…starting this year, several California school districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.
A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance. So other states are watching these districts as a potential model. But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.
Testing children’s social and emotional skills is a bad idea. These skills are crucial to school success and life long happiness—we’ve seen this through many research studies. But skills such as self and social awareness, managing emotions, developing empathy, forming positive relationships, and learning conflict resolution skills grow over time in children and from the inside out. They develop in children as the result of interactions with others in classrooms that foster these skills through the curriculum, relationships, and activities specifically designed to encourage social and emotional skill building.
Research shows that reward systems can influence social and emotional behavior, but the learning does not last once the rewards are removed. We want children to be kind and feel empathy for others even when the teacher isn’t looking or the promise of earning points isn’t there. Research has also shown that self reporting does not match up with actual behavior. Most importantly, we learn from moral development theory that the more we try to control children from the outside, the less they learn to regulate themselves from within.Building skills for social and emotional awareness and skill should permeate every classroom and be encouraged in every child. It’s essential for their success in school and in life. But testing these skills will only undermine that vital goal.Eric Schaps/Founder, Developmental Studies Center:The challenge of assessing SEL skills in any affordable, feasible, large-scale way is that such assessments are — inevitably — vulnerable to social desirability and social pressure influences. Those vulnerabilities become all the greater as the assessments become high stakes and as pressures mount on schools to “look good.”Linda Lantieri/ Educator and Author of Building Emotional Intelligence:It is helpful to have a sense of how much progress is made when social and emotional learning is taught in schools. However there are other creative ways besides testing to do that. For example, schools could use Portfolio Assessment to assess competence. Students could reflect and journal over time on how they approach certain conflict situations or how they strengthen certain relationships and discuss how they are using their learned SEL skills to do that. Progress in this area is best when assessment is used for the purpose of self improvement and differentiation of instruction.William Crain; Professor of Psychology, The City College of New York:For over three decades, many of us have been concerned about the impact of the standards movement on children’s emotions. Increasing academic and testing demands, imposed at younger and younger ages, have been producing considerable stress. What’s more, the single-minded focus on academics has crowded out important areas of children’s lives—artistic activities, the exploration of nature, and the development of social and imaginative capacities through play. I have often felt that children frequently seem so lethargic and unhappy not only because they are stressed out, but also because they haven’t had a chance to develop their full potentials. Their development atrophies, and they feel stagnant.Recently, some standards advocates have become more alert to children’s social and emotional problems and needs. They want to teach and test for social-emotional skills. But I doubt that their approach will work.They, like the standards movement in general, assume that it’s up to us, as adults, to decide what children should learn. Standards advocates fail to see that children have an inner drive to develop different capacities at different ages, and when given a chance to do so, children spontaneously engage in activities with great enthusiasm and perseverance.Educators need to take a more child-centered approach, taking their cues from children, seeing what children themselves are ready and eager to learn. If educators did this, they would find that children naturally develop a wide-ranging passion for learning–for books, nature, and people. Educators would see that children naturally stick with tasks they care deeply about. The need to teach and test for social-emotional skills wouldn’t arise.