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Professional Development

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SEL for Kids Begins with Adults

Research suggests structured, strengths-based afterschool programs that are coordinated with schools and communities and staffed with knowledgeable and competent adults are ideal settings to promote positive experiences and youth social and emotional development.

In the last decade, the field of education—during the day and in afterschool—has witnessed an increase in attention to the social and emotional learning (SEL) process. While afterschool professionals have recognized the value of SEL and the role they can play for some time—and may already be engaged in practices supporting social and emotional (SE) development—there's an awareness of and attention to intentional SEL practices, making them more likely to be accessible to all youth, in and out of school.

In 2015, the National AfterSchool Association conducted a survey to learn more about afterschool SEL practices and professional development needs. Findings suggested that while afterschool professionals value and implement SEL practice, many do not feel knowledgeable talking about SEL. In addition, respondents emphasized their need for additional SEL training and practice and activity ideas.

As the field continues to coalesce around the importance of SE development for youth, it's essential that practitioners have resources to support their work and intentionally focus on SEL. Consider these three things:

Afterschool Professionals' Health and Well-Being

Because SE development is "taught and caught," adult SE competence and well-being is critical to creating the overall environment and is central to SEL practice. Working with youth can be an incredibly rewarding, but stressful job. To facilitate the most impactful and positive program experiences for youth, it's important to keep the SE health of adults front and center.

Staff SE competence is tied to healthy adult-youth relationships, effective behavior guidance and direct SEL implementation. Staff with SE competence are better able to:

  • Recognize emotions and the thoughts associated with those emotions and use this information to demonstrate empathy and promote enthusiasm.
  • Take a proactive approach to support the development of youth prosocial behavior and more easily understand and address challenging behaviors.
  • Be role models for youth, with SE skills always on display. How adults talk to each other and to young people, how they respond to and resolve conflict, and the biases they may bring to the program all impact youth.

SEL Practice Is Grounded in Youth Development: Core Competencies for Staff Are Foundational.

Research by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality (2012) shows that program quality results in youth outcomes and quality can be greatly improved by supporting staff to implement best practices with youth. Practitioners should first build a foundation grounded in positive youth development, then grow their practice to support youth SEL. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is currently mapping the NAA Core Knowledge and Competencies for Afterschool and Youth Development Professionals with effective SEL practices. Two examples:

  • Interactions with children and youth: Warm, welcoming, supportive spaces enable youth to feel safe and to develop new skills; to try something new, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes—this is at the heart of social and emotional growth.
  • Youth engagement: Authentic opportunities for youth voice, choice, decision-making and leadership are contributors to youth engagement. Consider that methods used to promote engagement can at the same time support youth social and emotional development. When youth have choices, they learn how to make responsible decisions. When youth share their voices, they in turn learn how to communicate effectively.

Practices to support SE growth should align with your vision and goals.

SEL is most effectively implemented through intentional practices. Plan accordingly and ask:

  • What are our programmatic goals?
  • What methods and activities help us achieve our goals?
  • What SE competencies do we think we will develop from these methods and activities?
  • What intentional practices can we implement to support development of the selected SE competencies?

We often hear, "I want to do SEL, but don't have a curriculum" or "SEL is important, but we have to focus on ..." The most important thing for afterschool professionals and leaders to remember is that intentionality is key to effective SEL practice. SEL can happen anywhere, anytime, within any context. SEL is most effective when it's contextually and culturally relevant, aligned with programming, and engaging for youth.

Use NAA's Core Knowledge and Competencies for Afterschool and Youth Development Professionals as a resource on your SEL journey.

Contributed by Jessica Newman, Senior Researcher, American Institutes for Research, and Gina Warner, President and CEO, NAA.

This article originally appeared in
AfterSchool Today.