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SEL in action: Blown away by 3 young people's voices

By Margo Herman

When were you last captivated by youth voice on stage? Last month three young people blew a spark into my work when they spoke about the ways that social and emotional skills have helped them.

They spoke at the Children & Youth Issue Briefing to more than 1,000 people who came to think and learn about:
  1. Minnesota's innovative efforts to address key challenges and close the opportunity gap
  2. Issues affecting children and youth looking ahead to the 2014 legislative session
  3. Minnesota young people's experiences and perspective on the opportunity gap
In my work on the social and emotional learning initiative (SEL), my colleagues and I get immersed in research, develop resources and provide learning opportunities focused on moving SEL from research into action. During the panel, led by University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, I saw SEL skills live and on stage, articulated beautifully by this youth panel.

The three students spoke candidly about their lives, their school environment, challenges with cultural bias, barriers with teachers, and the reality of the opportunity gap. But they also acknowledged what worked well in their lives.

What worked well helps us to recognize what SEL skills and competencies look like. What I saw on stage was an impressive self awareness that illustrated these SEL skills and supports:
  • youth with internal grit and perseverance
  • youth benefiting from supportive mentors
  • youth challenged by high parent expectations
  • youth with a healthy dose of hope for the future in the midst of adversity
  • youth with colorful-stories of self management
As an example, Essence shared a story of self management in middle school when she was sent to the office for bad behavior. Begrudgingly she met with the school counselor -- a relationship that has blossomed. Through this mentor, she has mastered self management skills such as (in her words) "helping me control my mouth". She now channels her outspokenness into speaking out on issues that matter to youth. She is now a high school freshman and a spokesperson for Minnesota youth.

Malika is an immigrant who connected with an adult mentor eight years ago. This mentor has helped her develop her perseverance, assimilate into our culture and have hope for the future. Malika is articulate, engaging, carving a path with self motivation and will graduate from high school this June.

We all shared Corey's joy about navigating his way to college graduation. He spoke about the many financial and social challenges he experienced and conquered that demonstrated a persistence and self awareness of his personal goals.

These youth showed us SEL skills and competencies live and on stage, illuminating to a large audience how important these skills are to youth succeeding in a world full of obstacles, including a well recognized opportunity gap.

If you are interested in the perspective from some of the other speakers at this captivating briefing, I recommend these two summaries that focus more on the legislative and social issues addressed, from the Minnesota Council on Foundations and my colleague at the University of Minnesota College of Education.

We need more adults to recognize what these skills look like and to recognize the opportunity adults have to play a key role in supporting youth success. Have you ever been ignited by social and emotional learning skills demonstrated by a young person?

Margo Herman, Extension educator

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  1. Just goes to show when young people are taught skills (SEL) they are capable of great things. Margo is spot on.

  2. Margo,
    Thanks for sharing your experience! I have become so aware of how providing a sense of hope to young people can change their lives. We need to all explore how to instill this with young people, even through adversity and challenges. I appreciate your comments on high parent expectations, which at times can be challenging for both youth and their parents. I continually need to remind myself of this, as I parent my own children. Supportive mentors and teachers are essential in the lives of youth and we can never underestimate the impact and difference they make in a child's success.

  3. Thank you, Paul and Nancy for commenting. We likely don't realize the many times we are a role model and teacher of these SEL skills with our youth. It can be valuable to have the skills and competencies listed in front of us so we can be more intentional about using them ourselves, teaching them to youth, and labeling them as we see them used by youth. Here is a link to my favorite description of the SEL competencies A simple statement like "you really showed some self control in working through that issue" can provide an important acknowledgment. What an impact we could have if youth were surrounded by youth workers, teachers, mentors, parents, and coaches who all recognize, teach, reinforce, model, and acknowledge SEL skills.

  4. As a regular attendee of the annual children and youth issue briefing, I second Margo's blog. This year was by far the best briefing in years and the youth were by far the best part of the briefing. They have been the talk of the town in my network. Both enhancing the power of youth voice and bringing reality to the often abstract and philosophical discussion of issues was a major success. Thanks Margo for bring these fine youth to everyone's attention and especially the way they spoke of the social and emotional skills that mattered to them. I have heard through the grapevine that one of the youth has been promised a scholarship for college because someone in our philanthropic community was so impressed by her story. All the best to these four young people and their futures.

  5. It really was an inspiring moment in the briefing, and you captured the element that made these young people’s message so powerful: their candid acknowledgment of challenges, and their dedication to their personal goals that helped them leap over these obstacles. I particularly like that you emphasized Essence’s story, and how it illustrates the power of a caring adult to help a young person channel their personality and energy into a cause they care about.
    This panel was definitely the talk of my colleagues as well, but one of them responded with a question that I think merits consideration: “These stories were so great to hear, where are the rest of the young people’s stories?” As inspiring as the panel was, we still have a long way to ensure we are always including youth voice in our endeavors, and working them every step of the way. We want every young person to be heard!

  6. Great affirmation of the event, Dale and Brandon. Kudos to the sponsors of the Children and Youth Issue Briefing (Greater Twin Cities United Way, Sheltering Arms Foundation, Start Early Funders Coalition, MN Council on Foundations, and MN Council of Non-Profits) for taking the time to seek out the youth who were willing to share their voices, experiences, challenges and successes. You have set a great example and a challenge to us all to take the time to include the stories and voice of youth in our work toward closing the opportunity gap.

  7. Margo, I really appreciate you sharing this as I wasn't able to attend. It is such a critical reminder of the power of SEL and even more importantly the power of youth voice and their stories. Someone once said: " We know 'a picture is worth a thousand words.' A story is worth a thousand pictures."
    Thanks for highlighting the story.