“We know that social and emotional skills in schools support academic success. It is crucial that we continue to develop these competencies that contribute to our young people graduating from high school, and thriving in careers and in life. Young people will lose if we hamstring their teachers by letting go of the DESSA.”

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

NYC students lined up for the first day of school in 2021. City schools began using the DESSA tool that fall.

We all know that our children are struggling in school right now, both academically and emotionally. As a result of the pandemic, children are feeling the emotional dislocation of those years even more strongly than the rest of us, with mental health issues adding turbulence to their lives.

Teachers, too, are having a hard time. More than a half million teachers across the country have left the profession in the last three years. More than half of all teachers in a National Education Association survey said they were considering following those half million out the schoolhouse door. The percentage was even higher for teachers of color, who are already severely underrepresented.

In that context, then, it is concerning that the city is considering taking away one of the most effective tools we have to help teachers understand how students are experiencing school: the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, better known as the DESSA.

The DESSA allows teachers and advisors to provide feedback to students on their social-emotional strengths. The feedback can illustrate how persistent a student is, how often a student offers to help a classmate or how well a child works with peers in a group setting. This information often drives teachers to better know their students, which research shows increases their belonging and success.

The DESSA, supported by the Strong Resilient New York City program, gives the teacher and the school valuable guidance on opportunities for growth in their social-emotional development and allows schools to make adjustments to support it.

For teachers, supporting student social emotional development without the DESSA would be like asking a cook to make a meal without a recipe, or insisting that your rideshare driver take you home without a GPS. That the city would consider this a source of savings at a time when students feel more troubled and have less connection to their teachers than ever seems reckless.

Yet that is the situation we find ourselves in now. A new national survey by YouthTruth, released this month, found that depression, stress and anxiety comprised the most common obstacle to learning for secondary school students. Yet most said they had no adults they could confide in.

Weakening teachers’ connection further with students will put teachers further behind in their efforts to keep students on track. Students learn best when they experience emotional support from peers and teachers within a positive learning environment.  

We know, and dozens of studies have found, that social and emotional skills in schools support academic success. It is crucial that we continue to develop these competencies that contribute to our young people graduating from high school, and thriving in careers and in life.

Young people will lose if we hamstring their teachers by letting go of the DESSA.

Take a moment and imagine a world where young people leave high school and enter society effective at setting goals, skilled at managing relationships, confident in their ability to collaborate and solve problems in groups. A world where students are ready to learn independently and acquire new skills with flexibility and ease as the economy changes.

This is the world we can create, and the first step is ensuring a common language around our vision for New York City Public School graduates. That means maintaining the systems to elevate this work in our schools. Systems supported by clarity and feedback. Systems that support students. But it’s not just students from New York City Public Schools who benefit. 

At the Urban Assembly, where I serve as the senior director of social-emotional learning (SEL), we use the DESSA, and it helps our teachers as much as it helps our young men and women. The process helped create language around social emotional skills for teachers and students. And it helped create conditions for teachers to build their knowledge of students while helping  students name the ways they could relate to each other better.

It also helped teachers help students relate to each other better. The process helped students understand what kinds of competencies they needed to enhance to persist through difficult academic content, or difficult social experiences and these are the skills that matter for college, career and community. 

Everyone from teachers to superintendents says so. Here’s what some of them have told us:

  • Eugene, a senior at DreamYard Preparatory School in the Bronx, said, “My relationships with teachers helps me know how to talk to adults so that in the future I can have these skills for any type of job or college.”
  • A special education teacher at the Bronx High School of Business: “The DESSA helps me think about how I design my lesson plans particularly how do I engage with others and how do the students engage with themselves and their peers as well.”
  • An assistant principal at IS 141 in Astoria: “If a student’s social emotional needs are not met then their academic needs cannot be met.”
  • A Bronx district superintendent: “When the DESSA came I was really excited to see that there was finally an assessment that was intentional about understanding students and giving them a voice.”

It is no surprise, then, that schools in the Urban Assembly network and others committed to SEL, like NYC Outward Bound, outperform other city schools in graduation rates and college enrollment.

We all build on the lessons of SEL to help teachers do their best work, which is helping students achieve and grow to be emotionally healthy young adults.

I know that’s worth it.

Brandon Frame is the senior director of social-emotional learning at the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit with a network of 23 public schools in New York City. He is a national leader in social-emotional learning.