My oldest child is in a classroom that gives students points for good deeds done throughout the day. My guess is that the teacher is trying to encourage social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Every day I check in to see how my child did, and every day I think about how this would have gone for me. I was the kid in class who could never stop talking, so my daily points for "works quietly" and "on task" would have been abysmal. I wanted to talk- and was willing to talk about learning or my new shoes or what we were going to do at recess- the topic didn't matter. It did matter that learning for me was a social activity.
Now I’m an evaluator, which means I not only get to talk to lots of people but I also get to think about how we measure big concepts like SEL skills. As a measurement person, you might assume that I want to measure everything. Not true! In fact, I’m not sure that measuring SEL skills is the right way to go.
There is a debate right now about measuring SEL in school. (Check out Angela Duckworth’s work because she is leading the field on this topic.) Youth workers are talking about it too, and I can see why programs would want to measure SEL skills. These skills are often well aligned with the mission and goals of positive youth development, and most of us would agree that a good youth worker thinks intentionally about SEL skills.
Where I think programs go wrong is that we want to turn SEL measurement into accountability measurement. Should we be judging the value of our programs based on how well youth are building SEL skills? Personally, I think this measurement takes us away from the heart of youth work and turns us into hamsters running on the accountability wheel.
The danger of this accountability measurement is that we start to teach SEL skills in a way that encourages youth to learn them simply to pass the next test. If your program is set on measuring SEL skills for accountability, how do you decide which one to focus on? Here’s an example of how I think focusing on SEL skills in isolation can be problematic in youth development.
Take the famous marshmallow experiment:
This test assesses the ability of a child to delay gratification. Research suggests that delaying gratification is good for us and is connected to educational attainment and positive life outcomes. If your program was measuring the ability to delay gratification, you would want youth to not eat the marshmallow.
Or maybe your program cares more about Joy. Some would argue that treasuring every day and experiencing joy is an important SEL skill. If that was the case, youth should be popping those marshmallows into their mouths and asking for more!
You might also care about friendship skills and compassion. Youth might choose to share their marshmallow with a friend. Do they pass your test?
So which one are you measuring? This example is just one argument for why it’s tricky to measure SEL skills. Read more about consideration for practitioners if you are planning to measure SEL skills for accountability.
Guess what? My super smart colleagues at the Center for Youth Development recently created a tool that’s worth exploring: SEL in Practice: A Toolkit of Practical Strategies and Resources. The toolkit has a section on evaluation that includes some amazing activities that can help you think deeper about the evaluation of your SEL program elements. Many of the activities focus on how programs can evaluate SEL skills as a process measure rather than an accountability measure.
Check out the toolkit, and let me know: do you measure SEL skills in your program? Have you learned something valuable in your measurement that everyone should know about?
And just because I’m curious, would you have eaten the marshmallow?
You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.