Advocates of educational equity, access, and inclusion for historically underserved children have always struggled to highlight the challenges these children face without defining the children as themselves being those challenges. Indeed, the very term—“historically underserved”—stems from a correction of an older term, “underprivileged.” This switch has been important, because “historically underserved” puts the onus on what adults can control (how systems serve these kids) instead of on the privileges that the kids lack.
This shift should not obscure the complexity within these terms. As the field of education devotes more attention to historically underserved children’s social and emotional development, advocates must also account for ways that different forms of historical inequity influence children’s social and emotional growth in different ways. This is particularly important for linguistically and culturally diverse children in U.S. schools.
An Under-Recognized Strength
The issue of accurate and equitable terminology extends even further for students who speak languages other than English when not in school. In the United States, they have been called everything from Limited English Proficient to English Learners, Dual Language Learners, Emergent Bilingual Learners, and Multilingual Learners, among other labels.
Each of these terms is inadequate in its own way. All define students—who are children in all their diversity and complexity—solely in terms of their languages, and most emphasize the English skills they have not yet fully developed. These kids are more than their linguistic profiles: classifying them so narrowly risks leaving out their other strengths, goals, and needs.
For instance, research often shows that these students score higher on measures of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills than do their monolingual peers. Social and emotional learning includes things like relationship-building skills, emotional self-regulation, and abilities related to the understanding and management of social cues. These are not separate from children’s academic development. A growing research consensus suggests that social and emotional skills have significant academic, health, and long-term social benefits. In its 2017 meta-analysis of the state of research on English Learner (EL) students, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that “Evidence indicates that [ELs] have comparable or better social-emotional competencies relative to their monolingual English peers.” Specifically, ELs appear to score high on self-regulation and interpersonal skills.
New Enthusiasm for Holistic Approaches Child Development—but More Caution Needed
Competencies like those that fall under the umbrella of SEL are sometimes called “non-cognitive” or “non-academic” skills. Whichever term you prefer, there’s no question that it is very much in vogue to discuss them in progressive education circles today. The 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opened the door to converting this interest into firm policy. It allowed states to include a “non-academic” indicator in their systems for rating schools in their accountability systems. However, states have thus far avoided using this opportunity to directly measure students’ SEL skills as part of their ESSA accountability systems.
There are understandable reasons for this. Even those who want U.S. schools to prioritize SEL development are concerned about measuring SEL metrics at scale, and with accountability stakes attached. Schools and teachers are a long way from being ready to implement SEL-focused programming at scale, and it can be difficult to get valid, reliable data on young students’ SEL development with existing tools. As SEL advocate Tim Shriver told Education Week during the time when states were drafting their ESSA plans, interest in SEL was “booming,” but while “Someone might say, ‘Why aren’t you holding states accountable for teaching it?’ The answer to that is we are not ready for it yet.”
Shriver’s implication, however, was clear enough: interest in SEL competencies will eventually move educating for those competencies into systems for measuring school quality.
Designing for Inclusion and Diversity
When social and emotional learning measurement becomes widespread, this availability will offer a considerable opportunity for English-learning students. It could help schools think more capaciously about their English learners. Since ELs, on aggregate, tend to score well on these measures, it could help schools recognize these students in terms of their strengths, not just their still-developing language skills.
Since ELs, on aggregate, tend to score well on these measures, it could help schools recognize these students in terms of their strengths, not just their still-developing language skills.
However, a more precise view of ELs’ social and emotional learning skills won’t arrive automatically. Given how difficult it is to gather solid SEL data for any student, gathering it for ELs will require a high degree of intentionality to avoid duplicating schools’ all-too-common blind spots regarding these students’ diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Any efforts to incorporate these metrics into school ratings and accountability systems must be valid and reliable for multilingual and multicultural students as well.
A study published in Child Development in 2012 shows the limitations of even well-meaning metric design. The study found significant variation in the SEL caregiving practices of Latinx mothers, native-born white mothers, and Asian-heritage mothers. However, it characterizes these variations in terms of “strengths” and “weaknesses.” Latinx households, it found, had similar “social-emotional functioning” levels as the households of native-born white mothers. By contrast, households of Asian-heritage mothers had “weaker social functioning.” It bears noting that the SEL metrics driving this analysis drew upon a relatively limited set of specific questions around conflict (and resolutions) between parents, as well as symptoms of depression. SEL metrics like these are not sufficient to deliver on the modality’s potential, and especially not for EL students.
Later studies have connected these sorts of in-home SEL practices with child outcomes. One found that Latinx children tend to score well on SEL but not as well on early academic and linguistic benchmarks. But it also noted the challenge of limited SEL assessment tools: “Stronger measurement would enrich our understanding of how Latino children grow within particular cultural contexts.” Our yardsticks are still far from adequately calibrated for the job.
This lack of firm data can’t be ignored as enthusiasm for SEL metrics—and linked accountability provisions—grows. Researchers and policymakers need to be cautious about imposing culturally specific norms on children’s SEL development. Indeed, a 2013 review of research on ELs and SEL found “social-emotional benefits to fluent bilingualism,” but also “no consistent pattern with respect to the social-emotional development of [ELs] in comparison to that of non-[ELs].” This may be due to diversity within the group of students that U.S. schools label as ELs. That is, EL students from particular cultural backgrounds may be more likely to perform well on some SEL metrics than on others.
Any efforts to measure students’ SEL competencies—and schools’ effects on them—could highlight English learning students’ assets, but only if their linguistic and cultural diversities are taken seriously in the design and implementation processes.
Perhaps this uncertainty about the intersection of SEL measures and multilingual children’s development reflects the myriad ways to be a healthy, productive human adult. As such, it would follow that there should be myriad healthy paths through childhood; and accordingly, any efforts to measure students’ SEL competencies—and schools’ effects on them—could highlight English learning students’ assets, but only if their linguistic and cultural diversities are taken seriously in the design and implementation processes.