Train Out-of-School Workers to Build Youth Social-Emotional, Character Competence

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For many students, their out-of-school programs are their lifelines. They are the places where our children are helped to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. The activities there strengthen basic skills, increase higher-order thinking and warn about the dangers of substance abuse and violence, all while promoting appreciation and respect for diversity.

A meta-analysis of after-school programs designed to enhance youths’ personal and social skills revealed that young people who participate improve significantly in three major areas: feelings and attitudes, indicators of behavioral adjustment and school performance. More specifically, after-school programs that promote personal and social skills succeed in improving youths’ feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem, school bonding, positive social behaviors, school grades and achievement test scores. Furthermore, these after-school programs reduced problem behaviors (i.e. aggression, noncompliance and conduct problems) and drug use.

To the extent to which students are in environments where their schools are not safe, engaging places but instead are filled with adults and youth who are at odds with one another in a climate of disrespect, they are less likely to develop the kinds of skills essential for sound social-emotional growth. Under such circumstances, their experiences in out-of-school programs can be especially important in providing not only skill-building experiences but reinforcement for the disposition to build and use those skills for constructive purposes.

We cannot expect a young person to succeed in algebra when (s)he is just learning to add and subtract, and similarly, we cannot expect someone to demonstrate empathy toward peers when he or she has not yet learned how to identify and articulate different forms of emotion. Out-of-school program participation is more likely to result in the desired student outcomes if attention is paid to the development of social-emotional competence. Here are some examples of key social-emotional developmental expectations:

  • Early elementary school expectations:
  • Be a member of a group: share, listen, take turns, cooperate, negotiate disputes, be considerate and helpful.
  • Recognize and correctly label basic emotions in oneself and others.
  • Initiate interactions.
  • Typically resolve conflict without fighting; show capacity for compromise.
  • Understand justifiable self-defense.

Be empathetic toward peers: show emotional distress when others are suffering; develop a sense of helping rather than hurting or neglecting; respect rather than belittle, and support and protect others rather than dominate; awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others (i.e., perspective taking). During this period of emotional development, students tend to derive security in repetition and routines. For this reason, consistent instructional procedures are useful when working with this age group. During their initial three years of elementary schooling, students are often self-confident and trusting; they believe that they are important, that their needs and wishes matter, that they can succeed; and that they can trust adults in school and school-related environments. This naturally predisposes them positively toward out-of-school experiences.

Middle childhood (7 to 10 years) and preadolescent (10 to 13 years) expectations:

  • Listen carefully.
  • Conduct a reciprocal conversation.
  • Use tone of voice, eye contact, posture, and language appropriate to peers (and adults).
  • Display skills for making friends, entering peer groups; can judge peers’ feelings, thoughts, plans, actions.
  • Learn to include and exclude others.
  • Expand peer groups.
  • Choose friendships based on mutual trust and assistance.
  • Show altruistic behavior among friends.
  • Become assertive, self-calming, cooperative.
  • Learn to cope with peer pressure to conform (i.e., dress).
  • Learn to set boundaries, to deal with secrets.
  • Deal positively with rejection.

During these years, students begin to master key interpersonal skills of how to appropriately ask for help, how to calm down after being upset or losing one’s temper, and how to resolve conflict peacefully. Toward the end of this period and into the adolescent period, students are more strongly forming their identities and come to connect those identities with activities and groups with which they participate.

One implication of this is that out-of-school programs for these age groups increasingly have to “sell” themselves and have some flexibility if they are to engage students who are seeking to establish their identities by becoming associated with distinctive, tangible accomplishments that they feel they own. While the skill domains of social-emotional competence do not change for youth in older age groups, the complexity of situations they have to navigate and the strength of emotions they have to manage clearly increase.

Anyone working in out-of-school contexts knows how students’ lack of the skills mentioned above, as well as similar others, can sabotage even the best programs and efforts. Many personnel working in out-of-school programs do not receive specific training and supervision in best practices for conducting personal, social-emotional and character development-oriented group activities with youth. Yet, it is often expected that they will carry out activities that either explicitly build those skills or require that students have them.

The Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (Full disclosure: I am the co-director there.) has created a Certificate Instruction for Social-Emotional Learning and Character Development (SECD) to respond to this need.

The certificate program — which is fully online, with periodic live chats —  prepares those working with youth in settings in and out of school to foster their college, career and life success, and to prepare them for the tests of life, as well as their required tests. We know that for life success, SECD matters at least as much as academic ability — perhaps even more.

There are three courses and a supervised practicum at participants’ own work sites. Of great importance is that participants in the certificate program become part of a virtual Professional Learning Community, providing them with ongoing support as they implement SECD-related interventions and face the challenges of doing so consistently and effectively. (To learn more about the certificate program, see sel.rutgers.edu or email sel-certification-group@scarletmail.rutgers.edu.)

To find out about other resources to help individuals build/support their capacity to promote social-emotional competence in their youth, email me at the address below.

There is very little that is generically available. Folks don't need more reports to read. What really matters is local networking, which often is lacking. Hence we encourage our virtual network.

Out-of-school programs play an increasing role in promoting the positive development of youth, especially those who do not feel connected to school and/or home. Preparation of professionals — and volunteers — who work in those settings should be as thorough and well supported as preparation of those who work with youth in schools. Our young people, particularly those who are troubled, deserve nothing less.

Maurice J. Elias is director of the Rutgers University Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and co-director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools in Piscataway, N.J. You can email him at Maurice.elias@rutgers.edu.