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How the assessment of social skills helped this New York school

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The struggle to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic uncertainty.

Educators and families agreed: students will need help in social and emotional adaptation to return to class this year in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

But one of New York City’s plans to do this – using a questionnaire called the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, or DESSA, at each school – quickly met with an unpleasant reaction. Educators, already overwhelmed by efforts to meet the needs of students in the pandemic era, worried that it was time consuming, and feared that they could not accurately answer questions about students they hardly knew at the beginning of the year. Some concerned parents abandoned their children.

Brooklyn Director Kira Soares can tell.

She also struggled to figure out how her school could use DESSA to help its students of the Institute of Mathematics and Young Women Science Urban Assembly.

That was over five years ago.

Assessment is now imbued with school culture, and Saares and her counselors say it has been an integral part of preparing students for success – both in school and out of class. But it took time and resources to figure out how to change school culture to make the tool useful, which raises questions about how easily other schools can replicate their model when classes are still rocked by a pandemic.

“It wasn’t smooth,” Saares said. “You can just deploy estimates and expect them to be useful if you don’t have the time and energy.”

“Skills that underlie a child’s success”

This year, New York City required each school to administer a questionnaire through a three-year $ 18 million contract with Aperture, an educational technology company.

The Urban Assembly Network, a nonprofit group that supports 23 schools across New York City, including the Institute of Mathematics and Science, has been using DESSA for several years to address the social well-being of students.

Schools use a version of the validation tool, which consists of 43 questions answered by educators about their students ’social skills, such as decision-making, self-awareness, and personal responsibility.

Socio-emotional learning, or SEL, has recently gained weight across the country as an important part of what students need to learn in school. But lately, the approach is wrapped up in hot fights related to issues of social justice.

Brendan Frame, director of socio-emotional learning at the Urban Assembly, says people’s skepticism is often due to a misunderstanding of what socio-emotional learning is. He stressed that it focuses on building the skills and attitudes needed by students to navigate life in the classroom and beyond: for example, by teaching them how to set and achieve goals.

“There is no community I go to and they say I don’t want my child to develop [these] skills, ”Frame said.“ It’s the skills that students need to be successful that ultimately impact our communities. ”

Saares said it was also helpful to understand what DESSA was no. She stressed that this is not an indicator of a student’s mental health. For example, it will not help diagnose or treat depression.

“We are looking for the social emotional skills that underlie a child’s success. Like, I don’t want my teachers to be advisors. I have consultants, I have teachers, ”she said.

“But I want my teachers to help children, plan, manage time, set priorities, learn to listen, speak respectfully, watch who speaks when they talk. These are basic skills that help them be successful in their studies. This is what DESSA is looking for, ”she said.

Consulting teams and relationships

The refinement of the approach at the Institute of Mathematics and Natural Sciences took years, and also relied on the support of the Urban Assembly network.

Teachers are responsible for sending questionnaires only to students during their counseling period, which is usually a smaller class of about 15 people.

This solves several problems: reducing the amount of time teachers spend filling out DESSA, and making sure that an adult who knows the students well answers detailed questions about students ’behavior, attitudes, and abilities.

The results are then analyzed by an advisory group, addressing one of the biggest problems it says Suarez faced when they first implemented DESSA: what to do with all this data.

She believes the advisory team consists of 14 people with a counselor, a social worker, college counselors, several deans and a stable of interns from local universities.

Team members check the results for deviations or deviations. Saares said that sometimes teachers evaluate all their students as those who are struggling, or, conversely, report that they are all doing exceptionally well. Neither one nor the other is useful because it is unlikely. In this way, the team combines the results with what they know about each student individually, and works with teachers to decide what skills students need to work on, or where they are already strong.

With the results coming to the color dashboard, the advisory group creates small groups of students. They intentionally bring together students who are struggling with those who possess the same skills, hoping they will learn from each other.

“Sometimes we adults aren’t always that close,” said Jennifer Jackson Robbins, a school counselor at the school. “But if you have peers who say,‘ That’s what I went through, that’s how I handled it – or the way I wish I handled it, ’I think it says more about students ».

They meet during the “training lab” – essentially the period of the classroom that Saares created this year to allow students to work independently, a skill that many had to strengthen during distance learning last year, and one that Saares does not want to students lost earlier to go to college if it will be valuable. This period also creates space for students to work on socio-emotional learning skills without wasting valuable time studying in their core subjects.

Small groups gather together for about 30 minutes once a week, for five to eight weeks. University interns play a key role in leading small groups led by the curriculum and professionals on the school counseling team.

Support also comes from the Urban Assembly network. Frame, director of social and emotional learning, has a team of professionals who visit schools, conduct training sessions and help principals understand the information gathered through DESSA.

A data-driven approach

When Robbins thinks about the value of small groups, she thinks of one student who worked with her peers on decision-making skills. Earlier this year, a student left the classroom or refused to sit in her seat, sparking a stream of emails from Robbins from the girl’s teachers. Now these letters have become less.

Marnie Brand, the school’s social worker, reflects on other students who have moved from not being able to visual contact with their classmates to planning activities for senior classes.

Before using DESSA, knowing whether a counseling team is affected often meant relying on similar anecdotes. Trying to find out who needed help meant pulling out snippets of data from everywhere – records of visits, journals of discipline, recommendations from teachers.

Now they can look at the dashboard and cross out the data from the questionnaires with what they know about the students. DESSA is re-administered several times a year to track progress.

“For a long time it was like,‘ Are we helping people? How do we know? “Brand said.” It’s important for us to see how your work affects students. “

Christina Weig is a reporter covering New York schools with a focus on the diversity of schools and preschools. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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