Measures of SEL and School Climate in California

Taylor N. Allbright
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Heather J. Hough
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University


California’s CORE districts—a consortium of eight school districts serving a racially and socioeconomically diverse population of over one million students—since 2014 have led the way in deploying measures of social and emotional learning (SEL) and school climate and culture. Influenced by surging interest and research support over the past decade, these districts have collected data in hopes of continuously improving how their K–12 schools address the social and emotional dimensions of student development.

In recent years, many advocates have called for schools to pay greater attention to holistic aspects of schooling, arguing for whole-child education, attention to noncognitive factors, and programming to support student SEL. Pointing to research showing that social-emotional competencies are strong predictors of academic and career success, many have suggested that a greater focus on student social-emotional development will translate to higher academic achievement and a reduction in racial and socioeconomic outcome gaps.

Others have called for attention to SEL for its own sake, arguing that these competencies support individual and collective well-being. Still others have questioned whether the SEL conversation obscures larger systemic forces that contribute to educational inequity or perpetuates deficit-based views of students of color.

In parallel, many advocates have argued for increased attention to school climate and culture, suggesting that a school environment characterized by healthy relationships and a strong sense of belonging will contribute to students’ overall well-being as well as their academic success. Others have noted that factors such as educators’ implicit bias and inadequate resources may contribute to hostile climates in schools serving low-income communities of color.

Moreover, leading researchers have suggested that attention to school culture and climate may be key in reducing exclusionary discipline, particularly in schools serving Black, Latinx, and Native American youth. This connection is particularly important as research shows that the constructs of SEL and school culture/climate may also be interrelated. A school environment characterized by safety and belonging may be better at promoting students’ social-emotional development. Meanwhile, students with strong social-emotional skills may be better able to build the positive relationships necessary for a strong school climate.

Practitioners and policymakers across several states have supported initiatives to further more holistic approaches to education. For example, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) reported that it is collaborating with over 30 states and one U.S. territory to implement SEL supports such as standards and implementation guidance. Many other districts have adopted SEL-specific curricula, behavior management, and disciplinary reforms, or instituted professional development on topics such as trauma-informed practices, all with the intention of addressing students’ SEL, schools’ climate and culture, or both.

California’s CORE Districts first developed SEL and school climate measures for use in their shared accountability system under a waiver of No Child Left Behind regulations. When the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) rendered the waiver moot, the districts elected to continue collecting these data.

Through a collaborative process involving teachers, school and district administrators, and SEL and school climate experts, the CORE districts created survey instruments for student self-reports of four SEL competencies: growth mind-set, self-efficacy, self-management, and social awareness. The climate and culture survey was developed in a similar fashion, modifying and building from existing California state surveys to measure student, staff, and parent perceptions of the school’s support for academic learning, connectedness and belonging, knowledge and fairness of rules and discipline, and school safety.

This article was originally published in the State Education Standard by the National Association of State Boards of Education and the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC).

Suggested citationAllbright, T. A., & Hough, H. J. (2020, May). Measures of SEL and school climate in California [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.