The Five A’s to Navigating SEL from the Inside Out with Older Youth

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential for young people to navigate the ever-increasing challenges of today’s world. While many SEL programs and much of the research to date have focused on elementary school-aged children, more recent research shows that middle and high school-aged youth can also show substantial benefits from explicit opportunities for social and emotional development. In response to the growing consensus that social and emotional skills are essential to learning and life outcomes, the Forum for Youth Investment and the Afterschool Alliance hosted a webinar this spring featuring Dr. Stephanie Jones, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of Harvard’s EASEL Lab, and a panel of afterschool program practitioners from around the country. Together, they explored the benefits of and enabling conditions for high-quality SEL programs for young people in middle and high school.

Dr. Jones’ presentation and the following panel discussions centered around the most recent report in the Navigating SEL from the Inside Out series, funded by The Wallace Foundation, highlighting how SEL can support healthy adolescent development. The report also touches on the features of contexts where high-quality SEL can occur, such as safe and caring learning environments, supportive and reciprocal relationships, and opportunities for agency.

The benefits of high-quality SEL programs were emphasized during the panel discussions by out-of-school time practitioners, with several common threads emerging as they shared their insights and approaches to supporting SEL development with older youth. In summary, Dr. Jones reflected on these threads as the “Five A’s”:

  1. Agency: Recognizing and fostering young people’s agency to make decisions and take actions that affect their own lives and the world around them. Providing opportunities for young people to lead, participate in decision-making processes, and advocate for issues they care about is crucial. Creating a culture that values and respects their perspectives and contributions is also necessary.
  2. Adaptation: Being ready to take the resources that are out there and adapt them for use in different contexts, and better yet, putting young people in the driver’s seat to make those adaptations. Involving young people in the adaptation process means giving them the opportunity to lead the process, rather than just following adult-led strategies.
  3. Attunement: Actively tuning into the needs and perspectives of young people and their feedback on the strategies and adaptations being used. Creating space for young people to share their thoughts and feelings, actively seeking out their input on programming, and listening to what they tell you builds trust and creates a sense of belonging.
  4. Adjustment: Making changes to an approach based on the specific circumstances being faced. Partnering with young people in this process can help ensure that their needs, perspectives, and conditions are accounted for in the programs and activities you create together.
  5. Approach: Anticipating and developing effective strategies to support young people through transitions is critical for ensuring their success. Involving young people in the development and implementation of these strategies can help ensure that they are effective and responsive in addressing needs.

Throughout the webinar, the recurring themes echoed by research and practice made it abundantly clear: high-quality afterschool and summer learning programs can play a pivotal role in fostering essential social and emotional skills among middle and high school-aged young people. Community-based youth programs often offer the flexibility to adopt a holistic approach to youth development. As middle and high school students self-select into these programs driven by their interests and motivation, it creates an environment that fosters heightened leadership, responsibility, and engagement – conditions that allow for SEL skill development.

While recognition of the importance of SEL programs for this age group is becoming more recognized, and these foundational elements are in place to support SEL, many programs may not know where to start when it comes to implementation.

Fortunately, there are various resources available to support programs who want to improve their intentionality and ability to do this work. The SEL Program Quality Assessment (PQA) and supporting training workshops can assist programs in assessing and improving their implementation of SEL practices in their work with young people. By incorporating high-quality SEL practices and committing to continuous quality improvement, afterschool and summer learning programs can offer valuable opportunities for young people to develop the social and emotional skills necessary to achieve their full potential in education, work, and life.

Featured Speakers and Panelists:

  • Stephanie Jones, Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development and Director of EASEL Lab, Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Amy Walker, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Committee for Children
  • Bubbles DuMouchel, Youth Driven Spaces Capacity Builder, Neutral Zone
  • Elmer Thomas, Expanded Learning Director, Monroe Demonstration Academy
  • Fahren Johnson, Strategy & Partnerships Director, Schools Out Washington
  • Suzie Staley, Director, EMU’s 21CCLC Bright Futures
  • Tiya Trent, Program Manager, Project VOYCE
  • Moderated by: Dan Gilbert, Director of Whole Child Initiatives at Afterschool Alliance, and Dave Martineau, Director of Design and Innovation at the Forum for Youth Investment