggression, Delay Discounting, and Adolescent Suicide Attempts: Effects of Current Psychotropic Medication Use and Family History of Suicidal Behavior. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 25(2), 114–123.
  10. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  11. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The impact of enhancing students' social and emo- tional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432.
  12. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  13. Wyman, P. A. (2014). Developmental Approach to Prevent Adolescent Suicides: Research Pathways to Effective Upstream Preventive Interventions. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 47(3 0 2), S251–S256. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2014.05.039
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Risk and Protective Factors.
  15. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Pro- grams, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  16. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  17. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  18. Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  19. Whitlock, J., Wyman, P.A., & Moore, S.R. (2014). Connectedness and suicide prevention in adolescents: Pathways and implications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 44(3), 246-272
  20. Kataoka, S. H., Zhang, L., & Wells, K. B. (2002). Unmet need for mental health care among U.S. children: Variation by ethnicity and insurance status. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(9), 1548-1555.
  21. School Mental Health Services in the United States. (2006).
  22. Whitlock, J., Wyman, P.A., & Moore, S.R. (2014). Connectedness and suicide prevention in adolescents: Pathways and implications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 44(3), 246-272
  23. Shasha, V. J., Ojakia, M., Lenoi, L., Lopez, J. (2017). K-12 Toolkit for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention.
  24. Jennings, P. A., Frank, J. L., Snowberg, K. E., Coccia, M. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2013). Improving classroom learning environments by Culti- vating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE): Results of a randomized controlled trial. School Psychology Quarterly, 28(4), 374

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