Kalamazoo Youth Development Network: Engaging Staff and Families in SEL Practice

By KYDNet Staff from Kalamazoo Youth Development Network

The Kalamazoo Youth Development Network is in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The network is comprised of 44 organizations serving over 5,000 youth in Kalamazoo County. They see their investment in building SEL skills as a way to achieve their mission, which is to ensure all Kalamazoo County youth are college, career, and community ready by the age of 21. They recently launched three new strategies to deepen staff engagement and connect with families around SEL skills.

Building Staff Awareness of Their Own SEL Skills

KYD Network discovered the importance of “doing their own work” as it relates to social and emotional learning so they asked cohort members to have their Youth Development Professionals (YDPs) self-assess using the k-8 DESSA (Devereux Student Strengths Assessment).

  • Youth Development Professionals conducted self assessments in the fall of 2017. The purpose was for staff to gain insight into their strengths and areas to improve as they model SEL skills and observe and assess youth SEL skills.
  • KYD Network’s SEL coach created a coaching process, similar to the Weikart Center’s Quality Instructional Coaching method to guide Youth Development Professionals through the improvement process.
  • After reading the group and individual DESSA ratings the YDPs identified their common SEL strengths; they chose an SEL Area and a specific indicator to work on improving as a team. Working as a team created support and accountability as they worked towards improving this skill.
  • One of the sites chose to improve Optimistic Thinking and specifically to work on the indicators “Speak about positive things” and “Say good things about the future” when looking at their impact on children currently in their program and future participants. Some strategies used to improve Optimistic Thinking were sharing success and progress with students from each others groups, talking about highs/lows for each day with extra focus on what they think went well, and a kindness club with mentors for those who struggle with optimistic future oriented thinking. Staff moral and attitudes toward hopefulness improved and we’ll ask them to take a post-DESSA to see if direct proof of long term benefit.
  • Another site chose Social Awareness and Self Awareness as skills to improve, focusing on being aware of their own strengths, aware of the strengths of coworkers, and asking/giving help when needed. The team meets bi weekly to discuss student progress and uses this time to check in on how they have been supporting each other and collaborating to meet the daily learning objectives. The site coordinator shared this statement about their progress: “I think that the most significant achievement we made so far was to be able to recognize each other as a TEAM. I believe that the conversation of what our strengths were came after realizing that we were not only in charge of a single group. We formed a team that has the same goals for our students and wants them to achieve in life.”

Using SEL as Family Engagement Strategy

KYD Network designed three communication strategies for Youth Development Professionals to use to integrate SEL and family engagement:

  • Strategy #1: Staff complete the DESSA and then send postcards that describe the youth’s SEL strengths to their families. Specific items from the DESSA are stated in the postcard to start building a common language around SEL. For instance, a youth might have a strength in decision making or good decision making skills and the card can share the times they have asked others for help, accept responsibility for what their actions, or shown good judgment.
  • Strategy #2: There is a slight stigma around phone calls home, usually occurring to share bad news or behavior issues a child has in school or in a program. Programs call families to share SEL strengths in order to: 1) build relationships with families, and 2) raise awareness in families about the strengths of their young person. Exact language from the youth outcomes measure is used to describe the youth’s strengths. Programs call families to: 1) share SEL skill areas for a young person to improve, and 2) gain insight on strategies used at home to support development in those challenging areas.
    • During the call, the Youth Development Professional asks family member if they have experienced a challenge with the youth in a particular area where they may be struggling at the program and ask the family member if they also experience that and/or to share strategies used at home to support the young person. The Youth Development Professional agrees to try any shared strategies and makes arrangement for a follow-up call in a month to report progress or trouble-shoot again.
    • We are in the early stages of our family engagement strategies but have heard from three cohort members that using SEL strengths as the foundation for calls home helps to build constructive relationships with families because so many families are used to being called only when a problem has arisen. Receiving a call about their child’s strengths has helped to build a common goal between OST programs and families.
    • KYD Network cohort members communicate about youth SEL strengths in order to build a common language around SEL. Our longer-term goal is to have a community approach to SEL where the early childhood and k-12 systems, along with families and the OST sector, all use the same language to define and talk about SEL. It’s important for youth to hear common words being used to describe SEL skills so that they are not confused when they enter different spaces/systems.

Hosting Family Nights to Support Intergenerational Learning

KYD Network cohort members are busy planning family nights that occur throughout the school year and summer. The purpose of these events is to invite parents into their child’s OST program’s space, build community, and learn from each other. The OST program hosts these events that are co-planned with youth and families and include a meal and a two-generational learning activity. In some programs:

  • Family members share about the neighborhood they live in with youth development professionals so they gain insights into dynamics in the neighborhoods.
  • Families co-plan service learning projects and field trips that center on two-generational learning.

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