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What do young people think about social and emotional learning?

By Cynthia Matthias

Who do young people confide in? Do they ever talk about setting goals, managing emotions, or understanding other people’s perspectives?

Young people will be most impacted by the policies concerning the teaching and assessment of SEL skills in schools and in out-of-school-time programs, yet their thoughts on the topic have not been heard. The YouthVoice project research team, an intergenerational group convened in collaboration with Youthprise, is working to remedy this situation.

We gathered adult perspectives on SEL through surveys, and we’re now developing youth surveys. We are also highlighting the importance of gathering youth perspectives on our website, where young people can go to learn more and speak out about social and emotional learning. The site will be populated with cartoon characters (called WOBbies,), each with a back story that highlights a different way of being (WOB) to help young people understand the roles that WOBs play in their lives. Young people will be able to take surveys, vote on a question, read and write stories about WOBbies and enter stories, poems, and drawings about ways of being in contests. In talking about social and emotional skills as WOBs, we are hoping to move away from the professional jargon of social and emotional learning.

We hope to really engage young people in the issues around social and emotional learning by helping them understand how these issues impact their lives. We know that young people have had many experiences with social emotional learning, for better or for worse, and that their opinions on the topic truly matter. We also want to help them understand that the outcomes of the SEL initiative will affect them; therefore, we want them to help inform what those outcomes will be.

There will be incentives for engaging with the project: survey takers will be entered in drawings for prizes, and prizes will be awarded in drawing, story writing and spoken word contests. However, we know that young people are also driven to participation because they care about their communities and the world around them. Everyone wants to make a difference in some way, whether it’s in their own lives or in the lives of others--we can see this in the recent student and community demonstrations about education (student walkouts) and social justice issues (#blacklivesmatter.) With this in mind, we are framing participation and discussion as acts of activism.

We want to hear youth voices on many of the same topics we surveyed adults about: how do they think about social and emotional learning? Do they think it is important? Where do they think they can best learn social and emotional skills, what supports do they need to learn these skills and in what contexts? It will be fascinating to see what, if any, overlap young people’s responses have with adults responses.

If you work with young people, consider talking with them about social and emotional skills. Invite them to share their thoughts, ideas, and solutions at

-- Cynthia Matthias, graduate student in organizational leadership, policy, and development - evaluation studies, University of Minnesota

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