Rigor and Resilience: Social-Emotional Learning within the Assessment Process

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final post in Heather’s wonderful series, Social Emotional Learning and the Arts. She has shared her expertise and experience to provide us with a deeper understanding of student needs and a guide to teaching and learning with a focus on SEL. Thanks so much, Heather. 

We encourage you to share this work, along with all of our blog posts, with those who may find them useful. Also, we invite you to make comments in the section below this blog and to visit us on social media. Thanks, and enjoy!

~ Joni Starr, MAEIA Blog Editor

Assessment is not typically the point in the learning process in which we expect to see social-emotional learning. It is, however, a point in which we can be considerate of students’ experience, including their social-emotional realities. When we are thoughtful with the types of assessment we use, and why we use them, assessment becomes yet another moment for us to truly meet students where they are.

I know a student who used to experience school refusal. He would worry about not making it to class on time, being rushed through assignments, and most definitely getting through multiple choice and constructed response assessments. Just the thought of being rushed, challenged his nervous system. This typically resulted in him feeling like he didn’t have enough energy to face school that day and when an adult would lead with logic instead of compassion, he would dig in with a big emotional response.

The journey of his nervous system throughout this experience can be best described by “polyvagal theory,” the work of Dr. Stephen Porges. In short, our nervous system states drive the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and the world at large.

In this scenario, the student’s nervous system is responding to a perceived threat: being rushed. It is linked to a scene: an assessment. His body is in survival mode, his rational brain isn’t coming online, and the experience itself doesn’t offer any anchor for him.

  • He isn’t able to work with another person, and co-regulate.
  • He isn’t able to rely on a physical/embodied skill that may help him self-regulate.
  • He is on his own, in survival mode, knowing that his performance is likely to be poor.

The potential impact of how this shapes his class grades and his teacher’s perspective of him, intensifies his response. Interestingly, large-scale assessment, which doesn’t impact his grade or his teacher’s opinion of him, has historically not been an issue. So how can we assess students in such a way that bolsters both rigor and resilience?

We need two things:

  1. A compassionate environment where a growth mindset is practiced by students and teachers.
  2. Authentic assessment practices such as performance assessment and the formative assessment process.

Let’s take a look at an example of authentic assessment. This same student enters middle school band class, where the teacher is warm and engaging, animated in how she interacts with students. She encouragingly varies her tone of voice and facial expression, depending on her requests of students. She uses vocal bursts and positive reinforcement to draw out student thinking through effective questioning. She is making full use of the social-engagement system outlined in the Embodiment post from this blog series.

Near the beginning of the semester, band students are introduced to performance assessments by way of playing tests. It begins with the entire band playing a section of music. If they make a mistake, they are instructed to circle where they made the mistake and stop playing their instrument. This continues until they have completed the playing test. At the end of this experience, students know exactly what they need to work on next. They have started in a sea of sound, in which no one is singled out for making a mistake. There is safety in numbers. They are held accountable for what they need to know in regard to content as well as their next steps for improvement. The teacher moves through the score, piece by piece, asking questions about where, why, and how mistakes were made and she invites solutions.

This teacher is engaging in the formative assessment process of:

  • Planning instruction based on content, standards, formative assessment process, and her students.
  • Designing learning targets and clearly communicating them throughout the experience. Students know exactly what they are working on and why – they have a laser focus on the task at hand.
  • Eliciting evidence of student understanding and making use of a collection of questioning strategies.
  • Providing feedback to both the ensemble and individual students in real time, as they are playing, and again when they are deconstructing the score and their performances. As the class becomes more experienced, students are guided in how to give appropriate feedback to their peers in a supported structure.

As the weeks go by, this process moves students through differentiated experiences. As practice pays off, students build mastery. As they progress at different levels, the performance assessments of playing tests increases risk. The number of musicians playing at a time gets smaller, finally leading to individual playing tests.

This student still feels stressed but has several things on which to anchor himself, thus contributing to how he builds resilience.

  • The task of playing the instrument can have a self-regulating response for his nervous system.
  • The depth of mastery, not just the recall of information through cognition, is evidenced in his playing. He can trust his developing performance skill.
  • He sees and hears others experiencing the same scenario. This might be experienced as co-regulation, and it certainly is experienced as orienting in present time and space which has a grounding effect on the nervous system.
  • He has evidence that his teacher is supporting everyone and is accepting of mistakes.

While the rigor of the class experience increases, so does the student’s resilience. He learns that he can face hard things and do well, the repeated pattern of this experience contributes to a reshaped nervous system. This journey of resilience-building nurtures flexible nervous system responses. According to polyvagal theory, these responses move in a predictable order, like a ladder. As mammals, we move through these states all day, every day, as we go up and down the polyvagal ladder.

The story this student embodies shifts from, “I can’t do this” (not having enough energy to face the challenge) to “I must practice” (sometimes feeling like he has too much energy to face the challenge) to “I am capable of this challenge and am ready to face it.”

Through performance assessment, and the formative assessment process, we can support students as they develop greater connection to self, others, and the world at large. We can help students demonstrate what they know in ways that support their social-emotional learning.

  • Self-awareness – “This is hard for me.”
  • Self-management – “I know what to do next.”
  • Relationship skills – “I can rely on others.”
  • Responsible decision-making – “I will take the next step and I can ask questions.”
  • Social awareness – “I am not alone and I can support others.”

Meeting students where they are, and supporting them as they do hard things are not competing agendas. They are compassionate forms of assessment and examples of good teaching.

Heather Vaughan-Southard is the MAEIA Professional Learning Director, former director of dance programs in K-12 and higher education, and is trained in the art and science of connection through the Polyvagal Institute.

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