Michael Nettles - Why the ‘Whole Child’ Matters




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Dec 04, 2016
by Michael T. Nettles
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Michael Nettles - Why the ‘Whole Child’ Matters

ETS Senior Vice President and multi-time Salzburg Global Fellow on why measuring social and emotional learning is important Nettles speaks at the opening of the session "Getting Smart: Measuring and Evaluating Social and Emotional Skills"

I am delighted to see so many familiar faces — and also so many unfamiliar faces! It is great to be with old friends, and it is great to make new friends, also known as Allies in the Cause.

And it is a good cause! I would characterize our goal over the next few days as coming up with new ways to make students better people — better friends, better sons and daughters, better co-workers, better citizens, and of course better students — by developing their social and emotional skills. Social and emotional learning, or SEL, involves going beyond development of students’ cognitive skills to develop what is sometimes referred to as “the whole child.”

I like how our friend and colleague Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, put it in one of his excellent blog entries on the Huffington Post last year:

Common sense tells us that social and emotional skills — such as perseverance, self-control or agreeableness — help individuals have more fulfilling lives. People who persevere and work hard are more likely to succeed in a highly dynamic and skill-driven labor market. Those who work hard are more likely to follow healthier lifestyles and remain fit. Individuals who are capable of coping with their emotions and adapting to change are more likely to cope with job loss, family disintegration or crime. And of course, social and emotional skills matter because they help develop and enforce cognitive skills. Children with self-control, for example, are more likely to finish reading a book, to complete a difficult maths problem or to follow through a science project. [1]

That is as good an argument and as comprehensive a summary as I have seen as to why social and emotional learning matters. I am not surprised, given that the OECD is a leader in this research, which includes an international longitudinal study of skills development in major cities around the world [2]. It is sure to advance the cause of social and emotional learning.

I do not want to spend too much time persuading you of the importance of SEL research and interventions. Presumably, you are already persuaded and would not be here otherwise. But I do want to articulate what I presume is a shared belief — namely, that we are each here because we each believe that the success of our communities, our countries, and our infinitely diverse global society depends on one simple thing: our ability to get along with one another, whether in the playroom, the classroom, the workplace, the checkout line, the subway, and the public square. Perhaps most importantly, we have to get along with ourselves. As our friend and colleague from an earlier era, put it, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” [3]

If that is true, then far too few of us know how to sit quietly in our rooms. The world is a very troubled place.

Are we patient? Are we respectful? Are we tolerant of our differences in appearance, values, belief, habits and behavior? Do we persevere through adversity, and even failure? Can we empathize with the suffering of others? Are we able to work collaboratively and creatively toward shared goals? Can we keep our tempers in check, more or less?

These are some of the questions SEL asks. When we can answer them in the affirmative, we will have made the world a less troubled place. So this is important work that we are doing here this week.

A question that you may ask is why any of this is of interest to my organization, ETS. We are known for our world-class educational assessments: the TOEIC and TOEFL tests of English proficiency; the GRE graduate-school admissions test; the National Assessment of Educational Progress for the United States Department of Education; the PISA and PIAAC assessments for the OECD among them.

ETS has a longstanding interest in understanding and measuring noncognitive traits for both the academic and workplace arenas, and in designing tools to develop those traits. Among our initial assessments in this area was the ETS Personal Potential Index, a large-scale test that institutions of higher education used for evaluating resilience, teamwork, and other personal attributes considered important for postsecondary success.

More recently, we developed the ETS SuccessNavigator assessment. It is a 30-minute, nonproctored, online test to help colleges identify, and provide support for, at-risk first-year students. It does so by measuring a student’s behaviors, beliefs and skills that directly affect academic success, such as their commitment to academic success; their ability to anticipate and respond to the pressures and stresses of college life; and their access to resources to support their academic success.

For the workplace, we recently developed what we call the WorkFORCE Assessment for Job Fit. It is a web-based, employment-recruiting tool that measures a job applicant on six behavioral competencies associated with workplace success: flexibility and resilience; initiative and perseverance; responsibility; teamwork and citizenship; customer-service orientation; and problem solving and ingenuity. A companion measure, the WorkFORCE Program for Career Development, is an assessment and training program to support employee and job-seeker success by identifying the same six traits.

We have discontinued the Personal Potential Index, but we are intensifying our research and development of noncognitive traits and measures because of the growing evidence of their importance in school, work, and life from multiple fields and sources, including neuroscience, health, employment, psychology, classroom management, learning theory, economics, and the prevention of youth problem behaviors. In our time together this week, we will learn about this expanding body of research, much of which is drawn from programs and interventions that have successfully integrated SEL with classroom practice and produced positive results.

In my own reading of the literature, I have found the evidence highly compelling. An organization that does excellent work in this area is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, which is based in Chicago. In 2011, CASEL conducted a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students. It showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement among students who participated in SEL programs compared to students who did not. Participating students also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. [4]

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found statistically significant associations between measured social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young-adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health. The findings would seem to support use of an SEL test to measure whether kindergartners are at risk for deficits in noncognitive skills later in life so that they can receive early intervention. [5]

As for the cost of SEL interventions, CASEL points to a recent study by researchers at Columbia University showing that the measurable benefits of SEL exceed its costs, in some instances dramatically. [6]

Cost, then, should not be an impediment to broad use of SEL in schools.

Neither should politics. But that is always a wild card in public education. That is certainly the case in the United States, where public education is far less centralized than in many other countries. Very often, public education becomes a proxy for political and cultural combat between the Left and the Right.

It would seem that SEL could be just one more field of battle. I can see conservatives viewing social and emotional interventions as politically correct coddling of children who would benefit more from some old-fashioned discipline — what we call the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach to pedagogy. And I can see progressives viewing SEL, with its emphasis on behavior, as a way for conservatives to infect the curriculum with conservative morality.

And yet …

And yet two Washington, D.C., public policy think tanks — the Brookings Institution on the left, and the American Enterprise Institute on the right — recently collaborated on a study on ways to improve the prospects of people born into poverty. If there is anything that provokes partisan conflict, it is poverty relief.

And yet these partisan scholars found common ground on SEL. Their recommendations include educating “the whole child to promote social-emotional and character development as well as academic skills.” [7] Even the authors seemed surprised by their agreement. But as they write in their report, “The only way forward, we believe, is to work together.” [8]

It must have taken enormous amounts of social and emotional skills for them to work together, let alone agree!

Finally, this topic is of interest to ETS in the context of our previous Salzburg Global Seminars, in particular last year’s. It was titled “Untapped Talent,” and it asked the question “Can better testing and data accelerate creativity in learning and societies?” We answered in the affirmative. Our view was that much of the data being generated in our Information Age can be captured, analyzed and put to use to improve educational and workplace outcomes through such tools as data mining and analytics.

It was an excellent and productive session. In fact, participants suggested that we broaden the discussion beyond academic, technical and vocational skills to include social and emotional skills and measures.

And so here we are.

This work is not without challenges. It is true that there is a foundation of excellent, groundbreaking, cross-discipline research in support of integrating SEL with cognitive classroom work. And as I noted a moment ago, there is even political common ground on which SEL interventions can move forward.

But social and emotional skills measurement is still in its nascent stage. And to state the obvious, it is quite unlike measuring cognitive skills. We are not measuring a student’s ability to solve a math — or “maths” — problem, dissect a frog or identify five causes of the Second World War. Measuring soft skills entails an element of subjectivity. Moreover, some of the successful programs that have been studied were customized for local conditions and are not easily replicable or scalable. Wide adoption of SEL interventions will require development of reliable, valid and scalable measures.

But I do believe that will happen, hopefully in part through our discussions here this week.

It seems like a blindingly obvious proposition: Being a good, empathic, thoughtful, even-tempered person able to work with others will make you happier, healthier, and more productive. We have an expression in the United States to indicate something that is so obvious: “Duh.”

But just because 15 scholars in Washington, D.C., can agree on an issue does not mean that the issue is settled. It may just mean that the battle is joined. It is certain that there will be resistance to the very idea that schools should teach emotional skills instead of just focusing on the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. And as always, there is unlikely to be one approach that will work for all countries and cultures. There should not be. The approach needs to fit the place, not the other way around.

Still, we are not starting from scratch. And social and emotional learning does have something for all parties. Teachers support it, employers want it, economists value it, and researchers are excited by it.

I hope we all view the next few days as an opportunity to learn from one another and to inspire, encourage, and motivate one another to bring back to our home countries a simple message: the whole child matters.

[1]  Andreas Schleicher. (2015). “Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills,” HuffingtonPost.com.

[2] International Longitudinal Study of Skills Development in Cities, OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

[3] Blaise Pascal, The Pensées.

[4] J.A. Durlak, R.P. Weissberg, A.B. Dymnicki, R.D. Taylor and K.B. Schellinger. (2011). “The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions.” Child Development magazine, 82(1): 405–432. See also CASEL website Research page.

[5] Damon E. Jones, Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley. (2015). "Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” American Journal of Public Health: Vol. 105, No. 11, pp. 2283-2290. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630.

[6] Clive Belfield, Brooks Bowden, Alli Klapp, Henry Levin, Robert Shand and Sabine Zander. (2015). "The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning," Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education Teachers College, Columbia University www.cbcse.org. See also CASEL website Research page.

[7] American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. (2015). “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, p.5. See also CASEL website Research page.

[8] Ibid.

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