Social skills matter, but how do we measure and grow them in the classroom?

Kane plays with a toy at the home of his family in El Paso

Most researchers and parents agree that effective social and emotional skills are essential to a child’s development and success as an adult.

But how much do we know about these skills, how to measure them, and what impact they have? In the latest issue of The Future of Children, a joint publication of Brookings and Princeton University, a wide range of scholars debate the success of current social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, how to accurately measure SEL skills, and whether teachers are well prepared enough to support positive social and emotional development in young children. (You can watch the keynote speech from Timothy Shriver here.)

What is social and emotional learning?

SEL is a wide umbrella, covering many different goals and skills—character education, grit, social skills, soft skills—but the core principles tend to be similar. SEL involves teaching children to manage their emotions and interactions effectively, become effective problem-solvers, gain a better sense of self, and learn empathy. But does it work? It seems like common sense that SEL skills will help students get along better with their peers, perform better in school, and go on to have better mental and physical health as adults. But in fact, studies produced a wide range of results, causing a lot of head-scratching among scholars. Where is this variation coming from?

Do SEL programs work? Too early to say.

Stephanie Jones, Sophie Barnes, Rebecca Bailey, and Emily Doolittle examine 11 widely used elementary school-based SEL interventions to try and answer this question. Each intervention was tested using a randomized controlled trial, widely seen as the gold standard design for evaluating program impacts on children. The results were what researchers call “mixed”—code for disappointing.

Why? Two potential research problems stand out. First, many of the programs targeted emotional skills, for which there were inadequate outcome measures. Partly this is question of time needed to fully implement interventions. Program evaluations conducted immediately after completion (as many of the 11 were), may not pick up improvements that take longer to develop.

Second, Jones and her coauthors found that SEL skills were almost always measured at the student level, not by classroom. They see this as a significant flaw in the research base. Evaluations of SEL programs measure how much students change because of their classroom environment. But much of the impact may come about as a result of changes in teacher behavior, classroom climate, play environment, or home life.

Tired, untrained teachers have little energy for SEL

Teachers receive little training on how to promote SEL skills, especially among adolescents who are often most resistant to this kind of program. Teachers are often burnt out themselves and may have little time to attend to their own well-being. How, then, can they be expected to promote student SEL? One study that examined 10,000 first grade students and their teachers found that teachers who reported higher levels of stress and lacked basic resources had students who were more likely to report mental health problems and engage in impulsive behavior.

Teacher preparation programs do not generally promote SEL, either. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl analyzed almost 4,000 teacher preparation courses offered by U.S. colleges of education and found that only 13 percent had at least one course that focused on relationship skills. Fewer than 10 percent of courses offered any information on responsible decisionmaking, self-management, social awareness, or self-awareness.

SEL: A possible way forward

Few effective tools exist to measure or promote children’s social and emotional learning skills. This is an important moment in the SEL community: despite data setbacks, researchers and advocates are optimistic about the future of SEL programs. Two organizations, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), and the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, are making great strides connecting research, policy, and practice in this growing field. The next generation of SEL assessments will require new approaches that are targeted for specific age groups. As every parent knows, elementary school students and high schoolers make very different emotional judgments.

Parents invest a lot of time in preparing their children with the social skills they’ll need to get by. Social scientists may need to invest a little more, too.