A K–12 assessment for social emotional skills

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By Kathleen Casper, J.D.

As gifted education continues to evolve and practitioners learn more about the neurology and social emotional needs of gifted children, it is increasingly important that schools identify social emotional goals and work closely with parents and other team members to create learning experiences for gifted students reflective of the needs of the whole child. In their book, Promoting Social and Emotion Learning, Maurice J. Elias et al. define social emotional competence as:

...the ability to understand, manage, and express the social and emotional aspects of one’s life in ways that enable the successful management of life tasks such as learning, forming relationships, solving everyday problems, and adapting to the complex demands of growth and development. It includes self-awareness, control of impulsivity, working cooperatively, and caring about oneself and others.

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the national push for improved test performance, teachers are at risk of putting students’ social emotional needs on the back burner. In general, the lack of specific social emotional skills can hinder students throughout their K–12 educations and beyond, particularly for gifted students. Because they often do well on tests and quickly master academic tasks or gravitate to other children with similar social emotional issues and asynchronous skill levels, they do not always present as showing a need for social emotional support. Many gifted students in need of support fly under both parents’ and teachers’ radar.

Every child deserves to learn every single day, but often the areas in which gifted students need the most support and have the most need for mastery involve fine-tuning their social and emotional skills. Research shows that gifted children’s brains process information differently from other children, and much has been published on the social and emotional impacts of giftedness. However, there remains a need for a measurement tool that applies specifically to gifted children, both for assessment of social emotional skills and goal setting around these skills.

I created the Casper Assessment for Social Emotional Skills (CASES) rubric to address the social emotional skills gifted students should be working on throughout their K–12 education. The CASES rubric is used as a tool for measuring where a student is on a spectrum of social-emotional steps, and for looking at progression and in order to set goals and measure progress across multiple dates. Children practice many social-emotional skills in the early years of school, after which teachers may assume that students have digested them well enough to demonstrate desired behaviors regularly on their own. However, the asynchronous development of gifted minds necessitates continuous practice and frequent reminders. Even though a gifted student can verbalize rules and the reasons for them easily, they may nonetheless struggle with the actual performance of appropriate behaviors throughout their formative years. For example, it is frustrating for high intellect individuals to problem solve with people who process information more slowly than they do. However, most will have to do so throughout their lives. Social skills are important for the smooth functioning of society, so the CASES rubric is suitable evaluation tool for all children, as well as adults. However, gifted individuals stand in particular need of support as they deal with the gaps between their intellectual processing speed and that of others who process information differently. As well, sensory issues make them inherently different from others in their learning communities. Emotional skills are deeply relevant to the growth of gifted children because social stresses and their own deep thinking may lead to frustrations and emotional intensities. Functioning day-to-day can be confusing and hard on children who have unusually high aspirations and a deep-seated need for efficacy in the larger world.

Touted as a useful tool by school counselors, teachers, and administrators, CASES provides families and professionals a common language for both assessing a student’s current needs and aiding students of all ages in acquiring important skills. This rubric provides the student and his or her support team a way to set tangible, attainable goals. CASES is especially useful when assessing both a child’s high-level skills (so that they can be celebrated) and his/her challenges (when drafting individualized learning plans or conferencing). Educational program placement is important and should also be considered. CASES is used as the social-emotional skill scale in conjunction with an evaluation of appropriate academic placement.

CASES can be used in the classroom for a teacher to stay aware of the challenges and goals of particular gifted students, in order to create social skill practice situations such as book discussion groups, math challenges, and cooperative learning projects. Social skills can be acquired in many different ways. Since different students learn from diverse learning opportunities, the rubric is designed as a planning tool and an assessment of needs, helping support personnel design experiences tailored to a specific child. CASES is meant to be used neither as an assessment for gifted services nor for program placement, but could be used by teachers in general education or gifted education classes to assist gifted children in supporting the personal growth that will lead to academic gains. Other available rubrics focus either solely on academic growth or solely on social emotional skills. CASES assumes that social emotional skill issues arise within the content areas and can be practiced within the academic core. The CASES rubric is divided into content-specific themes, although some items can be used in all content areas as well as outside the classroom.  It is up to the team working with the child to determine areas to work on and specific goals to aim for during a particular time period.

Users must understand that children are not expected to score in the advanced category in all areas. Most students will score in a range of ability levels. CASES does not assign prescribed behaviors, but is a tool to pinpoint where teachers and parents can most productively work with a child to provide support or reinforce strengths. Perfect scores are not required for success in school and life, and high scores in all areas could even be cause for concern, depending on the child. Given the multiple factors affecting a child’s mental health or social performance, a resource list is provided with recommended reading containing further information about characteristics and needs, as well as resources to help parents and teachers with specific concerns.

It must be noted that some children may not reach the advanced level in some categories, either because of introversion or due to relationship issues with teachers, etc. Gifted students in particular may struggle with some skills due to their exceptionalities. The parent or teacher using the CASES rubric should distinguish between areas of challenge due to the child’s exceptionalities and skills that can be mastered with the correct levels of support. CASES is a tool for measurement, goal setting, and identification of performance levels, which can be used to highlight both positive traits and areas with lower skill levels. It can work hand-in-hand with IEP development and used to structure classroom situations for individual and group success. The final section of this article provides resources for working on specific skills.

Civic Enterprises, in their booklet “The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools,” states that teachers believe social emotional learning will:

...promote students’ self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship, and responsible decision-making skills...improve student attitudes and beliefs about self, others, and school...provide a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance as reflected in more positive social behaviors and peer relationships, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved grades and test scores.

In order to have the best chance of success, gifted students need several crucial educational elements: teachers trained in the nature and needs of gifted students; high level thinking tasks related to real-world problem-solving; access to other gifted peers; and the kind of social emotional support indicated by CASES.

Kathleen Casper, J.D., is the Gifted Education Director at Solid Rock Community School in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida, the president of the Florida Association for the Gifted, a former board member and secretary of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), and is on the board of her regional early learning coalition.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article will appear in Teaching for High Potential (August 2017).