Beyond Content Learning: The Importance of Social Emotional Competencies

by Jennifer Blatz on September 18, 2013

Earlier today, I was reviewing sight words with my kindergartner and as we made our way down the list, she kept having trouble with one word in particular. She became very frustrated and wanted to quit, which lead to my panic thinking she wasn’t demonstrating self-efficacy, grit, perseverance or many of the very important social emotional competencies we so often read about.

What are Social Emotional Competencies?

No matter what you call them – social emotional, non-cognitive, non-academic competencies – social and emotional learning is proving to be key indicators to student success and thus are generating a great deal of buzz. With his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough found that children were challenged to develop these social and emotional competencies regardless of their socioeconomic status. For rich kids a sheltered life with helicopter parents often deprived the kids of the types of experiences that helped to build strong character. And for poorer kids, growing up in a stressful, unstable environment can result in negative feelings and distractions that challenge learning. In the last week, a New York Times Magazine article, Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught, on this same subject has been making the rounds both in education circles and on the Facebook pages of many of my fellow mom friends because it raises the question of whether or not emotional intelligence is inherent or can be learned and it offers some examples of interventions that seem to be seeing some success in teaching these competencies.

How do You Measure Social Emotional Competencies?

Of course in order to determine which interventions are having impact, you must first be able to measure success. And measurement is one of the greatest challenges in this space. It’s extremely difficult to measure social and emotional learning competencies. Numerous assessment tools have been developed, but very few of these tools have been implemented at scale or nationally normed and they seldom demonstrate strong validity and reliability. The tools, often in the form of scales and rubrics, tend to measure one or two competencies and are, at times, difficult and laborious to administer. The good news is that as a result of the buzz around this topic, a number of researchers, organizations like the Search Institute, and large assessment companies like ACT are working to develop more effective and efficient ways of assessing these competencies at scale.

Placing Social Emotional Competencies on the Roadmap

So, what does all of this mean for cradle to career partnerships? To start, one of the foundational elements in this work is its holistic approach to student learning. This is demonstrated through a core visual representation of the work that started with StrivePartnership and has been adapted by communities across the Cradle to Career Network. The Student Roadmap to Success has an upper half focused on core academic outcomes and a lower half focused on non-academic, non-cognitive, student and family support. And the cross-sector nature of cradle to career partnerships and the critical role of learning partners from youth-serving organizations in this work necessitate a focus on both halves of this Roadmap in order to ensure student success.

Even so, because work in this field is so new and emergent, Cradle to Career Partnerships have struggled with how to approach measurement in this space. And so, the StriveTogether Task Force on Measuring Social and Emotional Learning launched early this year in an attempt to make some recommendations to the Cradle to Career Network on how to approach measurement in this area. The end result is a comprehensive reviews of the literature as it relates to some of the core social and emotional competencies that lead to improved cradle to career academic outcomes. Coupled with the lit review and recommended competency list is an overview of the measures for these competencies and a compendium with more than 100 measurement tools that can be used for assessment in this space. It is a tremendous resource for Cradle to Career Partnerships and a great contribution to the field.

At the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network Convening in Dallas, TX, we will distribute the report entitled, Beyond Content: Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning into the StriveTogether Framework.

Susan Philliber of Philliber Research Associates, who worked with us to produce this report, will join to moderate a panel during the Breakfast Plenary, “Understanding and Measuring Beyond Content Learning,” on Friday, September 27, 2013. Following the Convening release, this report will go live on the StriveTogether website as a resource to the Network and broader field.

In the meantime, what we need from Cradle to Career partnerships are stories about how this work is playing out on the ground in your community. Are you currently using assessment tools in this space? If so, which ones and how is it going? We want to hear from you about your experience –both successes and challenges.


Jennifer Blatz About Jennifer Blatz
Jennifer Blatz serves as Deputy Director for StriveTogether, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, where she oversees StriveTogether’s strategy for accelerating the progress of cradle to career partnerships. This includes providing strategic guidance and oversight to the Cradle to Career Network, as well as StriveTogether’s impact and evaluation, knowledge management and strategic assistance functions.

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