Connecting Social and Emotional Learning to Foundational Skills: Four Lessons from Tajikistan
“You came with your tools, and we made them ours.”
Education programs that promote social and emotional learning (SEL) have resulted in significant gains in students’ academic performance, according to hundreds of studies cited by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. To explore the relationship between SEL and academic learning outcomes, the Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) invited ECCN members from EdIntersect to share their experiences conducting research in Tajikistan as part of the USAID Learn Together Activity (USAID LTA). The five-year activity aims to improve reading comprehension, critical thinking skills, and mathematics skills among primary students in Tajikistan while increasing government capacity in the education system.
The ECCN began the two-part webinar, Exploring Social Emotional Learning and Foundational Skills, on July 25 with presentations from Dr. Louise Bahry, USAID LTA Monitoring and Evaluation Expert; Dr. Mary Faith Mount-Cors, EdIntersect Founder and President; and Dr. Michel Rousseau, Associate Professor at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. They supported USAID LTA in adapting measurement tools to Tajikistan and collecting baseline data.
Here are some key takeaways from the July 25 event for ECCN members:
1. Most research on the relationship between SEL and foundational skills comes from high-income countries.
Evidence has shown that the social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic domains of child development are interconnected in the brain and all play a role in learning. But the majority of research connecting SEL programs to academic learning outcomes was done in high-income countries.
Dr. Bahry stressed, “We need to consider that learners from low- and middle-income countries could certainly face different challenges, especially if they live in conflict-affected areas. Little is known about these relationships between SEL and academic performance in those contexts.”
USAID LTA in Tajikistan provided an opportunity to collect data about these links in a middle-income country that has seen a civil war in the 1990s, high rates of labor migration, the COVID-19 pandemic, impacts of the war in Ukraine, and recent ethnic strife.
2. Adapting SEL tools requires more than translation—it must consider dynamics of the culture.
Dr. Mount-Cors noted, “Adapting SEL tools goes well beyond a simple process.” Adapting these tools to different contexts involves understanding the language and dynamics of the culture.
Dr. Mount-Cors draws on a framework for intercultural communication that compares low- and high-context cultures. In low-context cultures such as the United States, people tend to favor explicit information and direct communication, while in high-context cultures like Tajikistan, people tend to favor more implicit information and nuanced communication. “Building shared understanding of constructs and measurement approaches needs to take into account these intercultural specificities,” Dr. Mount-Cors said.
To effectively adapt measurement tools to Tajikistan, USAID LTA researchers collaborated with the country’s Ministry of Education and Science, the National Testing Center, the Institute for Education, and teachers to tailor the tools for grades 2 and 4 in Tajik and Russian. Together, they developed, tested, and revised an SEL instrument, early grade reading assessment, and early grade math assessment.
Dr. Mount-Cors recalled, “One of our principal Ministry colleagues that worked with us on the instrument development … he said, ‘You came with your tools, and we made them ours.’”
3. These baseline data can help future research uncover connections between SEL and foundational skills.
Although there were limitations to the research in Tajikistan—for example, the study design could only reveal correlation, not causation—USAID LTA’s baseline assessment “offers a perspective for refining research questions and instruments to begin uncovering where these connections may exist,” Dr. Bahry highlighted.
For now, some of the conclusions researchers found include:
- Older students in grade 4 showed greater levels of overall SEL competencies than students in grade 2.
- Reading results showed significant associations with empathy, stress management, and conflict resolution in three of the baseline assessment’s four subgroups.
- In math, researchers didn’t observe any systematic patterns, and results showed weaker associations with SEL competencies than seen in the reading results.
These data will be valuable not only to the government of Tajikistan, but also to education researchers continuing to explore the relationship between SEL and learner outcomes in crisis and conflict settings. Dr. Bahry noted, “This is an important first step to approach linkages to the Global Proficiency Framework.”
4. SEL skills “are important in and of themselves, whether they bring an academic gain or not.”
Evidence has shown SEL development is critical to children’s well-being, and programs should continue to incorporate SEL to ensure a holistic approach to foundational learning.
Dr. Mount-Cors remarked, “If we’re bringing in a program that’s not also focused on those human aspects of child development, and what those mean for overall well-being, then maybe we’re going to miss the boat … on foundational learning that we’re trying so hard to make happen.”
Watch the full event recording
This event was part of a series to address USAID’s Education in Crisis and Conflict Learning Agenda question: “Which education interventions are the most effective in improving student well-being in crisis and conflict contexts?” If you have relevant examples from your own work, share them with the LinkedIn ECCN Member Discussion group and continue the conversation!
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