Misconceptions about Social and Emotional Learning – Misconception Four

Misconception #4: “Elementary Students Can’t Report on their own Social Emotional Skills”

Main Author:  Dana Murano, Ph.D
Supporting Author: Jeremy Burrus, Ph.D
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

This post is the fifth in a series about misconceptions we often hear about social emotional learning (SEL). In each post, we will tackle a common misunderstanding about SEL and attempt to clarify some misconceptions. The first two posts in the series concern the measurement of social emotional (SE) skills, the third tackles how SEL can be taught at school, and the fourth the belief that sometimes you can have too much Grit . In this post, we’ll discuss social emotional learning for elementary-aged students – in particular, how we can still measure SE skills in some of our youngest students.

Recall our first two blogs in this series tackled measurement of SE skills. We concluded that while no easy feat, obtaining valid and reliable measures of SE skills is totally doable when we adhere to best practices established by the field of psychometrics. Measuring SE skills is key for evaluating the efficacy of SEL interventions and for monitoring student growth and progress.

Valid and reliable measures of SE skills are particularly important for students in the elementary grades where SEL interventions are commonly implemented. However, several questions arise when considering assessment of elementary students. For example, do they know enough about themselves to accurately report their skills (might we say they have misconceptions about themselves)? Can they read well enough to understand and answer all the items? Due to these, and other, concerns, it remains an open issue who will actually complete SE skills assessments for elementary students. Should it be teachers? Parents? Students themselves?

Having parents and teachers report on social emotional skills  

The truth is that each of these methods is a feasible way to measure elementary students’ SE skills. Assessments designed for parents and teachers to complete are what we call other-informant measures. Basically, we ask someone who knows the target student well to answer some questions about them. These questions are generally in the form of Likert items, or items that ask respondents to rate how strongly they agree with a statement. An example item a parent or teacher would respond to is, “This child gets along well with others.”

Other-informant measures can be valuable, particularly when we are asking teachers or parents to report on directly observable behaviors. Teachers and parents can often accurately rate how well a student stays on task or shares toys with others. However, these types of measures do have some challenges.

  • Measuring internalized behaviors – It can be difficult for a parent or teacher to tell when a student feels scared, or anxious, or is curious about a topic since these are not observable behaviors.
  • They take lots of time – We all know that teachers are already some of the busiest people on the planet, so sometimes asking them to complete an assessment for every student in their classroom isn’t feasible. This can be very time consuming!
  • Teachers and Parents can be biased, too – There is often an assumption that self-reported assessments are more biased than other-informant assessments, but this isn’t always the case. Teachers, for example, can be biased by student academic performance, rating students who do well academically higher on SE skills than students who perform worse academically, demonstrating what is sometimes called a “halo effect”. Parents, too, can be biased. After all, most parents like to see their children in a positive light, and thus we should expect their ratings of their children to reflect this.

This is where we run into our misconception of the week – that other-informant reports are the only solution to measuring SE skills in younger students. As stated above, we frequently hear that younger students lack metacognitive knowledge and reading fluency to accurately report on their own SE skills, and therefore, that expecting students to self-report on their own SE skills isn’t feasible. Recent research, however, shows that this notion is wrong! Results from several recent studies show that young students can validly and reliably report on their own SE skills.

Elementary students CAN report on their own SE skills

For example, in a recent large-scale study, 10-year olds from eleven cities across the world responded to self-report questionnaires measuring their SE skills. Results showed moderate correlations between students’ self-reports and teacher reports, as well as promising reliability and validity evidence, demonstrating that children can indeed report on their own SE skills (and that this can be done with children across the world).

Some of our own research has also demonstrated that we can obtain valid and reliable measures of students’ SE skills as young as eight years old. We developed a SE skills assessment for third, fourth, and fifth grade students with image-based items (see example below) in order to increase student engagement and reduce reading load. Results from our pilot studies show promising reliability and validity evidence, and that the skills Sustaining Effort and Getting Along with Others were most highly correlated with students’ academic performance. Furthermore, qualitative data from teachers show that students enjoyed taking the assessment. This serves as further support that elementary-aged students can report on their own SE skills.

How else can we measure SE skills in young children?

We’ve shared evidence from self-report assessments so far, but there are additional ways in which we can obtain measures of SE skills directly from elementary students. In direct assessments, students are asked to complete tasks or solve problems that require application of SE skills. Students as young as age three can complete some of these performance-based tasks. So while we set out to dispel misconceptions about elementary-aged students, this applies to preschool-aged students as well!  Game-based assessments can also be used with elementary-aged students. In this approach, students play a game in which they encounter interpersonal situations and decisions they make in the game reflect levels of different SE skills needed to succeed in the situations. In this study, third and fourth graders who showed higher social competence in a game-based SEL assessment showed more positive social, behavioral, and academic adjustment.

Misconception resolved

Elementary students probably have fewer misconceptions about themselves than we think, and now you have fewer about them, too. It is entirely possible for elementary-aged students to report on their own SE skills. This can be particularly advantageous when considering teacher time, and it also allows teachers, counselors, and parents to gain perspective into students’ own thoughts and perceptions of themselves. Obtaining this information is key to promote social and emotional development in students.

We hope that you have learned something new, and no longer think that other-informant reports are the only solutions for your elementary students. We no longer believe in this misconception either, and we are continuing development work on a student-reported SE skills assessment for third, fourth, and fifth grade students. At this time, we have several spaces available to participate in a free pilot opportunity of this assessment, so please visit this link if you are interested!

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.