SEL Curriculum Features

What can your organization do to support social and emotional learning?

Social and emotional learning is difficult work. It requires thinking and talking about ongoing emotions and relationships, topics that are complicated and sometimes taboo. SEL is deep, powerful, and can be quite personal. In each of the eight programs that participated in the SEL Challenge, SEL work goes hand-in-hand with complicated and engaging work projects— like creating a community service project or building a boat. All of this, of course, happens among youth who sometimes struggle dealing with everyday life as a teenager in a risky world.

This field guide presents curriculum features (organizational practices that support SEL) and standards for SEL practices (things staff can do with youth), that aim to help adults teach youth how to encounter, understand, and surmount challenges, and experience success within the context of strong positive relationships. The standards for SEL practices are described in terms of key youth experiences and staff practices. These are presented each domain section on this site.

The importance of sequence, safe space, responsive practices and supports for staff are explored in detail below.


The defining curriculum feature of the SEL Challenge offerings is the sequencing of content. In these offerings, there are two content sequences at work: SEL and Project content sequences.

SEL Content Sequence

The SEL content sequence is implemented in parallel to foster skill growth in each of the SEL domains. By design, the project content sequence presents opportunities for parallel social and emotional learning to occur. In fact, many of the Challenge programs have identified specific places in the project sequence where opportunities for SEL are likely to occur and, sometimes, where learning these skills is necessary to progress in the project. All of the programs told stories about times they adjusted their project content sequence in order to effectively respond to the emotional needs of the youth—e.g., because of a traumatic event a youth faced, a conflict between teens, or an individual’s emotional breakthrough—demonstrating their responsiveness.

The SEL content sequence feature includes three practice indicators:

  1. The offerings follow a progression through the SEL domains.
  2. Offerings are structured for youth to engage their community.
  3. Youth master social and emotional skills and experience increasing agency.

Project Content Sequence

The project content sequence—a content sequence that youth are guided along (e.g., the skill sets necessary to build a wooden boat) during the offering cycle. For example, at Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS), the project content sequence includes youth learning to set up camp—pitch tents, start a fire, store their food—a set of skills that at first staff model and, over time, youth complete on their own.

The project content sequence feature includes three practice indicators:

  1. Staff shape the offering work with youth input, often requiring youth ownership.
  2. Staff shape the offering work with complex goals and/or a complex sequence of operations.
  3. Staff shape the offering work with repetitive skill practice in diverse contexts.

Paul Griffin explained how at The Possibility Project (TPP) a spiral curriculum deepens this sequencing progression:

Quote markWe use a spiral curriculum, introducing, revisiting, and reinforcing key concepts in different contexts throughout the year. For instance, hope or justice might be introduced early on as a broad idea, come up again in an exercise on race/class, come up again in the stories they share, find their way into the show as they write it, and then take on new meaning when share with audiences. Each time it repeats it does so in a different context, deepening the meaning for our youth and giving them a subtle understanding of these key concepts.

Check out the resource below to explore how SEL maps on to your program’s sequence.

Strengths Builder

Assessing Your SEL Curriculum Design

From Staff, David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality

Safe Space

Building a safe environment using a whole-group structure is especially pertinent to adolescents, who are beginning to develop a capacity for empathy. In the SEL Challenge programs, a safe space is both necessary to establish and a direct result of the social and emotional learning that happens in the programs. The safe space in a program is co-created with the staff and the youth and is reinforced throughout all aspects of the offering.

The Safe Space feature includes four practice indicators:

  1. Staff cultivate ground rules for group processes (e.g. listening, turn-taking, decision-making) and sharing of emotions.
  2. Staff cultivate a culture around the principles that all are different, equal, and important in which people actively care for, appreciate, and include each other.
  3. Staff cultivate a culture where learning from mistakes and failures is highly valued.
  4. Staff organize consistent routines, activities, roles, or procedures to provide a structured and predictable experience.

Natalie Cooper, Senior Director of Social Emotional Learning at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM), explained the rule at her organization:

Quote markWhat goes on in the program stays in the program. It’s a huge dynamic. Particularly with social media, sometimes kids get excited and they want to share, and they don’t realize sharing something was great for them, [but] it might not have been great for the person in the group or somebody else who was impacted by it.

Responsive Practices

The project and SEL content sequences are designed to create opportunities to practice self-regulation during moments of challenge—the “tough spots” when things don’t go as youth may have hoped on the first few tries. Importantly, during moments of challenge, youth also work through tough spots in their store of past social and emotional experiences, such as traumatic events in their homes or communities.

In parallel with the youth experiences as campers, carpenters, organizers, community service workers, and young women learning relationship wisdom, the SEL content sequence stays steadily focused on the skill building opportunity that every tough spot represents in a youth’s life. In some cases, the staff stop the whole process and focus fully on the youth if they are struggling. In other cases, the content sequence moves forward and the tough spot is addressed at the next check-in. In all cases, the staff have done prior work to know the young person they were working with.

The responsive practice feature has three practice indicators:

  1. Staff observe and interact in order to know youth deeply.
  2. Staff provide structure for check-ins to actively listen to and receive feedback from individual youth.
  3. Staff coach, model, scaffold, and facilitate in real time as challenges occur.

Paul Griffin at TPP explained the importance of staff listening to youth:

Quote markOur starting point in terms of our understanding of the youth and where they’re at socially/emotionally is up to them. And what we don’t try to do is define what that is. We’re literally simply just trying to understand who they are. We try not to make assumptions about them or who they are. We try to listen and really understand.

Supports for Staff

The features identified here capture some of the ways organizations support their staff to do the work well. The supports for staff feature includes five practice indicators:

  1. The organization recruits youth who will benefit from the offering.
  2. There is more than one staff member in every program session with the ability to implement responsive practices.
  3. Staff work together before each program session to plan and collaborate on the session activities and regularly debrief following each session to discuss youth progress, staff response, and adjustments for future sessions.
  4. Staff are supported to grow professionally and rejuvenate energy for the work.
  5. Staff are supported by their organization to reflect on and improve their practices through a continuous improvement process.

Managers in these programs try to support the staff to tune into the emotional effects of the work on the staff themselves. Following is how Allison Williams described the process at Wyman:

Quote markAfter each club, staff sit down and debrief with one another. What worked? What was challenging? How’s so and so doing? Will you reach out to someone? They seemed a little upset when they left. Let’s make sure we draw them back in. And how do we want to plan for next week? What makes sense? What might we want to adjust? So on an ongoing basis we really encourage them to use that plan, do, learn, adjust cycle. And just keep that going all the way through.

Try out this tool to help you and your staff assess your organization’s SEL practices!

Strengths Builder

Assessing your SEL Practices

From Staff, David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality

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How have you seen SEL skills affect young people?