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Evidence-Based SEL Assessment Tool Highlights Students’ Strengths

Student at a deskFalmouth Public Schools is committed to excellence and equity for every student, every day. Our commitment starts with the belief that all students can learn and relies on strong Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is the process through which all students develop knowledge and skills to manage emotions and make responsible decisions, which, in turn, allows them to strengthen the Clipper Experience.

One SEL tool we use is the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) screener. The purpose of DESSA is to identify which social and emotional skills each child has already learned and what skills they might still need to develop. The impact has already been seen in how educators plan instruction, identify students’ strengths and areas for growth, inform progress monitoring, and evaluate outcomes.  Dr. Joan Woodward, the district’s Director of Student Services, states, “The DESSA allows the district to review data over time to better assess and meet the SEL needs of all of our students.”

Directly aligned to the CASEL Framework, DESSA is a nationally standardized, strength-based behavior rating scale that assesses the social and emotional competence of students K-12. It has been used by school districts across the country to support social and emotional learning, and has been evaluated in 130+ peer-reviewed studies.

Because DESSA is entirely strength-based, it focuses on positive student behaviors (e.g., getting along with others) rather than what are considered more negative behaviors (e.g., annoying others). For each behavior, the rater (commonly a teacher or a counselor) indicates a rating from a five-point scale to record how often the student engaged in that behavior over the previous four weeks. 

DESSA questions address the following eight key social and emotional competency domains from the CASEL Framework: 

  1. social awareness

  2. self awareness

  3. relationship skills

  4. self management

  5. goal directed behavior

  6. decision making

  7. optimistic thinking

  8. personal responsibility  

DESSA scores can be used to pinpoint each child’s specific strengths and opportunities for growth within each of these domains and guide the development of strategies to promote each.

This assessment is conducted three times each year to students in grades K-12. For grades K-8, teachers assess students using the DESSA-mini, which consists of 8 questions and takes around 1 minute per student to complete. For grades 9-12, students rate themselves using the DESSA High School Edition Student Self-Rating (HSE-SSR), which is 55 questions and takes around 5-7 minutes for each to complete.

The screener is intended to personalize our understanding of what students have experienced so that we can provide personalized supports and programming that we know all students will require. The questions we are trying to answer are: Which areas of students’ social-emotional development require additional support and attention? Where are students struggling? What are student strengths and how can we further develop them?

The information collected through the screeners is used to inform the implementation of our tiered system of social-emotional support in our schools. It will be used to inform how universal, preventive social and emotional supports are offered and identify individual students who may require additional support.