For those of you who don’t know, I spent three years working for an education technology start-up company in Silicon Valley. Our charge was to provide a personalized experience to each of our students through digital technology, and we leveraged playlists to do this. On each playlist, there was a series of activities, intended to be catered to each individual child. Each playlist card had the functionality to be “tagged” with learning objectives, helping us keep track of which standards we covered and when. Each tag also allowed us to rate a child’s proficiency from emerging to mastery.

We didn’t only try to personalize based on academic content, though; we also tried to personalize for social and emotional competencies, since we knew this was a integral component to teaching the whole child. That means the aforementioned playlist cards could also be tagged with socio-emotional competencies. In theory, if a child demonstrated “mastery” in resilience on a given task, we could rate that quantitatively in conjunction with the academic content.

To make a long story short, it didn’t really work.

I did my best to use the system and to rate these socio-emotional competencies, but one of a few scenarios usually materialized. The first–and most frequent–scenario was that I simply didn’t have the time to collect socio-emotional data (SED) in a valid and reliable way. The frequency and duration at which I collected SED was never consistent, and I found that I was collecting more quantitative data on the socio-emotional struggles than I was on the successes.

I also noticed that my data ended up looking like one of those EKG tests. The data was up and down and then up again–and then down again. You get the point. The data varied so much because the nature of SED is that it naturally varies based on situation, context, and the events of the day. This is true for adults, too. One day we might be especially self-aware or self-regulated because we got enough sleep, had enough to eat, or just happen to be in a good mood that day. Another day, we might have trouble attending to a task or exercising our resilience because of a number of factors. Having a good day or a bad day doesn’t necessarily mean we have progressed or regressed in socio-emotional competencies; it simply means that yesterday was a good day and today was a bad day.

The third scenario is that I just would completely disengage with documenting SED because it became so frustrating. Entering numbers into the system was not making me a more mindful pedagogue or a more empathetic teacher. It was creating an obsession with documenting student behavior when I should have, instead, been having conversations with my students and teaching them about behavior and decision-making.

I eventually got to a point where I stopped collecting SED in this way. I realized it wasn’t working at all, and I knew I need to make a change. In the process of changing, I started to wonder: how did I get to this point? What made me feel that I needed to go to these lengths to document socio-emotional learning?

Better yet, why are we so obsessed with collecting data in this manner?

We seek to measure most that which we want to control but we cannot. It makes me think of Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability scholar and author of Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead. She set out trying to measure vulnerability in an effort to defeat it, ultimately discovering that in order to overcome shame and feel comfortable with vulnerability, we must have the courage to be vulnerable and live in an open-hearted manner. In so many words, we must let go and have the courage to step into ourselves and our imperfections.

I think of socio-emotional learning (SEL) in this way, too. We go in trying to measure SEL in an effort to control, predict, and ultimately solve the “problem” of socio-emotional learning. But it only makes matters worse. These metrics we use to measure SEL end up distorting the very processes we intended to measure in the first place, a phenomenon known as Campbell’s Law. They cause us to use five-point rubrics, point systems like Class Dojo, or clip charts to measure and control student behavior, when all along, the best way to address socio-emotional learning is through vulnerability and human connection.

This means letting go of the desire to control and predict it, but instead to take it as it comes. This means abandoning the notion of documenting our kids’ every move, and instead taking the time to get to know each child on a personal level, allowing every moment you share with them to populate your both your conscious and instinctual understanding of them. This means walking away from the idea that you need to document everything to prove your worth as a teacher.

This final one is the hardest for me. I think to myself frequently, If I don’t document everything, what happens when there’s an issue? Will the parents believe me? Will my administrator believe me?

Here’s the thing: it’s possible they won’t even if you do all of that documenting. Again, I would argue the value of the relationship and human connection will be more impactful than the list of incidents documented in your Google Doc. If you are proactive with parents, build relationships with them, and remember to communicate both the strengths and obstacles of the child in a compassionate way, it’s likely they will believe and understand your perspective on their child.

I’m not saying this is easy or simple.

Vulnerability is hard work. Socio-emotional learning is rigorous, nuanced, and complex. But the only way to being to understand it is to engage with it, to be compassionate with yourself, and to allow yourself the opportunity to make some mistakes with it. Documenting and quantifying your students’ every move is not the way to understand it better. It only distracts and deters us from what really matters–and that is getting to know your students on a personal level. It’s being able to look into their eyes and get to the bottom of what’s causing obstacles with social or emotional competencies.

So, as you start your school year, I am going to challenge you to delete your Class Dojo account, to throw away the clip chart, and to stop rating your students’ social and emotional competencies with quantitative metrics. Instead, try taking these steps instead:

  • Better understand what these competencies are so you can name them when you see them. I personally like the CASEL Framework, but I’m sure there are are strong frameworks out there, too.
  • Do your research into social and emotional learning so you become more adept at identifying the functions of disruptive behaviors. The Cornerstone Autism Center defines these as: (S) Sensory Stimulation, (E) Escape, (A) Access to Attention, (T) Access to Tangibles.
  • Call parents in the beginning of the school year, and have a conversation with them about their child. Find out more about their strengths and challenges, and get some insight from parents into why they think their child succeeds or struggles in various situations.
  • When a child struggles or opposes you, ask them why. I still struggle with this one, but I’m rarely disappointed when I remember to ask them why they’re struggling. A lot of times, children have a great deal of conscious insight into what’s bothering them.

Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. This and more in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, which comes out October 1! Pre-order your copy now!

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