• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 27th August, 2010

Rush leads to social-emotional learning assessment

Critics of the investment being made in social and emotional learning on both sides of the Atlantic point to a lack of scientific clarity about terms, needs assessment and quantifiable benefit. Overblown interest in what amounts to little more than tuition in social skills and vaguer notions of "character" some say. [See, for example, Are we being dumb about emotional intelligence?]On the other side of the argument, social rejection, emotional distress and combinations of the two are known to do long-lasting damage to development. And there is increasingly well-drawn neurological evidence showing how physical pain and the suffering associated with feelings of social rejection travel the same neural pathways. Usefully in the gap between, are findings from the Rush NeuroBehavioral Center, in Skokie, Illinois, lately published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Research director Clark McKown and his team set out to create a basis for assessing students’ social and emotional educational needs acknowledging that several states had passed legislation requiring schools to do so, when what SEL was and how it was best estimated remained unanswered questions. In that wilderness, it was understandably difficult for educators to know how to proceed.“Our findings may help policy makers and educators identify components of SEL to address through curriculum-based interventions. In addition, these studies demonstrate several strategies that can be employed to assess children’s SEL skills, McKown says.The Rush inquiry centered on two groups of Illinois children. One was a random sample of 158 typically developing children in the Chicago school system. The other consisted of 126 children referred to clinics. In the first study, the SEL skills of children from two elementary schools were estimated on the basis of their performance in a string of psychological and behavioral tests, for example dealing with their ability to read emotion in facial expression, posture and gait, also their problem solving ability, self regulation and social competence.The second study centered on a pediatric clinic and used different measures for the same purpose - among them tests of comprehension, pragmatic judgment and another approach to mood recognition.The findings from both studies supported the same conclusion, McKown says: three key factors underpin ordinary social interactions. “Some children have difficulty picking up on non-verbal cues,” he explains. “They simply don’t notice the way someone’s shoulders slump with disappointment, or hear the change in someone’s voice when they are excited, or take in whether a person’s face shows anger or sadness.”Other children may read the signs accurately enough but be unable to do the social problem solving necessary for them to be able to respond appropriately. Those are the ones who say, “I knew he was getting mad, but I didn’t know what to do.”The researchers’ broad conclusion is that a child who can take in social cues, recognize their meaning and respond appropriately, and who is capable of “self-regulating,” or controlling behavior, is more likely to have successful relationships.Those who cannot will be more at greater risk of social rejection. Nearly 13% of the US school-age population, or roughly four million children nationwide, have social-emotional learning difficulties of that kind, McKown estimates.The Rush Center’s coverage of the research says that since it is one of a handful of US states which require school districts to assess and monitor social-emotional learning needs, Illinois should from now on be able to pinpoint which abilities a child lacks – and to offer help.It says the study surpassed McKown’s expectations of success. “Ten years from now,” he says, ”I hope every school in Illinois will screen and assess for social-emotional learning as easily and accurately as we now measure for academic skills.”See: McKown C, Gumbiner L M, Russo N M and Lipton, M, “Social-emotional learning skill, self-regulation, and social competence in typically-developing and clinic-referred children” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 38, 6, pp 858 – 871

Back to Archives