assess youth development

How to Use SETS as a Youth Development Teaching Tool

Are you looking for a youth development teaching tool? Youth empowerment programs often seek out ways to help their teachers become more effective at empowering their students. They also typically have limited resources for training teachers, and it can be hard to know how a person teaches until you see their results. Perhaps you’ve had a disappointing hiring experience?

Here’s one example. Let’s say you’ve hired a new teacher whom we’ll call Shannon. Shannon really understands her subject (she’s a painter with a degree in fine arts and a minor in teaching), and she does a lot of things right:

  • she clearly loves painting
  • she’s friendly with students and parents
  • she’s always on time.

You’ve seen her work and she’s talented and accomplished. You’re pretty sure she’s going to be a great addition, so you’ve been looking forward to sitting in on one of her lessons.

But when you sit in on her class you see she needs help:

  • she’s using a generic lesson plan and seems aloof from students
  • she’s nervous and talks a lot, so students are mostly quiet and not engaged
  • students leave looking disinterested or even dejected.

Does this sound familiar? Shannon is like so many other mentors and teachers working in after-school environments … well-meaning, accomplished, and deep into their subjects, but with so little teaching experience they don’t know how to connect to share what they know.

Teaching — especially teaching vulnerable youth — is an art. How do you connect your subject with people you don’t even know? As a teacher, how do you get to know them? What do you look for to understand how they are (or aren’t) learning? How can you ascertain what they need so they can grow into more capable people?

Learning How to Connect with Youth

To connect with students teachers need to meet them where they are, and to do that they need to discover just where that is. This is especially true for working with vulnerable youth.

Unfortunately, teacher training often focuses more on delivering lesson plans than on assessing/understanding individual student learning. Understanding how students are learning gives teachers a focus and empowers them to engage each unique student individually.

Merge Education’s SETS (Student Evaluation and Tracking System) is an assessment program that was developed to serve as a teacher training tool. Using the Teacher Observation Scale monthly to assess students (and referring to it throughout the month), Shannon will learn what to look for to discern how students are learning. That will help her understand them as individuals.

Discernment is an important component of good teaching. A great teacher knows how to step back and observe students while staying emotionally present. This ability takes attention and practice, but it’s essential for effective teaching. It’s an ability that teachers acquire (or hone) when they work with SETS.

SETS helps teachers focus on and develop specific abilities that help lead the student to feel successful — a necessary ingredient for empowerment.

The strengths-based connection

Everyone has strengths, even the most vulnerable and challenged students. A strengths-based approach can be especially effective in youth development programs because it can re-enliven youth who have essentially shut down. As Merge Education’s Bill Rossi says:

Many challenged students have significant strengths and talents that lie beneath their troubled exteriors. This orientation enables us to be like miners digging for ore.

SETS supports strengths-based teaching by helping teachers find students’ strengths and limitations. SETS accomplishes this via the Principles of Empowerment (POE).

The Principles of Empowerment

SETS uses The Principles of Empowerment (POE) as its metrics (quantifiable measures) to assess student learning. Identified by  Merge Education director Bill Rossi, the POE are the qualities necessary for learning. Although inherent in and natural to us all, these qualities must be developed.

As detailed in Rossi’s Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Succeed, the POE are grouped as Relationship to Self, Relationship to Teacher, and Skills Development.

Relationship to Self: These are the personal qualities and skills students need to develop in order to learn well. These are delineated as:

  • Ability to concentrate
  • Level of motivation
  • Self-confidence to succeed
  • Frustration tolerance
  • Consistency of effort.

Relationship to Teacher: The students’ relationships with others are important indicators of empowerment, and your teachers are well-positioned to evaluate this. The metrics are delineated as:

  • Listens to the teacher
  • Understands directions
  • Communicates needs
  • Communicates ideas.

Skills Development: This concerns whether the student is becoming a more capable learner. The metrics are delineated as:

  • Respects equipment and materials
  • Willing to try new steps
  • Freedom of expression
  • Identifies correlations (relationships)
  • Able to build on prior learning
  • Incorporates elements of the skill.

Youth Development Teaching Tool. Smart Metrics = Improved Teaching

So back to Shannon, your hypothetical new teacher. She knows her craft and has a lot going for her as a teacher, and now she can work with SETS to learn how to connect with her students where they are. It seems obvious, yet so few assessment tools utilize the concept. When metrics concern essential principles of learning, they make sense to teachers. They’re like specific signposts, pointing where to look.

So, after spending time with SETS, Shannon will no longer be unfocused because she’ll know how to observe and understand her students. And she’ll no longer be as nervous because she’ll start to connect with them. And your students? They’ll become engaged so they can start learning and growing.

SETS is A Comprehensive Youth Development Teaching Tool

The Teacher Observation Form is just one of SETS’ three scales. The others are a self-assessment completed by students and an assessment completed by a ‘significant other’. While just one can be used as a simple standalone, using all three gives a comprehensive view of each student.

SETS is described in some depth here.

SETS can be purchased here or contact us for a quick tour.




Mary Helen Rossi
Mary Helen Rossi
A creative writer, Mary Helen is passionate about empowering marginalized youth, believing that everyone deserves a solid chance in life.

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