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Top 5 Themes from Educators about Social and Emotional Learning

In January 2019, ACT offered an opportunity to participate in the first-ever ACT Social and Emotional Learning Journey Program, offering schools and districts an opportunity to receive free ACT® Tessera® assessments. We asked if we could share their feedback regarding their experience.

The view from inside schools is clear: social and emotional learning isn’t an option, it’s a must-have. We are pleased to summarize the top five themes from this Journey experience.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program


We've seen a huge increase in need for SEL in our school. In order for students to learn academically, they must be prepared socially and emotionally to learn. In order to address these issues, we need to develop a baseline of data to know if what we do is helping in this area. We test academics but currently have no instrument to assess SEL.

When we launched the ACT Social and Emotional Learning Journey program offer, we didn’t anticipate the overwhelming interest in the program. Within the first week, more than 100 applications had poured in. To date, 400+ schools have applied—with impassioned urgency—to participate in this program. Not only are we excited that so many educators recognize the importance of social and emotional learning, but we are also excited to read about what educators hope to accomplish using an assessment like ACT Tessera.

On the application form for the program, respondents were asked to share their thoughts about why they wished to participate in the program. This sample set of hundreds of educators—principals and counselors, mostly—provides a powerful window into the thoughts and concerns of those working closest with our young people.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program


SEL is a cornerstone of our program and firmly believe in the relationship between SEL and academics. We are enhancing our program and need to find ways to track data points. We firmly believe that when students feel safe and supported, the academic achievement will follow. Students in crisis cannot learn.

My goal is to help each student become the best version of their self. We have wonderful students here who come from all different backgrounds and families. I want students to realize that their current situation does not define their future; they have the power and tools to do whatever they choose.

Heartfelt, anxious, empathetic, savvy, and optimistic, these mini-essays reveal in the aggregate certain key themes about the priorities for improvement perceived in middle and high schools across the United States. What are folks in the field focused on?

1. Improving engagement, motivation, focus, and participation in school. 

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program

We need to find ways to engage and motivate students, and we need to start with where they are. This is a great way to find out about each student- where they are and what needs to happen to improve their motivation and engagement.

About one in five (18%), respondents were looking to use ACT Tessera to build student engagement and motivation, and another 13% said they see the program as a vehicle for improving attendance. SEL programs can be very valuable in promoting student openness to new learning and goal-setting that connects their current activities to their long-term ambitions.

2. Enhancing student social skills and relationships with each other and adults, and doing so in a way that strengthens school safety and community.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program

Implementing Tessera will help improve our school climate and culture by fostering positive relationships between our students, teachers, and parents.

We want our school to feel like a family.
About a quarter of all responses put the greatest emphasis on helping students get along better with each other and with their teachers and saw improved relationships as the key to a school culture that is safer for all. Increasingly, researchers and policymakers are seeing the intertwined dynamic by which student SEL skills and positive school climate are mutually reinforcing. ACT Tessera provides a great view into student teamwork skills, and rich curricular resources for improving them.

3. Developing student skills in the critical domains of resilience—including self-regulation, stress management and coping skills, and conscientiousness—including grit, goal-setting and perseverance.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program

We have noticed that our high school students often lack the perseverance and grit necessary to follow through in the classroom and community, thus reducing their opportunities for post-high school careers and education.
One in six submissions stated the primary motivation was to develop specific intra-personal skills in students and to make the connections between these personal competencies and success in school and workforce. They are right to do so: researchers are finding a widening gap between the skills employers seek and employees possess, a gap that is limiting economic opportunities for businesses and individuals alike.

4. Using data to guide school efforts in improving SEL programs generally, and in supporting students individually.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program

The tenets of continuous school improvement are part of what we try to do on a daily basis.

We are able to desegregate data to help ALL students.

Data from this assessment will be used to support our own SEL plans, inform guidance and other support personnel, and help mold interventions.

Most educators by now are entirely familiar with the practice of data-driven instructional improvement, but by and large, this practice has been limited exclusively to academic achievement and not addressed the whole child. Several applicants (about 15%) were excited about the opportunity to bring data to student and school improvement efforts more broadly.

5. Launching new advisory or SEL-specific courses and programs to promote student growth.

Your Feedback on the SEL Journey Program
Our high school recently made a big change to our overall bell schedule to include 30 minutes at the start of each day. This 30 minutes is a time for our teachers to build a relationship with their assigned 12-13 students. They do activities together and share discussion questions. It is our hope to keep building upon this time and continue to make it better each year so that they feel safe and capable of creating a great life! I would love more resources in order to make this happen for our students!
Though a bit less frequently mentioned than the other bulleted items here (about 7%), it is nonetheless exciting to see how many schools are taking the initiative to implement dedicated time and space for SEL in the middle and high schools. It’s not enough to say we’re going to try to improve classroom environment or integrate it into academics. Students will do best when at least some time is protected and directed to the cultivation of these competencies. As demonstrated in these elaborations, educators see ACT Tessera as a valuable resource they can use inside advisory or SEL-centered class-time.

On behalf of all of us at ACT, thank you to those who took the time to submit these fascinating applications: you are doing some of the very hardest, and very most important work for our youth—and through them, for our society.

Learn more about the ACT Social and Emotional Learning Journey Program and how to measure social and emotional skills.


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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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