3 Tips for Developing and Assessing Soft Skills: First, Take Off Your Emotional Armor

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As I watched Jamal present his Life Story in his 6th grade pride circle, I was struck not so much by the quality of the content or structure of his presentation–on paper, those elements probably would not have received a high grade–but by the impact he was having on the other boys. They were giving him their full attention. Most were wiggling their fingers at him like crazy—at our schools that’s a way to silently send love or support—and connection was palpable. What, exactly, was he bringing into the room and how was he doing it?

Based on my years of experience as a child therapist—helping young people build stronger, sturdier, more purposeful and hopeful lives—I would define what Jamal brought to the room as vulnerability. He was demonstrating great courage (another word for vulnerability) by standing in his truth and bringing it into the group. This is especially remarkable considering the context; 11-year-old boys in middle school aren't often encouraged to be so vulnerable and are often socially punished for doing so.

I'm relatively new to the mainstream public school sector. In my role as the Chief Culture Officer at  Valor Collegiate Academy, I’ve been wrestling lately with how to quantify, develop, and measure competencies like vulnerability in children (and adults) so that experiences like Jamal’s can become the rule rather than the exception.

Educators, I've learned, are experts in defining standards and benchmarks and then creating assessments to determine if students are on track; I’ve learned a tremendous amount about good learning and teaching just by watching them do this. I believe this same approach is essential to embedding social and emotional learning (SEL) into the broader school context. At the same time, I'm aware that applying this process to competencies like vulnerability doesn't quite work.

I'm reminded of a lyric from one of my musical heroes:

tell me what kind of gauge

can quantify elation?

what kind of equation

could i possibly employ?

Ani Difranco, School Night

What type of scope and sequence and assessment can we possibly employ to help define, develop, and measure these types of emotional and relational competencies?

At Valor, we are deeply engaged in answering this question and I want to share a few thoughts about what we're grappling with.

1. Social and emotional competencies emerge in the context of relationships.

We are inspired by the robust research and practice coming out of interpersonal neurobiology (IPN) research and work. Defining, developing, and measuring vulnerability must be done within the context of relationships. Jamal's ability to be vulnerable is deeply connected to his placement within a supportive, safe circle of trust.

2. Many social and emotional competencies are state-based.

Many social and emotional competencies don't unfold in scopes and sequences the way math skills might. Instead, they can be thought of as states that can or can't be accessed based on internal or external conditions. Emotional vulnerability (courage), for example, is essentially a state of open-heartedness that anyone can access in the right context. These skills are often about taking off armor and we quickly realize that children often have significantly less of this armor than do adults.

  • How do we ensure our children don't put on all the emotional armor that we've created for ourselves?
  • How do we help them maintain their natural curiosity and kindness?
  • How do we put them in contexts that maintain their natural tendency to trust and to truth-tell?

3. Social and emotional competencies can't be reduced to cognitive skills.

By definition, social and emotional competencies are not cognitive skills and so we can't define and measure them as such. Vulnerability is performed and felt and we need to define and measure it in a way that honors this. At Valor, an assessment of SEL skills includes:

  • Contextual assessments: Does Jamal have a safe, supportive circle in which to be vulnerable?
  • Performance assessments: Did Jamal convey key elements of his inner experience in his life story?
  • Self reports: How often does Jamal take risks and share things about himself with others?

We're working to build our own map of definitions, practices, and assessment approaches. More importantly, we are working hard to create the contexts where everyone in our community is invited to access and bring his or her authentic self and Big Heart to school everyday.

We’d love to hear from others who are taking risks and placing things like emotional safety, connection, trust, and vulnerability at the center of their classroom or school practices. And then figuring out how to measure what emerges!

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