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Youth programs: Powerful settings for social-emotional learning

By Kate Walker

How exactly does learning unfold in youth programs? They are a particularly rich context for young people to learn and practice social and emotional learning skills. It is critical that we understand how learning happens there, and how we as adults can support that process.

Youth in our programs often engage in real-world activities and projects, work in teams, take on meaningful roles, face challenges and experience the accompanying up and downs.

This can lead to learning skills such as:
Our next symposium on May 15 - Youth Programs as Powerful Settings for Social and Emotional Learning - will focus on promoting social and emotional learning in youth program settings. Participants will learn about and discuss recent, path-breaking research on how youth learn skills like those outlined above, and what strategies experienced leaders use to facilitate this development.

For the good news is that programs do not need to create or adopt a new comprehensive SEL curriculum. In fact, research shows that integrating specific strategies and practices into existing curriculum is likely more effective.

There are several strategies that practitioners can embed into their daily practice to better support social and emotional learning:
  • Equip staff - Help staff understand and be fluent in the concepts and language of social and emotional learning, support their own social and emotional skills, develop a culture of coaching, and practice giving effective feedback.
  • Create the everyday learning environment - Staff can influence the culture of their program by paying attention to the ways that routines, behavior expectations, and conflict resolution processes support social and emotional learning. This is highly connected to the work of youth program quality.
  • Design impactful learning experiences - Programs that focus on specific skill development using sequenced and active learning strategies and focused and explicit skill content consistently succeed in promoting social emotional learning. Further, Integrating reflection activities as part of the learning process helps youth internalize social and emotional skills.
  • Use data for improvement - Gathering data for program improvement is most beneficial when integrated into an ongoing process for reflection and improvement. Meaningful measurement is not only about proving that your program works, but also about improving the work that you do.
What social and emotional skills do you see young people learning in your programs? What strategies do you use to support that learning?

-- Kate Walker, associate Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

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  1. These programs are wonderful! I've been into similar programs myself and I must admit that it changed my life in a good way.


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