Far too many young people are growing up today with challenges that are almost insurmountable. Kids contend with poverty, random violence, substandard schools, racism, and a scarcity of safe, supportive places to hang out. Yet even facing these kinds of challenges, the young people highlighted in this guide like Brenda from the AHA program, and Kimo from the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory are on the path to success.
Why do some kids beat the odds while others struggle? At SCE, we believe the work we have undertaken over the past two years helps us move closer to the answer.
Not long ago, success in school meant success in life. We also believed that things like grit and determination were traits people were born with, not skills that could be developed over time. Over the past few decades, hard and soft sciences have produced an impressive body of evidence that teaches us two very new, very important things. First, that we can take our innate abilities and cultivate them, just like we build up muscle, dexterity, and language fluency. And secondly, that social and emotional skills matter just as much in determining life satisfaction and success as traditional intelligence. The use of the word “skills” here is intentional. These qualities are not only innate. They can be taught. And, they can be learned.
The practice of building social and emotional skills is what this field guide is about. With the help of the highly regarded David P. Weikart Center, we closely studied eight of the finest youth programs in the country and empirically tested their components, cycles, methodologies, aspirations, and results. We wanted to test the assumption that top notch youth programs might have a lot in common. By studying their work, we have confirmed that they do. No matter what these programs offer to kids, fundamentally youth service is about what it takes to help build fine human beings.
So why do some kids thrive while others struggle? Through our research, we’ve learned from youth like Brenda that it is related to finding a safe and supportive environment like the one she found at AHA. And it’s about genuinely connecting with an adult who offers unconditional support and direct, honest feedback, like Brett Hart of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory who taught Kimo the lessons learned from failure and provided the chance to try over and succeed.
Above all, cultivating social and emotional skills is about learning—at the deepest level-that we can all drive our own lives, in any direction. To get to the right destination, we need to become deft at steering, managing speed, sensing when to be defensive, to map, to backtrack, even calling on a mechanic when something breaks. Getting more youth on this path will take a lot of practice and exercise; we are proud to present the eight programs we studied as models for this work.
It is our privilege and pleasure to share what we’ve learned about social and emotional learning and to provide a roadmap for practitioners far and wide to help all youth unlock their potential, even those with the toughest of circumstances.