SEL Drive in Schools Is Opportunity for Youth Developers

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Schools are finally noticing what youth programs have known for decades. The way kids feel about themselves and how they connect with other people really matters. It matters narrowly for how they do in school and more importantly for their long-term choices and opportunities for a happy, productive, fulfilling life.

What we call youth development, the school day has started to focus on as social-emotional learning (SEL). Schools’ interest in SEL is a pendulum swing away from the No Child Left Behind focus on standards and standardized tests. This is exciting news for youth developers because we have expertise in this work. It allows us to partner authentically — not about homework help and test scores — but around the deep work of self-awareness, social connections, confidence and perseverance.

The drive for schools to embrace SEL is coming from a variety of national movements. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to define “nonacademic” indicators, giving examples like student engagement, school culture and climate, and staff engagement. This won’t feel different for many districts that have already noted the symbiotic relationship between SEL and Common Core-style teaching, both of which require and support collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

The shift is also driven by an extensive body of research showing that a foundational set of skills, beyond those traditionally identified as academic, are needed for students to really be prepared for the demands of higher education and the workplace. These skills, labeled SEL (or 21st Century Skills or noncognitive or soft skills), are ones that the education system had long taken for granted. When we look at them, they make perfect sense — the ability to control one’s emotions and behaviors, build relationships, feel confident in one’s ability — are skills that teachers and employers alike want to see in young people and adults.

Youth development programs — whether school- or community-based — offer an amazing resource for schools around SEL, but we need to be able to clearly communicate our value. The first and most obvious value is time. While schools last, on average, six hours per day and nine months of the year, kids are playing, learning and growing all day and all year. After-school and summer learning programs can offer an additional 690 hours (or 115 days) of learning time.

Another key asset is expertise in SEL. With deep roots in youth development, expanded learning programs help young people understand their potential and reach for it. Staff are deeply committed to creating safe spaces, giving kids the opportunity to learn and practice skills, encouraging their ideas and actions, and teaching them about their impact on each other and the world. The essence of youth worker skill is captured in the many after-school quality standards that many states including California have adopted.

In California, the Partnership for Children and Youth (PCY) has gathered best thinking from partners and stakeholders across the state to be as clear and concrete as possible about what expanded learning has to offer. A foundational document — Student Success Comes Full Circle — explicitly maps California’s quality standards and practices to defined SEL outcomes. Finding Common Ground clarifies how SEL is already embedded in many existing initiatives and practices — from youth development to Positive Behavior Intervention Systems to restorative justice. These reports may be helpful messaging tools in your community.

Beyond the reports, PCY has been running a learning community for nine districts and their after-school programs for the past three years. They are working together to plan and implement concrete strategies for better coordination and better programming in both the school day and expanded learning. The work is not easy, but districts and their partners have succeeded in creating joint staff development, shared meeting and planning time, assessments to measure and improve quality, and most importantly, a deeper understanding of the value and potential of each other’s work. Ultimately, we expect these steps will result in kids having a consistently positive SEL experience from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and throughout the year.

As SEL momentum grows across the country, we must seize the opportunity to communicate the value of after-school and summer learning, and become authentic partners with the school day. This work will stretch our own SEL skills, as well as our students’, as we find new ways to collaborate, communicate, think critically and be creative. The time is ripe for expanded learning programs and the school day to leverage each other’s expertise, resources and time so every child succeeds.

Katie Brackenridge is the vice president for programs for the Partnership for Children and Youth. She oversees initiatives to improve the quality of and access to after-school, summer and community schools efforts in California. She also makes recommendations and advises decision-makers about policies related to the expanded learning field.