The verdict is in: Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills matter enough to be mandated. Social and emotional skills have always mattered to those who ascribe to positive youth development. Voluntary school and community-based programs have long been the places families and youth rely on, not only for safety and relationships, but also for exploration and practical skill building. But, until recently, they were relegated to second-class status. So-called soft skills, non-academic skills, and non-cognitive skills hovered outside the realm of public accountability.
These skills were frequently acknowledged as useful by the big four (education, health, social services, juvenile justice) but either seen as not critical to the primary goals mandated by public funding (academic achievement, pregnancy or substance abuse prevention, violence prevention) or not enforceable. Even if all agreed that social and emotional skills mattered, lack of evidence that these skills were easily malleable or measurable made them unmarketable in public policy circles, even those focused on expanding out-of-school-time (OST) programs.
But this picture is rapidly changing with a growing body of research studies proving social and emotional skills matter and will increasingly play an important role as young people progress into adulthood. These skills are linked to increased academic performance and employability and decreased anti-social behavior and mental health issues. Adolescent brain research also confirms that social and emotional skills are malleable well into young adult years. The flood of survey tools suggests that these skills are measurable.
The groundbreaking collaborative work behind this guide, however, is, in my opinion, the first solid evidence that we have that SEL skill building is widely marketable to programs, to funders, and eventually to policy makers.
The Forum for Youth Investment partnered with the HighScope Educational Research Foundation to create the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality because of our shared belief in the importance of promoting research-based practice as an alternative to contributing to the proliferation of research-based program models. The collaboration with Susan Crown Exchange and the eight visionary out-of-school organizations whose disciplined brilliance is reflected in this Guide is a stellar example of what happens when the research question shifts from measuring and replicating program outcomes to distilling and disseminating program practice.
This learning community was incredibly productive: They agreed on a subset of social and emotional skills that are both easily observable and relevant to most OST programs, developed practical measures, and tested them, knowing that they were running the risk of revealing program weaknesses. They pushed to describe the nuanced practices they use to promote growth in each of the six skill areas, using an iterative process to create best practice standards that were relevant across the Challenge programs, linked to program effectiveness, and supported by research. And then, as a bonus, they pushed forward to create a theory of what it takes to support the infusion of these SEL practices into their programs’ official curricula, which varied from pregnancy prevention to boat building.
Combined, these three accomplishments give OST practitioners the tools they need to declare SEL goals and improve SEL practice. This is both timely and important. OST programs are, by design, hardwired to promote these soft skills. They are voluntary, experiential, choice-driven settings for relationship building, exploration, and learning. They are increasingly being recognized as critical partners in system-wide efforts to expand learning.
These tools, however, provide the OST field with an opportunity to do more than increase market share: They pave the way to making readiness broadly marketable to policy makers. By demonstrating the level of organizational intentionality even the best youth development programs have to commit to ensure that staff implement the formal programming in ways that support SEL skill building, they are stepping forward to demonstrate what, I believe, needs to be the mandated across settings in which youth spend time: Demonstrate how the official curriculum supports the developmental. Only then will the OST field have done everything it can to ensure that all young people are ready to meet life’s opportunities and challenges.