Assessing life skills with young learners

By Tara Paxman, Research Manager

Thursday 16 May 2024

Tara Paxman, NFER Research ManagerIn the third in our series of life skill assessment blogs, assessment experts at NFER think about the considerations when assessing life skills with young learners.   

The assessment of life skills or socio-emotional skills is an exciting new area which is attracting increasing attention from researchers and decision makers (see NFER’s spotlight page that showcases our work in this area). As a result, there is a growing bank of tools which can be used to measure these skills, including self-report questionnaires, digitalised games, and scenario-based tasks among others (see our first blog in this series). However, these methods have challenges which may affect their measurement properties, such as how they are delivered and in what context (see our second blog).

This blog discusses how these considerations apply when looking at life skills assessment with young learners (seven years or younger). Although commonly focused on in older children or even young adults, the early years are particularly crucial for the development of children’s social and emotional skills, often nurtured through play-related learning (1). For example, first signs of life skills, observable as early as pre-school, include behaviours such as sharing or understanding that another child is feeling sad. To better support and enable children to gain such skills, it’s important to evaluate their progress in ways that are suitable and age-appropriate.

Existing measures

Self-report methods are an efficient and widely used tool for gathering information on life skills: for example, learners may be asked to rate their skills or wellbeing. However, we note from our analysis of existing measures that there are far fewer of these measures available for use with younger learners, compared to those older than seven. This may be because they require the learner to reflect on their abilities (a meta-cognitive skill which is believed to develop with age), or because they often rely on the respondents’ reading and comprehension skills. Consequently, assessments which remove these barriers, such as teacher or parent-based approaches, are considered to be a good alternative for measuring life skills with younger pupils. Adult-reported measures are also useful for large-scale research projects, as they involve fewer resources. For example, our on-going NFER and EEF project evaluating the impact of Covid-19-related school closures utilises adult-reported measures to measure primary pupils’ social skills over time.

Nevertheless, resources including EEF’s SPECTRUM database usefully draw together a range of measures where KS1 children can self-report on their life skills. Using these measures, children as young as five are able to voice their ideas on a range of self-concepts, including their emotional, social and self-regulation skills (e.g. Bryant Empathy Index) (2). Some of these measures triangulate self-report alongside teacher and parent-reported indicators, which supports a holistic assessment that reflects a range of perspectives. However, some assessments cover an age-range of up to 12-years-old with little simplification to the amount of reading or processing required to understand the questions and, as a result, may unintentionally disadvantage younger learners.

So, although self-report methods can be used with younger children, their implementation must be carefully thought out by considering the purpose of the assessment and the current developmental level and needs of the learners. What opportunities does this suggest for measuring young learners’ life skills in different ways?


Scenario-based and situational judgement tasks may offer a promising alternative in addressing these concerns. These methods use contextualised activities that do not rely on the same level of self-reflection that self-report methods do: for example, the ‘Challenging Situations Task’ (3). In some cases, scenario-based activities also support teaching practices around life skills, particularly those with younger children that utilise stories to explain citizenship, social skills or critical thinking. For these types of assessments, practice questions can help pupils to familiarise themselves with the format before their skills are measured. For primary-age children, this is a feature of assessment design used effectively across a range of skills areas, for example, in NFER’s standardised assessments of reading and maths (4).

Using methods that can be considered ‘creative’ also provide a potential avenue for assessing life skills, particularly in school settings. Popular in qualitative research with young children, these methods adopt alternative ways for exploring their views and understandings through less-prescribed, child-directed activities such as photographs, video, drawings, dance, and roleplay (5).

Creative methods are common when working with young children, particularly in the Early Years (two to five-years-old), as they enable their voices to be captured without relying on methods better suited to older children (6). Many teachers already employ similar methods in their daily teaching, particularly when this involves broader and more holistic skill sets. Whilst creative methods are not suitable for standardised measures of life skills due to their open-endedness, teachers may choose to use them in their classroom for this very reason.

It's clear that in light of the benefits of developing life skills in young children, that there will growing interest in their assessment. This in turn requires careful consideration of viable methods for assessing these skills with young leaners. Some of the context-based and creative methods already used in the teaching of life skills offer one potential way forward. Nevertheless, use will depend on the purpose of carrying out the assessment. Whilst assessing life skills with young learners remains a challenge, seeking innovative ways to do this may be key to improving assessment methods and, ultimately, learner outcomes.


  2. Education Endowment Foundation
  3. Education Endowment Foundation
  4. NFER Tests
  5. Street, M. (2021). Benefits and Limitations of Eliciting the Well-Being Views of Two-Four Year Olds Living in a Low-Income Area in England. Child Indicators Research, 14(2), 661–680.
  6. University of Strathclyde