Is it time to re-think social-emotional learning?

We all know why educators have become increasingly concerned about well-being — life has become more stressful, and anxiety and worry are it seems at an all-time high. Yet, existing approaches to assessing and fostering well-being remain limited. Prominent vendors offer schools “social-emotional learning” (SEL) dashboards and lessons — green, yellow and red ratings and teachings about what “EQ” means — but these offer far less assistance than promised.

Yet, existing approaches to assessing and fostering well-being remain limited. Prominent vendors offer schools “social-emotional learning” (SEL) dashboards and lessons — green, yellow and red ratings and teachings about what “EQ” means — but these offer far less assistance than promised.

The most common approaches to social-emotional learning treat the very real challenges students face as “barriers to productivity” — unintentionally fostering the very opposite of an inclusive, supportive and affirming climate. One review of the effect of “social-emotional learning” programs on student achievement stated that attempted suicide “interfere(d) with school performance.” This was penned by leaders in the field! The underlying message seems to be this: “Meditate, fix yourself, and get back to work.”  Not only does this seem especially cold-hearted, it doesn’t work.

Happy Face
As the saying goes, "Don't worry, be happy." Photo by Lidya Nada / Unsplash

An alternative to SEL: assessing and fostering student well-being

In response to the shortcomings of current “social-emotional learning” programs, we developed a new way to assess and foster student well-being. Below, we pose a series of questions to introduce our alternative.

Do you want to quckly identify those in need?

Using a district's preferred student management system and industry standard secruity protocols to protect student data, our assessments enable educators to quickly and effectively identify students who need additional support. We are able to do this by linking student characteristics, including personality traits, with the quality of relationships they have with peers and adults at school. And we do this without asking questions that may be perceived as offensive. School leaders receive results of who may need additional social-emotional support within a week or two of survey administration (depending on the size of the study body).

What is the role of relationships in fostering well-being?

The challenges students face reflect and affect their relationships at school and with their community. While we do not deny that some students, for example, require help in learning how to control their emotions, we situate such needs in their social context — students develop social-emotional capacities through the relationships they have with peers and adults. Understanding the relationship between individual characteristics and the relationships individuals have with peers and adults at school is necessary to promote student intellectual growth and social-emotional well-being.

Do SEL assessments respect cultural difference?

Because all communities do not have the same cultural outlook (values, norms, goals), our assessments respect these differences. Unfortunately, most SEL programs assume a hyper-individualistic and competitive frame of reference that simply does not match the outlook of many communities. Intensified calls for “grit” and "resilience" may actually be harmful, tending to promote a “me first” mentality. While perseverance and hard work are certainly important, common SEL frameworks downplay the importance of social responsibility and community, and assume a cultural homogenity that simply does not exist and thus cannot support all students.

What is the relationship between personality and well-being?

Our society has designed schools for the extrovert. Yet, many students do not match this profile; forcing them into that mold can lead to alienation from school. To help all students succeed, we need to understand, value and harness individual difference. This is why our assessments link personal characteristics of students (e.g., shyness, sociality) with the types of relationships they have at school. As a result we are able to link the characteristics of relationships and organizational culture with individual experiences and needs, helping educators identify where change is needed. Put simply, different personalities require different supports to flourish.

Do you need more than a "one-shot" assessment?

Our assessments employ a modified version of “experience sampling.” Instead of having students complete a long (and fatiguing) questionnaire once a year, we ask a few questions each day for a few weeks during the year to get a more accurate picture of student well-being. Using this method, we can distinguish between common and rare occurrences, stable, and context dependent feelings and emotions. Our surveys are tailored to the sensibilities of children and youth: we do not heavily rely upon the “Likert scale” form (strongly disagree … strongly agree). Additionally, our surveys encourage student voice. Each day, students offer their views in response to an open-ended question. Responses are quickly analyzed using modern qualitative data analysis software.

How can we stay focused on each student's well-being?

Educators want to foster the intellectual and social development of each student. To support this goal, our method of data analysis keeps us focused on the individual as the unit of analysis, and not averages. Our method is both rigorous and transparent, meaning results are both valid and easy to undertsand. Using modern algorithms, we are able to show how the personal characteristics of students, and the types of relationships they have at school, affect their well-being.

What kind of assessment reports are useful?

The reports we provide are brief, individualized, and actionable, complete with recommendations from our school psychologist. (We don’t set up an algorithm that automatically spits out graphs of who is lacking grit, or suggest lonely youth watch a video about emotional intelligence.) We tailor each assessment and report to client needs and their context. Future reports can build on past assessments to highlight trends, so eduators can track individual student progress and the progress of all students.

Can our assessments help educators meet regulatory requirements?

While unique in the above ways, our assessments help districts with their response to intervention (RTI) or multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS), and meet regulatory demands under the Success for All Students act. To learn more, contact us to set up a  conference where we can learn about your needs.