Globally united, locally empowered: New tools to measure social and emotional skills

Measuring socio-emotional and soft skills is essential. However, developing globally applicable, reliable and valid measurement tools is challenging. Learn more about some of the tools developed by governments and partners over the past few years to measure those skills for different purposes and contexts.

July 02, 2024 by Julia Finder Johna, United States Agency for International Development, and Bassem Nasir, UNICEF
4 minutes read
Students at Maandalizi Kikaangoni TuTu center in Kikaangoni, Zanzibar. Credit: GPE/Translieu/Feruzi
Students at Maandalizi Kikaangoni TuTu center in Kikaangoni, Zanzibar.
Credit: GPE/Translieu/Feruzi

In recent years, the international education, development and humanitarian communities have collectively recognized the importance of socio-emotional learning and soft skills (SEL/SS)—in some contexts called ‘life skills,’ ‘21st century skills’ or transferable skills)—toward achieving different outcomes, whether tied to employability, health, civic education learning or improving well-being.

Research, policy and guidance pieces focusing on these skills have multiplied, and stakeholders have increasingly sought to incorporate them across aspects of teaching and learning, including curricula, pedagogy, assessments and related policies.

Measuring and knowing how to measure these competencies in children and youth is key. However, developing globally applicable, reliable and valid measurement tools is challenging.

At the core of this challenge is that socio-emotional and soft skills are inherently context-specific, with different skills being valued and demonstrated in different ways in different settings and by different groups.

These skills also vary by context in how they are conceptualized when applied to achieve different outcomes across social sectors.

A dedicated taskforce

Despite this, governments, donors, the private sector, implementing academic organizations and partners have developed specific tools over the past few years to measure socio-emotional and soft skills for different purposes and contexts. Several of these tools show promise to provide reliable and valid data.

To advance tool development and improve coordination and collaboration in this area, USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) and UNICEF (the UN’s Children Fund) initiated and co-chaired the Social-emotional learning and Soft Skills Measurement Taskforce from 2022 to 2024.1

The taskforce comprised over 200 members from 35 countries representing international and local practitioners, implementing partners, donors and academic institutions working globally, regionally and locally on measuring these skills.

Addressing measurement challenges

The taskforce generated 2 major products identified by members as priorities to advance collective efforts in improving measurement of socio-emotional and soft skills.

The first product was the Local Engagement in Social and Emotional Learning and Soft Skills Measurement Compendium that presents 20 unique cases of projects, programs or initiatives (spanning pre-primary to youth development) that promote locally led processes to adapt existing measurement tools or to develop new tools that prioritize and reflect local contexts.

Key recommendations for policy makers and practitioners included to:

  • Enhance buy-in for SEL/SS measurement by engaging local stakeholders in tool development and advocating for local leadership in the process.
  • Facilitate local engagement by addressing challenges such as aligning tools with local frameworks and overcoming language barriers and inconsistent terminology.
  • Recognize that efforts to increase local involvement are complex and resource-intensive, requiring broad advocacy across multiple stakeholder levels.

The second product - the Social Emotional Learning and Soft Skills Measurement Activity & Gap Analysis Resource Pack - was developed through an intensive stakeholder engagement and expert review.

The resource pack aims to fill a void in current practice by 1) clarifying the types of measurement challenges specific to socio-emotional learning and soft skills and 2) identifying current practices to help address them, drawing on examples from projects, programs or initiatives described further in the pack’s 5 sub-products.

The analysis also identifies remaining gaps in supporting SEL/SS measurement and provides suggestions for mitigating measurement and implementation challenges in the future.

The figure below provides a snapshot of the number of projects facing prominent challenges in measuring socio-emotional and soft skills. Circles depict the number of projects reporting precise challenges by region.

The other products included in the resource pack are a synthesis report and brief of a SEL/SS measurement activity as well as a gap analysis and interactive map of ongoing efforts to address challenges in SEL/SS measurement.

Challenges projects are facing in SEL/SS measurement

The most common measurement challenges were related to identifying valid and reliable assessment tools, which was reported most frequently in sub-Saharan Africa.

Within this region, solutions to address this challenge include: developing and aligning tools to simultaneously address multiple purposes; conducting deep consultations with local stakeholders to develop assessments that respond to specific needs; and creating a multidisciplinary team to develop SEL/SS assessment tools.

For example, practitioners and researchers supporting the Play Matters activity in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda identified a valid and reliable measurement tool after completing a literature review of existing tools, holding consultations with creativity experts to develop a tool for their context and then completing cognitive assessments and piloting the tool with students.

To support the measurement tool identification and development process, Play Matters relied on the Consensual Assessment Technique (CAT)—the golden standard in creativity research—to overcome the challenge of defining and contextualizing creativity.

USAID and UNICEF remain committed to prioritizing the measurement of socio-emotional learning and soft skills across all educational levels and diverse settings. We encourage you to engage with the wealth of information in both products and look forward to sharing more of our work soon.

For more information or to explore collaboration opportunities, please contact Julia Johna or Bassem Nasir.

  1. The taskforce's steering committee included representatives from leading organizations in the field, such as the Foreign Commonwealth, and Development Office, the World Bank, the University of Notre Dame’s Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child, the Global Transforming Intervention Effectiveness at Scale (TIES) for Children research center at New York University (NYU), the LEGO Foundation, Save the Children and FHI 360.

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