Committee for Children Blog

First Steps to Intentional SEL in Out-of-School Time Settings

By Tricia Maas, Ph.D. and David Martineau 

In recent years, social-emotional learning has been increasingly discussed in relation to out-of-school time settings—at conferences, in network meetings and in community learning centers. To many OST leaders, SEL renews the field’s long-standing commitment to youth development and represents an opportunity to bring a more intentional, research-based approach to helping young people thrive. Yet it can be difficult to know where to start when implementing SEL, and how the myriad tools and initiatives can fit together cohesively to support youth social-emotional development.  

These practical implementation concerns are top-of-mind for the authors, who spent the past several years developing tools—the SEL Program Quality Assessment (SEL PQA) and the Second Step Out-of-School Time program—to support this work. In developing these resources, we engaged in extensive research to determine what characterizes high-quality tools and how they can be used most effectively with real-world challenges and messiness. We share our lessons to provide guidance to OST leaders—expert messiness managers—who want to intentionally and effectively support youth SEL. We draw on our research and practice in the field to propose the tiered implementation approach illustrated and described here. 

Program quality is foundational. In OST settings, program quality is commonly used as shorthand for site climate, culture and processes that support positive youth development. OST quality encompasses safe environments, healthy relationships and providing children with engaging learning opportunities. Although program quality and quality improvement processes extend in scope beyond the core tenets of SEL, they lay a critical foundation for explicit and intentional SEL programming. Youth are more likely to internalize SEL when they regularly observe staff explicitly model respect, support and inclusion in the programs they attend. 

Fortunately, the OST field has long focused on such aspects of program quality. Resources like the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality’s SEL PQA and California AfterSchool Network’s Quality Standards for Expanded Learning support organizations in developing a safe climate that supports youth development and fosters youth and adult social-emotional competencies. 

High-quality professional learning about SEL is critical. Even in settings that model program quality standards, some staff may not fully understand what SEL is and why it is important to teach explicitly or how to do so. Filling these knowledge gaps is critical in supporting high-quality SEL. Educators learn best when professional learning resources are content-focused, use models of effective practice and provide opportunities for collaborative learning. These resources may include SEL research summaries, videos of high quality SEL instruction, and structured opportunities to reflect on their learning and their own instructional practice with colleagues or their supervisor. Committee for Children is building materials into its Second Step OST program to align with such practices. The Weikart Center’s new suite of SEL supports includes three workshops for staff, focusing on the foundations of cognitive, social, and emotional development, and providing tools for cultivating self-awareness in each of these areas.  

Research-based SEL programming moves the work forward. When supported by program quality and well-prepared staff, implementing intentional SEL programming can meaningfully support young people’s social-emotional development by establishing a common language around SEL and providing structured opportunities to explore and practice SEL concepts in low-stakes settings. Research has found that high-quality SEL content is logically sequenced, engages young people in active learning, dedicates sufficient and focused time to SEL, and explicitly supports the development of social-emotional competencies. Committee for Children’s field tests have also found children and educators tend to meaningfully engage with SEL programming when it regularly elevates youth voice and experience; intentionally addresses issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion; and reflects the authenticity and energy that characterize positive youth development. Having a research-based program that meets these criteria can provide OST educators with useful tools to facilitate intentional SEL in their community. 

Putting it all together. Effectively implementing SEL is not easy work. It requires a comprehensive strategy that includes improving program quality, developing staff and implementing high-quality SEL programming. Challenging as this work may be, OST’s deep roots in youth development has positioned the field for success. The intentionality that characterizes SEL in OST settings today is largely the work of putting it all together.  

Tricia Maas, Ph.D., is a research scientist at Committee for Children working with the Second Step Out-of-School Time SEL program. Dave Martineau is the Director of Product Design & Innovation at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. This article was originally featured in the Winter 2020 edition of AfterSchool Today.


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