In our kitchen at home, my oldest has started cooking which means teaching her how to measure her ingredients. Generally, this is an easy process because we know what the ingredients are and the kitchen is stocked with a collection of  useful measuring tools. It also helps that the recipes we are using agree on the measurements and what is being measured.

Measuring recipe ingredients is child’s play though when we compare it to measuring the social-emotional learning of our children. At the heart of the problem is a lack of common agreement around what we are talking about. Are we discussing grit, resilience, self-control, joy, empathy, or character? Or all of them?

According to the Collaborative on Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

These are hugely broad categories and it is not surprising that education as a field is struggling with measuring SEL. Yet, the race to measure them is on because, perhaps, of the old cliche’ “What gets measured gets treasured.”

Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a strong promoter of grit, recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times opposing the measurement of SEL, particularly as a tool to evaluate the performance of schools and teachers. She shares a study where students at a high performing school rated their performance on SEL measures as lower than their peers at nearby lower performing schools which seems counter intuitive. Our understanding of grit, character, and other components of SEL, she notes, is often based upon the expectations of our surroundings and is highly subjective. The higher the expectations, the lower we may rate ourselves even if we have more grit and resilience than someone who is surrounded by lower expectations. As a school psychologist who looks at social-emotional functioning in students, our results frequently show variations in how the student, teacher, and parents view the student’s social emotional skills. It’s not that the measures are poor; it’s that they are subjective in nature.

So if we can’t measure it, should we just ignore social-emotional learning?

That, we can answer with a resounding no. Educators and psychologists are in agreement in recognizing that emphasizing grit, resilience, empathy, and other components of strong social-emotional skills are incredibly important in the classroom. The non-academic sections of our children’s report cards are just as important and worthy of conversation in our parent-teacher conferences as their academic grades. And, they may often be the reasons for their academic grades.

Grit, resilience, empathy, and self-control are the tools that will help our children encounter the world around them. If we don’t focus on them, our children will be ill-prepared to face the challenges of the future even if they have straight A’s in advanced subjects. Social-emotional learning enhances the educational experience and can push our children even further.

Social-emotional learning is the pinch of salt in the recipe of our children’s learning. It may not be clear exactly how much a pinch is, but we know that it is vitally important to the recipe for education.

This post was originally published on the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School Links blog.