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Bringing the social and emotional learning to after-school programs

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgWhy is social and emotional learning important to youth development? I thought about this recently when I attended our symposium on this subject.

The symposium was a wonderful opportunity for more than 400 people who work with and on behalf of children, youth and families to learn about social and emotional learning (SEL) and identify ways to help young people thrive. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Roger Weissberg, defined social and emotional learning as a process through which children, youth, and adults learn to recognize and manage emotions, demonstrate care and concern for others, develop positive relationships, make good decisions, and behave ethically, respectfully, and responsibility.

As I reflected on his definition, I thought about why social and emotional learning is important to youth development. I see SEL as a foundation in which a strong sense of self can be built. With that stability, young people are better able to thrive in everyday life, while standing up to social pressures that sometimes knock people down or at diminish their quality of life. SEL can also chart youth on a path of discovering the world in relation to others - by this I mean, where young people learn to cultivate healthy relationships while personally investing in the people around them.
As I reflected on the event, some other insights also resonated with me as a thought about the relationship between SEL and youth development.

Social and emotional skills can be learned

To demonstrate this, Dr. Weissberg showed a video on how math could be taught as a social activity. In the video, the math teacher facilitated a process with students to identify classroom norms that reinforced social and emotional skill building. Those norms were then threaded through every activity in the classroom session.
This teacher was an excellent model. Youth workers could have similar effects in their practice - and probably many do. But what types of professional development are needed for youth workers bolster their skills even more?

Social and emotional learning can improve students' education outcomes

Data from a CASEL meta-analysis reviewed 213 rigorous studies of social and emotional programs in schools nationwide. Findings show that academic achievement and pro-social behavior significantly increase in schools that have such programs while behavioral problems and emotional distress decrease.

After-school programs can play critical roles promoting educational outcomes among students and creating positive school climates. What would be the impact if school and after-school personnel in any given school building operated from complementary educational philosophies that fostered SEL?

Coordinated family, school, and community networks are needed

This multilayered network is needed to both craft and implement social and emotional learning programs so that rings of support surround children and youth throughout the daily life. For instance, without a strong family, it can be very difficult to nurture a solid foundation for development in children and youth because family is the earliest, most basic environment in which we learn. So family is an important part of the network. Coordinating efforts among all the places and peoples that surround children and youth is a tall order but worth it. What would it take in the community you live or work in?

Learning environments are everywhere

They are all around us - homes, farms, schools, recreation centers, sports facilities, clubs, campgrounds, after-school programs, faith-based centers, libraries, parks, playgrounds, fields and forests. The list could go on. Each environment has the potential to build and reinforce emotional health and social skills. What can you do to improve the learning environments within your circle of influence?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

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  1. Love the video (I'll admit I watched it with great curiosity of how math could be a social activity)!
    As I begin to learn about SEL I see a lot of common themes (albeit different vocabulary) among what I would describe as 4-H youth development principles and SEL competencies. But what I find intriguing about SEL in schools and carrying it over into "complementary educational philosophies" in afterschool programs is the potential to look at which evidence based practices are applicable to both settings. And, equally as important (but difficult to find examples of in published research) - which practices don't translate between the two settings, perhaps shedding light on the mechanisms of how and why the practices work.

  2. Hi Margo –
    Thanks for kicking off our online conversation.
    As I listened to Roger Weissberg speak, like you, I saw parallels between SEL and youth development principles. I also wondered if SEL was a repackaging of what we already know about youth development. But as I listened more, it was apparent to me that what we know about SEL today is different from what we knew in the past. For instance, workplaces in multiple disciplines and industries are clamoring for professionals with social and emotional skills (see Daniel Pink’s, author of Drive). Emerging research is also showing the link between SEL and educational outcomes as shown in CASEL’s publications. The picture of what success looks like for youth is broadening from the narrow lenses of academic achievement, graduate rates and so forth and now includes a more holistic illustration of young people grounded in social and emotional well-being.
    I appreciate your call for research on practice. Like you indicated, research on practice would help us distinguish among what works in school and afterschool learning environments and most importantly – WHY certain practices work. Along with that, my hunch is that some practices, however subtle, may translate across learning environments too.
    What do you think about what we know today about SEL?

  3. Such a great conversation happening with youth at the center. Youth are in the center and that is how the ecological model of development is constructed. I agree that development efforts between in school and out of school time programming should and need to become more closely aligned. I also agree that 4-H can be a conduit to helping make this happen. 4-H is grounded in SEL while being a family based out of school time program. I think back to the 2012 fall leader training series on Inquiry Based Learning. That concept alone taught many parents how to guide youth learning. We have the capacity for families to be the framework of this key piece in development and I encourage all of us to think about how we can create a model that helps join schools, families and out of school programs together to build the capacity of our youth. We all know as youth and family professionals that parents are the first teacher and the strongest role models for their children. How can we support parents and families to be learning from and interacting with all of the in school and out of school time programming opportunities that are available to them? How can 4-H and other out of school time programs help continue to guide and partner with parents and families? How do we create this bridging that will look different within each community?

  4. Social and emotional learning to me is a new thing. I have not heard anything like this before the symposium. From the research studies and videos that the speaker shared in the symposium, I can see some advantages of using social and emotional learning. I like to learn more about this approach and see if we can adapt it to STEM learning. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Hello Ellie -
    I appreciate your thoughts on strengthening family components within youth programs offered through youth-serving organizations. I was just at a meeting yesterday where YD Extension and school district partners had this very conversation. We talked about the start-up of an urban youth program effort in which part of the design included a strong family component that is intended to involve parents and guardians in the education of their children through afterschool and summer programs. I am looking forward to future conversations with that group - especially as we begin to visualize what family involvement looks like in concrete terms and of course engage families in that very discussion.
    With each new effort we have an opportunity to build family involvement into its educational design. And with our current youth work (like the examples you mentioned), we have an opportunities to strengthen the family involvement especially in places where it is weak or perhaps not as strong as it could be.
    Thanks for your willingness to collaborate and for sharing your insights,

  6. HI Hui Hui -
    Yes - it is interesting to think about how SEL could be integrated with STEM . As shown in the math video, SEL shows itself in the teacher's methods, set up of the learning environment, and in how he relates to the students. I look forward to continuing this conversation and finding ways to embed SEL in STEM.
    Thanks for chiming in.

  7. Recently, when I spoke with a former (and respected) colleague about SEL, they said to me that "our kids either have it or they don't." Meaning that they either have empathy, develop positive relationships, behave ethically, and the entire complete definition of SEL...or they do not. This thought stuck with me, as both an educator and a father. To me, this represents both a huge challenge to education, but also the most important portion of our work. To have kids that can accomplish great things, but cannot properly enjoy the fruits and those that helped us along the way would be doing a disservice to the youth we serve. I enjoy learning about this as a way to retool my thinking as a reflective educator. How do we create a common language among our stakeholders about the value of SEL? And Ellie, how do we create a common language about SEL to our parents and families?

  8. HI Hui Hui -
    Yes - it is interesting to think about how SEL could be integrated with STEM . As shown in the math video, SEL shows itself in the teacher's methods, set up of the learning environment, and in how he relates to the students. I look forward to continuing this conversation.
    Thanks for chiming in.

  9. Hi Joshua - It sounds like a nature versus nurture debate concerning a young person's innate qualities versus personal experiences. Some individuals may be more inclined toward possessing social and emotional skills (or talents); but at the same time, those skills can be developed as well.
    What are some of your thoughts on common language about the value of SEL? I am interested in your ideas. One word that comes to mind for me is "success". For instance, one could have a conversation with others about what "youth success" looks like. The conversation would probably include happiness, good relationships, doing well in school and a number of other qualities that are all in some way related to social and emotional well-being. This could be an entry point toward finding common language and meaning.
    I also think it is important to talk about “private value" (meaning the direct value for the young person her/himself) - such as the “advantages” related to being sociable, relating to others, and being emotionally tuned in to self and others. On the other end of the spectrum there is "public value" (meaning the indirect value for others or the community) - such as building a social climate in a community where there are strong social ties and people make investments in each other, their neighborhoods and their environment.
    What ideas do you have?


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