WCSD has increasingly focused on the role of students’ Social and Emotional Competencies (SEC) in helping them persist through obstacles and graduate high school college and career ready. Social and emotional competencies are the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to be personally and socially competent. Research supporting the significance of social and emotional competencies in promoting positive youth development is abundant. Students with higher social and emotional competencies have higher academic achievement, are more likely to stay in school and graduate, and have better life outcomes than students with lower social and emotional competencies.1, 2, 3 Not having strong social and emotional competencies is also a leading risk factor for many negative outcomes, including social adjustment problems, academic failure, and dropping out.4, 5, 6 Supporting students’ social and emotional growth alongside their academic growth is a high priority for WCSD, and a critical component in its strategic plan, Envision WCSD 2020 – Investing in Our Future.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which students acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to be socially and emotionally competent. WCSD aligns its SEL approach with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) widely used Framework for Systemic Social and Emotional Learning, which identifies five core competencies that help “educate hearts, inspire minds, and help people navigate the world more effectively.”

These five competencies include:

  • Self-Awareness: The ability to accurately recognize your emotions and thoughts and know how they influence behavior.
  • Self-Management: The ability to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations.
  • Social Awareness: The ability to adopt the perspective of other people and to empathize with other people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Relationship Skills: These skills enable a person to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.
  • Responsible Decision-Making: A person who makes responsible decisions has the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions.

Notice that the five competencies in the wheel above are situated within a broader context of homes and communities, schools, and classrooms. This graphic is intended to emphasize that these competencies are not learned through a single program or teaching approach. Rather, SEL involves coordinating strategies across the entire educational environment, including in the classroom, but also on the playground, school bus, at home and in the community.

SEL and Washoe County School District

Social and Emotional Learning is an integral part of WCSD’s strategic plan, Envision WCSD 2020 – Investing in Our Future. SEL classrooms focus on developing students’ strong listening skills, disciplined self-awareness, and interpersonal relationships. You can learn more about WCSD’s approach to implementing SEL by visiting the WCSD SEL Department’s website.

WCSD has developed a set of standards aligned to the CASEL framework. These standards are intended to provide a set of benchmarks and a common language for understanding the social and emotional competencies students (and adults!) need to handle themselves, their relationships, and their work effectively and ethically. You can learn more about each of these standards and indicators (or “look fors”) by clicking on the tabs in the graphic below.

Social and Emotional Learning Standards

Develop self-awareness competencies to:

• Identify one’s emotions
• Maintain an accurate and positive self-concept
• Recognize individual strengths
• Experience a sense of self-efficacy


1A. Demonstrate knowledge of one’s emotions.
1B. Demonstrate knowledge of personal strengths, challenges, and potential.
1C. Demonstrate a sense of self-efficacy.

Develop self-management competencies to:

• Regulate emotions
• Manage stress
• Monitor and achieve behaviors related to school and life success


2A. Demonstrate ability to manage emotions.
2B. Demonstrate an understanding of honesty and integrity.
2C. Demonstrate ability to set and achieve goals for success.

Develop social awareness competencies to:

• Exhibit empathy
• Appreciate diversity
• Understand social and ethical norms for behavior
• Recognize family, school, and community supports


3A. Demonstrate awareness of other people’s emotions and perspectives.
3B. Demonstrate an awareness of cultural factors and respect for individual differences.
3C. Demonstrate awareness of how to get help and support as needed.

Develop relationship competencies to:

• Build and maintain relationships with diverse groups & individuals
• Communicate clearly to express needs and resolve conflict


4A. Use communication and social skills to positively interact with others.
4B. Develop constructive relationships with individuals of diverse backgrounds, abilities and lifestyles.
4C. Demonstrate the ability to prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.

Develop responsible decision making skills to:

• Problem solve effectively
• Maintain accountable behaviors in school, personal, and community contexts


5A. Consider ethical and societal factors with making decisions.
5B. Use a systematic approach to decision making.
5C. Apply problem-solving skills to responsibly address daily academic and social situations.
5D. Understand and demonstrate personal responsibility.
5E. Positively contribute to one’s community.

How Does WCSD Measure Students’ Social and Emotional Skills?

WCSD measures students’ social and emotional skills in a variety of formal and informal ways, from simply observing students’ interactions and behaviors in classrooms, to more formal assessments of students’ competencies. One way we assess students’ social and emotional skills is by having all students in grades 5th -9th and 11th complete the Annual Student Climate Survey. You can learn more about WCSD’s Annual Climate Survey and see the reports for each WCSD school by clicking here.

In addition to questions about their overall school environment, this confidential School Climate Survey asks students to rate how difficult or easy 40 different skills are for them to do. For example, one question assessing Relationship Skills asks students, “How easy or difficult is it for you to share what you are feeling with others?” Students rate their ability to do each skill on a scale from 1, Very Difficult to 4, Very Easy. To find out more about how WCSD, CASEL, and the University of Illinois-Chicago developed this measure in collaboration with students and teachers in the district, you can read our recently published article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology or by reading an article by Education Week about the work entitled “Students Help Design Measures of Social-Emotional Skills.”

Based on how students respond to these survey questions, we can get a sense of which social and emotional skills are most and least difficult for students. This helps teachers and the district understand how best to tailor SEL instruction to better support the needs of all students. For example, the figure below shows how easy or difficult students rated their relationship skills on 28 different questions on the 2015 Climate Survey. As the figure indicates, Sharing what I am feeling with others and Joining a group I don’t usually sit with at lunch (in red) were two of the hardest relationship skills for students to do. Students rated Introducing myself to a new student at school as average difficulty (yellow). Being polite to adults and Getting along with my teachers were viewed as the easiest social and emotional skills (green) by students.

In addition to examining how students rate themselves on individual questions in the survey, it is also important to look at how students rate themselves at different grade levels across multiple questions in a particular domain, or scale. This helps us understand how these social and emotional skills develop over time. The figure below shows the average rating students gave themselves on each of the eight competency scales by grade level. Each competency scale represents about 3-5 different questions.

Overall, students rate their skills more highly in 11th grade than they do in 5th grade, with the exception of Self-Management of School Work, where elementary school students report higher skillsets in this area, than students in middle and high school. To find out which specific Self-Management of School Work skills students find the most difficult, you can dive deeper into that competency area by clicking here.

Also notice students rated themselves most highly on their Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making competencies, and least highly on their Self-Management of Emotions. Taken together, these data raise important questions that help guide planning around social and emotional learning in the future. For example, why do students rate Self-Management of Emotions as more difficult than the other competency areas? Are these competencies more challenging for students, or are the particular questions we asked students in the survey more challenging in this scale compared to the others? What about middle and high school academic content, classroom instruction, structure, and environments might make students less positive about their ability to self-manage their school work? WCSD regularly examines these data in relationship to other academic (e.g., credit accrual, grades, state examinations) and behavioral data (e.g., attendance rates, behavioral referrals, engagement in after school activities) to help enrich the story about students’ social and emotional skill development, and its relationship to outcomes.

Why Focus on Students’ Social and Emotional Skills?

Although social and emotional skills are critical for many reasons, they have been found to be especially important to academic success in particular. The research base supporting SEL as a strategy for improving academic and life outcomes for students is strong. According to a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, children who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.7 Students participating in SEL programs also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school than students who did not participate in these programs. Further, a 2015 report8 indicated that every dollar invested in SEL programming yields an $11 return in long-term benefits. These benefits include reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health.

Research in WCSD finds a similarly strong link between students’ ratings of their social and emotional competencies and academic and behavioral outcomes, including their level of risk for being off-track for graduation. The figure below displays the percentage of students who reported that each SEC was Easy or Very Easy for them to do by their level of risk for dropout. Students’ level of risk for dropout is a composite measure that includes suspension, absenteeism, transiency, retention, and credit deficiency. Students with a higher level of risk on this measure are less likely to graduate on-time, have lower GPAs, and are more likely to be suspended and chronically absent. These data indicates that there may be a relationship between how students feel about their social and emotional competencies and their likelihood of graduating on-time. That is, students who are considered “high risk” for dropout (red bar) report lower social and emotional competencies than students who are “no-risk” for dropout (blue bar). Future research will help develop our understanding of how these two factors may influence one another.

Future Steps

WCSD has made substantial strides in their efforts to ensure SEL is woven into the fabric of a student’s education. This work now needs to be strengthened and sustained in order to have systemic impact on every child along their pathway to graduating high school college and career ready. Our next steps in the data story include ensuring that accurate and valid data are available and able to assess implementation and impact on our system and determine the supports needed for our educators to build and sustain SEL into their curricula. Additionally, given the research base linking SEL competencies with academic outcomes, we must continue to provide improved assessments and data tools to educators so they can effectively identify, and develop, the social and emotional competencies of our 64,000 students.


The Washoe County School District Social and Emotional Competency Assessments (WCSD-SECAs) are free, open-source instruments that measure the self-reported social and emotional competencies of students in grades 5-12. There are currently two versions of the instrument and a bank of items available for use and adaptation:

  • Long-Form Assessment: 40-item instrument measuring eight domains of social and emotional competence: 1) self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses (formerly “self-awareness of self-concept”), 2) self-awareness of emotions, 3) self-management of emotions, 4) self-management of goals, 5) self-management of school work, 6) relationship skills, 7) social awareness, and 8) responsible decision-making.
  • Short-Form Assessment: 17-item, short-form assessment of global social and emotional competence.
  • Item Bank: 138 items assessing eight domains. Useful for training and item replacement.

To see responses to frequently asked questions about the WCSD-SECA, please see WCSD SECA FAQ. This research brief describes some of the major findings about the WCSD-SECA to-date and includes links to additional publications about the measures.


1. Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagoaka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of non-cognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
2. Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 2283–2290.
3. Valiente, C., Swanson, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2012). Linking students’ emotions and academic achievement: When and why emotions matter. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 129–135.
4. Arsenio, W. F., Adams, E., & Gold, J. (2009). Social information processing, moral reasoning, and emotion attributions: Relations with adolescents’ reactive and proactive aggression. Child Development, 80, 1739–1755.
5. Barry, M., & Reschly, A. L. (2012). Longitudinal predictors of high school completion. School Psychology Quarterly, 27(2), 74–84.
6. Domitrovich, C. E., Durlak, J., Staley, K., & Weissberg, R. P. (provisional acceptance). a. Social-emotional competence: An essential factor for promoting positive adjustment and reducing risk in school children. Child Development.
7. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x
8. Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (February, 2015). The economic value of social and emotional learning. Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York(REVISED VERSION).