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What's the connection between social emotional learning and program quality?

By Margo Herman

The simplistic answer to the question is that a high-quality youth program provides an environment conducive to developing social and emotional skills.

Yet simplistic does not reflect the depth of the question. Researchers are immersed in defining the compatibility and the distinction in these two key areas of youth work practice. And practitioners naturally want to know more about how we will measure these outcomes and if measures for both SEL and program quality will be compatible.

Knowing that SEL skills can be an important predictor of youth success, our local and national youth work “thought-leaders” are wrestling with defining SEL outcomes. Members of the National Institute on Out of School Time (NIOST), the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), and our own Minnesota Task Force on Out of School Time are all pursuing how to crosswalk SEL constructs with youth program quality to arrive at measurable outcomes. This work is taking time and partnership, and will yield some early results soon.

Based on our center's new SEL Ways of Being Model, I started to examine how this new model connects with the Weikart Center youth program quality pyramid. On some levels it speaks a compatible language. For example: The Weikart Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) tool measures indicators such as Interaction (youth participate in small or large group conversation, and adult leader shares control with youth ) and Planning (youth make plans, and youth are encouraged to set project or program related goals). These indicators speak directly to SEL skills of Relating and Goal Setting. The language compatibility is promising.

Yet, the models are distinct. Quality work using the YPQA tool uses an assessment process based in observing youth during point of service programming that results in measurable scores for defined quality indicators. SEL work is based in assuring the right context for youth to explore self-awareness, navigate feelings, develop relationships, and set goals. A brand new Extension Center for Youth Development issue brief Intentional Practices to Support SEL addresses specific practices to support a program environment where SEL skills can emerge in an everyday learning environment. Each model strengthens the way we do youth programming. Where these two models and approaches come together is where we can see powerful potential for program improvement.

We are making progress in defining what we need to know for program improvement and how youth program quality and SEL speak to that improvement, but we need practitioner input: Where do you see youth program quality and SEL skills connecting? Where are they complementary? Where are they distinct? Are you excited or apprehensive about how SEL is unfolding for youth work practitioners?

-- Margo Herman, Extension educator

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