Measuring Social and Emotional Learning in Children
Three tools that can help educators
Measuring how a student is performing in reading or math is often more straightforward than measuring how they manage emotions, cope with life stressors, feel and show empathy, establish healthy relationships, achieve positive goals, and make responsible decisions. Yet, without assessing these social and emotional skills, all other achievements may be short-lived. USAID’s Education Policy recognizes the important role that social and emotional skills play in a child’s development, future learning, and success. For instance, responsible decision-making involves the ability to identify a problem, analyze a situation, consider ethical issues, reflect, and find a solution.
Three Tools to Measure Social and Emotional Skills
USAID education programs are making an effort to measure how children gain social and emotional skills, and the Agency is also eager to learn from organizations that already have experiencing measuring these skills. Save the Children, a USAID implementing partner, has extensive experience in developing and using tools for measuring social and emotional learning (SEL) in children. Dr. Nikhit D’Sa, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Learning at Save the Children, recently presented at USAID on three measurement tools for assessing SEL and what his organization has learned from developing and using them.
1. The International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) for understanding young children's school readiness
IDELA is an easy-to-use, rigorous, and validated assessment that focuses on measuring the motor development, language and literacy, math and numeracy, and social and emotional learning of children from 3.5 to 6 years old. IDELA administration takes about 30 minutes per child and, as D’Sa pointed out, “Monitoring and evaluation are the focus of this tool. It was not designed for tracking or screening children.”
Save the Children developed IDELA in 2011 and tested it in 12 countries. Since then, its growth has been exponential. After officially launching it in 2014 and making it freely available, 36 Save the Children country offices and 67 external partner organizations have leveraged IDELA as of January 2019. In 2017, Save the Children created the IDELA website and community of practice. This platform hosts resources from 40 different countries and provides various language translations. This year, IDELA also is making training videos available through the platform.
2. The International Social and Emotional Learning Assessment (ISELA) for measuring SEL skills in primary-grade children
The ISELA helps us understand the development of SEL skills in children between 6-12 years, and whether this development differs by key equity factors: age, gender, socioeconomic status, exposure to adversity, and interpersonal threats in the environment around the child. The tool is designed to be cost-free, feasible, and adaptable for different cultural and social contexts. ISELA was not designed to identify which children need referrals to psychosocial support services but rather to evaluate the effect of SEL programs and monitor change in SEL competencies over time. Save the Children has been developing this tool since 2015. It launched it in 2018 and is freely available to partners. The administration time for ISELA is about 30 minutes per child.
ISELA does not rely on Likert-type scales; alternatively, it uses vignettes and performance-based measures to understand key SEL skills in children. To measure self-concept, ISELA uses drawing and other imagination-driven activities to understand whether a child can foresee a hopeful future and helps identify support and barriers for reaching that future self. ISELA also has children describe the strategies they use to control their levels of stress. The tool measures perseverance by having students perform harder drawing tasks, while it measures empathy and conflict resolution through vignettes that ask children to interpret the emotions and intentions of their peers.
3. The Holistic Assessment of Learning and Development Outcomes (HALDO) for situational analysis in conflict and crisis settings
HALDO measures the literacy, numeracy, and social and emotional learning of children ages 4 to 12 years affected by conflict and crisis. Results from HALDO can help decision makers prioritize education responses, policies, investments, and encourage discussions with local communities and donors. Save the Children started to develop HALDO in 2018 to meet the need in emergency contexts for a rapid assessment that could cover multiple domains of development over a wide age-range. “We wanted a tool that we could use rapidly in emergencies but also adapt and get information on children’s learning and development,” said D’Sa. “We are able to do a rapid assessment because we use a linear progression of what certain skills look like and then we have a drop-in point. If children answer the question right, we move to the next question. If they don’t, we move to the previous one.”
Although HALDO is still in development, D’Sa said it’s allowed Save the Children to better understand the learning and development of children and modify programs to best suit their needs. The biggest challenge with this tool, he added, is that it has to measure the same skills for a 4-year-old and a 12-year-old. Then again, this tool was not created for screening or diagnosis purposes but for conducting a situation analysis and for monitoring programs.
Access the SEL and soft skills online learning module from the Global Education Learning Series
Measuring SEL: What Have We Learned?
Save the Children designed these three tools for use in low-resource and fragile settings because existing tools were resource-intensive, hard to adapt, and not feasible for the contexts USAID and its partners work in. Developing these tools, according to D’Sa, has led to three important learnings.
First, D’Sa explained that measuring SEL often requires a long-term investment that balances time, resources (like local capacity and operations support), and commitment (from field staff, partners, local ministries, etc.). For example, IDELA and ISELA were iteratively tested in 12 different program sites for over three years. Even after this development process, it takes between three months to three weeks to appropriately translate, adapt, and train assessors to collect IDELA or ISELA data in a new context. “If we do not have sufficient time, resources, and partner commitment to the measurement process, we need to question whether we should be undertaking the study,” said D’Sa.
Second, it is important to discuss the what, why, and how questions early in the process: what SEL data is needed, why it is being collected, and how the data will be used? The answers to these questions can help researchers decide what social and emotional competencies they need to measure and whether they can adapt a tool to their context or whether they need to develop a new tool. Additionally, it can help teams decide the kind of tool they need; for example, D’Sa explained that these discussions can help elucidate whether you need a tool that helps measure sufficient variation in skills to be used in an impact evaluation or whether you need a tool that can accurately be used to screen children who need additional psychosocial referrals.
A third learning that D’Sa discussed was the importance of understanding the adaptation process, a process that includes a review of tools, contextual translation, back translation, cognitive interviewing, assessor training, pilot testing, and finalization. Even after many years of development, testing, piloting, and use at scale, the tools described above still require a rigorous adaptation process. “The ‘off-the-shelf’ SEL tool is a myth,” said D’Sa. SEL tools require a rigorous contextual adaptation because of what they measure. Social and emotional skills are normative; the way these skills look from place to place varies. “My concern is that as we move forward in this conversation we end up in a space where we advocate for measures that seem objective, even when they aren’t,” said D’Sa. “This is especially true for social and emotional learning because it is normative and it changes based on the norms in that specific cultural and social context. We must push the conversation forward about adaptive ways of measuring SEL.”
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