How Competency-Based Learning Supports Social and Emotional Learning

We are in the midst of a groundswell of interest in, and devotion to, the social, emotional, and academic needs of students. We’re seeing high rates of anxiety among high school and college students. Based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health for students ages 6 to 17, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012. We do not have to look far to find students who report being “stressed” or “anxious.” Research from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study illustrates that students who have experienced trauma have significant chance of lower life potential, defined as lower graduation rates, lower academic achievement, and lost time from work. It is our job as educators to ensure safe, nurturing relationships and environments for our students.

Social and emotional learning, as defined by The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL’s framework includes five core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Many schools also use the Yale RULER approach to teaching young people how to handle and process emotions. (My daughter’s elementary school uses RULER too). The RULER approach is designed to teach emotional intelligence. The 5 RULER skills are:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
  • Expressing emotions in accordance to cultural norms and social context
  • Regulating emotions with helpful strategies

In schools that use RULER approach, students create charters or classroom rules, use a mood meter to help students identify their emotions, foster ways of healing or dealing with conflicts, and encourage students to reflect about their best self and personal wellness.

Aligning Social and Emotional Learning and Competency-Based Learning

In addition to interest in and devotion to SEL, we’re seeing rising excitement surrounding competency-based and mastery learning. There’s an emerging consensus that we must teach skills that may help promote and foster social and emotional learning skills in addition to academic content.

School-based competency-based learning (CBL) frameworks can fully support, and should include, SEL competencies such as the competencies and skills in the frameworks by CASEL or RULER. Teaching the whole child includes, and perhaps privileges, mastery of skills, dispositions, and mindsets associated with supporting each student.

Schools that have competency-based learning frameworks are having deep and important conversations about what they value and ultimately what they decide to explicitly teach to students. When we talk about designing intentionally for these ideals, what does this mean exactly?

Some of what GOA has learned and woven into the design of our courses for high school students:

  1. Learning is relational, playful, and personal. We encourage our teachers and our coaches to build relationships with learners, and we design experiences that prioritize connections among people. For example, in GOA’s filmmaking course, students create a “Where I Am” video but then must remix their classmates’ footage to create a new video, “Where We Are.” Projects like this create connections and allow for intentional relationship-building.
  2. We think deeply about cognitive load without sacrificing rigor. Feeling overwhelmed or confused creates stress, which hinders learning. We aim to create learning opportunities that are both smooth and intuitive, allowing the learner to focus on what matters: learning. Rigor comes from applied learning, formative feedback, conditions that support metacognition, and offering the time needed to go deep. Many GOA teachers connect passion and rigor by fostering activism in their courses. Getting students to do authentic work in their communities allows students the opportunity to go deeper.
  3. We offer learners choice in terms of focus, pace, and projects. Learner agency is a hallmark of our student program and our work with adults. We create pathways for learners through intentionally designed activities that privilege flexibility without sacrificing structure.

How might we measure SEL Competencies?

We know that CBL frameworks include important SEL competencies, but how do we assess these competencies? (We also wrote about about this topic in our article Noncognitive Competencies Are Important: How Should We Measure Them?).

A new report from the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development aims to provide guidelines on incorporating social and emotional learning into schools. Importantly, the new report does not recommend monitoring students' social-emotional competencies through measurements like surveys that might contribute to school accountability. The report sides with prominent researchers, like University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth, “who have warned against using measurements for such purposes. Existing measures, which usually survey students about their own strengths in areas like self-control, are prone to flaws and biases, and using them for high-stakes decisions like school accountability and teacher evaluations could have unforeseen consequences, they've argued.”

The report goes on to say, "Until we have tools that we are confident adequately capture these skills and attributes in ways that are sensitive to age, developmental stage, and context, and commit to using the measures appropriately for improvement, we risk putting more weight on these measures than is useful.”(For more insights from CBL experts, see Chris Sturgis’ publication, When Success is the Only Option: Designing Competency-based Pathways for Next Generation Learning).

What is an Educator to Do?

We have established that SEL competencies are important, and we also know we should not necessarily measure unless we have valid measurement systems. So, what are appropriate assessments of a student’s social and emotional learning skills. In other words, what is an educator to do?

For starters, use student work as evidence of competency development. Here are a few ideas for aligning assessments with student work adapted from a blog I wrote last year called Want to Assess Noncognitive Competencies? Examine Student Work.

  1. Consider longer term professional learning around social and emotional learning with educators at your school. Many teachers don’t have expertise in using SEL competencies as assessment tools in courses and student projects. Teachers often have been hired for their content expertise and they are much more invested in, and/or have been trained in, the assessment and reporting of cognitive domains.
  2. Ensure all competencies are written in student-friendly language.
  3. Use single point rubrics. Emphasize feedback and reflection over grade.
  4. Explore school models which encourage public exhibitions of student work and deep examination of student work, with students heavily involved and perhaps leading the assessment process. Check out the deeper learning network of schools as well as XQ Schools as examples of such models.

One of the primary reasons schools are moving towards competency-based learning frameworks and assessment practices is to foster an emphasis on student-driven learning, student agency, and a reduction in the emphasis on grades. As educators and families, we can play a role in helping students contextualize how they are doing in school. What stance do we want to take? We like William Stixrud’s approach: Stixrud, a neuropsychologist and co-author of a new parenting book called The Self-Driven Child, said to his own children, "You know, I'm happy to look at your report card, but I don't care that much. I care much more that you work hard to develop yourself."

How are you aligning your school’s competency-based learning framework with social and emotional learning? Share with us @GOALearning or send us an email at

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