Growing up in a home with domestic violence, Byron Sanders remembers afterschool programs being a refuge for him. In football, track and theater, the president and CEO of Big Thought in Dallas said, he could be a “happy, effervescent kid.”
“Afterschool was also my pathway to opportunity,” he told the audience of 150 educators and youth development leaders at an October forum in Chicago hosted by The Wallace Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance. Still, his afterschool experience fell short of its potential, he said, because the social and emotional skills he needed weren’t intentionally taught. That’s still too often the case in afterschool programs, he observed. “How many kids do you know of today,” he asked, “who can access that power, which is what social and emotional learning truly is?”
Social and emotional skills—which can include working productively with a group, managing feelings and resolving conflicts—are increasingly recognized as a key to success in the modern workforce, along with academic learning. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that jobs requiring high levels of social interaction made up a growing share of the U.S. labor force, while the percentage of jobs not requiring social skills declined.
Accordingly, efforts to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) with academic and out-of-school time have grown exponentially in the past decade. The day-long forum, designed as a pre-conference in advance of the inaugural SEL Exchange hosted by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which drew approximately 1,500 participants, aimed to build on that momentum. Youth development leaders, researchers and educators attending the pre-conference event discussed the latest SEL research and two of the field’s biggest challenges—developing the ability of adults to teach SEL skills and communicating the importance of those skills to the uninitiated.
“Sometimes it's hard to communicate successfully to people who are skeptics, non-believers or just not yet dialed into this channel,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. Here are highlights from a few of the panel discussions.
The neuroscience of SEL
Deborah Moroney, managing director at American Institutes for Research and a leading researcher on social and emotional learning, remarked on how far the field of social and emotional learning in out-of-school time has come. In the 1990s, researchers began to quantify the effect of afterschool programs on young people’s lives, including long-term outcomes such as finding employment and avoiding incarceration, she said. “We didn’t call it ‘social-emotional learning’ at the time, but the studies were there.”
The catalyst that linked SEL with out-of-school time, Moroney believes, came in 2007 when Roger Weissberg and Joseph Durlak released a pivotal study of existing research, The Impact of After-School Programs that Promote Personal and Social Skills. “They found that when young people participate in high quality programs defined as—you can say this with me,” she told the audience, “SAFE: sequenced, active, focused and explicit—that they experienced social-emotional growth linked to academic outcomes.”
Some of the latest SEL research comes from neuroscience. Karen Pittman, president and CEO of Forum for Youth Investment, shared findings from a series of articles by the Science of Learning and Development Project. “What they said wasn’t new,” she noted, “but how they said it was important.”
Optimal conditions for learning exist, scientists found, in the context of strong relationships, a sense of safety and belonging, rich instruction, individualized supports, and intentional development of essential mindsets, skills and habits, she said.
The catch is, “we can’t just pick some of these things,” Pittman said. “At the point where we’re not doing all of these things at a threshold of doing good, we actually could be doing harm.”
For instance, she explained, “we can’t just say, ‘We have to do social-emotional skill-building, let’s bring in a curriculum,’ if we haven’t paid attention to relationships and belonging.”
But when learning experiences are optimal, she said, “you can actually undo the damage of adversity."
‘Who you are changes kids’
Successfully incorporating SEL skill-building into academics or youth programs depends on having staff competent in using those skills themselves, noted Ron Berger, chief academic officer at EL Education, which provides professional development to a national network of schools. “Who you are is what changes kids—what your staff models.”
To model strong SEL skills, staff need more than training, Berger said. “There is no way you can build in a couple of days a week of professional learning and assume that’s going to change them. You have to create cultures in schools that are engines for professional growth.”
That means creating norms for social interaction, such as for dealing with conflict or addressing racial or gender bias, he said. In one school he worked with, the principal inherited a toxic culture. To lay a foundation for new norms, Berger worked with the school on building relationships among adults. “We spent two days as a staff having conversations,” he said. “The whole staff had never been in a circle before. They had always faced the principal. They had never talked about their personal lives, their professional vision. It was hard.”
BellXcel, a national nonprofit offering afterschool and summer programs, takes a similarly holistic approach to developing SEL skills in adults and kids, said Brenda McLaughlin, chief strategy officer. In addition to professional development, its approach to culture-building includes agreements between staff and students on how to interact with each other and daily “community time” for students to reflect on social and emotional learning. The BellXcel curriculum has language in each lesson for building students’ “growth mindset,” or the belief that their abilities are not fixed but can grow with effort. Cultural norms are continually reinforced, McLaughlin said.
“Having structures in place over time will change the culture,” she explained. “If you’re not willing to write up your culture and bring it up in staff meetings, people are going to act how they’ve always acted.”
When ‘grit’ is a dirty word
Parents are essential allies in developing children’s SEL skills. Yet the way that practitioners talk about those skills can be confusing to parents, said Bibb Hubbard, president of Learning Heroes, a national nonprofit that provides resources for PTAs, schools, and other organizations to help educate parents.
A large-scale national study by Learning Heroes found that while K-8 parents agreed on the importance of some SEL competencies such as respect, confidence and problem-solving, they didn’t give much weight to others, including growth mindset, executive functioning and grit, because they didn’t understand them, said Hubbard. “Many folks in out-of-school settings use ‘grit.’ For parents, it sounds negative, dirty, like a struggle. And parents are not comfortable with their kids struggling. They think, ‘I’m not doing my job if they’re having to struggle.’”
When communicating about the importance of SEL, Hubbard explained, it’s important to carefully define unfamiliar terms and illustrate them with real-life examples.
Higher Achievement, a national nonprofit with a year-round academic enrichment program for middle school students, partnered with Learning Heroes to pilot an approach to discussing SEL with parents. Lynsey Wood Jeffries, Higher Achievement CEO, explained that those conversations need to be carefully framed. “Families feel, ‘It’s my responsibility that my child become a good human being,’ so training on social-emotion learning for families can come across awkwardly.”
To overcome that obstacle, Higher Achievement talks about SEL in the context of a goal the nonprofit shares with parents: preparing students to enter college preparatory high schools, Jeffries explained. “To get into a good high school takes a whole host of social-emotional skills. It takes self-efficacy, to feel, ‘I can get into the school and I’m going to take steps to do it.’ It takes executive function, getting all the materials in on time . . .”
While OST practitioners need to take care in how they communicate about SEL with families, Hubbard said, the good news is that “parents are eager and interested to learn more. So there’s great opportunity there.”
For more on the SEL + OST = Perfect Together forum, you can read the full report.