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How to support SEL skills -- from programs that work

By Kate Walker

While we often talk about "bridging research and practice," too often that bridge is a one-way street aimed at getting practitioners to recognize and use the research being conducted. But if we want more research-based practice, we need to engage in more practice-based research. We need more research aimed at understanding effective practice from the practitioners' perspective, as they experience and enact it. We need research that is wholly committed to generating useful information that can inform and improve daily practice.

I’m delighted to feature the results of an innovative collaboration that started with effective program practice, studied it collaboratively and distilled and developed practical strategies and tools. In 2014, the Susan Crown Exchange (SCE), a national foundation, and the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a research center, set out to determine how out-of-school programs can be more intentional about supporting social and emotional leaning (SEL) skill development. They selected eight exemplary youth programs, including Minnesota's own Voyageur Outward Bound School.

Together this learning community agreed upon a subset of SEL skills, developed practical practices to promote them and created a theory to support the infusion of these practices across programs, regardless of content. The resulting Field Guide shares best practices and collective expertise for equipping youth with the social emotional skills they need to thrive.

I’m especially excited to showcase this ground-breaking work because it:
  1. elevates the importance of SEL skills,
  2. highlights the critical role youth programs – particularly programs for older youth – can play, and
  3. identifies specific practices adults can use in their everyday work with young people to create the conditions for learning SEL skills.
Our April 6 symposium will feature this pioneering, practical work. Join us in-person or online to learn more about this innovative project and the six SEL domains highlighted. You'll hear funder, researcher and practitioner perspectives, and then have a chance to apply the Field Guide in a hands-on activity to assess SEL practices in your programs.

To get the most of the symposium, check out the Field Guide and related resources in advance. If you want to extend your learning and dig deeper into the symposium content, register for an in-depth training with our symposium speaker and panelists on April 7.

What do you think of this example of practice-based research? How might you use the Field Guide in your work? What questions does it spark for you?

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

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  1. I am so excited to have stumbled upon this! I work with a local FIRST Robotics team (Team 2502 Talon Robotics) and have been looking at materials that might help my other mentors and I work with these students. I am passionate about the FIRST Program and know the benefits but really feel that mentors are the key to reaching these kids and many of these mentors have no experience or formal training in working with adolescents.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandy, and for the work you do with kids through FIRST Robotics. It’s a great example of a program that aligns STEM content and outcomes with developing SEL skills like problem-solving, teamwork and communication. As you note, the role of adult staff and volunteers is critical in creating the conditions for this learning to occur. That’s why I love the field guide’s practical emphasis on staff practices and program structures. I hope you find the field guide and related resources at useful to your network of mentors.


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