Remember the Relationships: The Missing Link that Makes SEL Measures More Understandable and Actionable

By Kent Pekel and Peter C. Scales, Search Institute


The term “social-emotional learning” starts with the word social, and so it may seem strange to contend, as we do in this blog and in a longer white paper, that most approaches to SEL and SEL measurement underemphasize the role of relationships in strengthening SEL. As the field has focused on students’ interpersonal capacities and intrapersonal self-regulation, relationships obviously haven’t been ignored, but, for the most part, we suggest that the field hasn’t paid adequate attention to the relationships between teachers and students through which social and emotional skills can be powerfully enhanced.

The focus of most SEL measures is on the individual student’s social-emotional knowledge and skills, rather than describing their relationships with teachers. For example, the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington identified 74 SEL measures for use at the middle school level and found that only 10 could be recommended based on scientific merit and ease of use, and only 3 of those 10 included any measures of student-teacher relationships.

And even when relationships are addressed in SEL frameworks and measures, those relationships are most often defined as connections characterized by caring and support. However, while caring and support are obviously essential, a teacher-student relationship that promotes social, emotional, and academic development encompasses other important elements.

Ongoing research that we are conducting is demonstrating that relationships with teachers, parents, and other adults that help young people be and become their best selves are characterized by five essential elements:

  • Expressing care
  • Challenging growth
  • Providing support
  • Sharing power
  • Expanding possibility

Our work to date has identified a set of specific actions through which each of these elements is experienced. Challenging growth, for example, is operationalized by expecting young people to do their best, pushing them to go further, insisting they take responsibility for their actions, and helping them learn from mistakes and setbacks. Explore the full Developmental Relationships Framework here.

In a Spencer Foundation-supported study we conducted over the last two school years, we found that middle-school students with high levels of developmental relationships with their teachers were nearly 8 times more likely than other students to have high levels of motivation to work hard and succeed in school and in other areas of their lives. That study also showed that relationships can help stem the decline in motivation that extensive research has shown takes place over the course of the school year. For example, we found that the quality of student-teacher relationships dropped significantly from fall to spring (especially for financially-strained students), along with declines or stasis in our measures of academic motivation. However, for a small minority of students — just 12% — who reported improved student-teacher relationships over the school year, these academic success outcomes were significantly higher at the end of the school year.

Unfortunately, many students do not experience such positive relationships in school. Overall, only 29% of the middle school students in our study reported they have truly developmental relationships with their teachers, and only 43% have an adequate level of academic motivation. And so both the need and the opportunity for improvement are great.

It is time to make building those developmental relationships with all students a priority in all of our schools. Research strongly suggests that the quality of student-teacher relationships is catalytic for creating great places to learn and to teach, places where students learn to maximize their social-emotional capacities, grow their academic motivation and engagement, and achieve. If that is true, then we have to measure those relationships better than we do now. Otherwise, maybe we’re not measuring what really matters.



Do you agree or disagree that student-teacher relationships are inadequately emphasized in SEL frameworks and measurement?


If student-teacher relationships were more often measured in the ways suggested in this blog, how would that improve your own efforts to promote and/or study SEL?



Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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