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Key Challenges & Opportunities to Support Thriving Youth

Saskia Traill


By Saskia Traill, PhD, President & CEO of ExpandED Schools

Over the summer, I had the privilege of taking part in a wonderful back-to-school web seminar hosted by Grantmakers for Thriving Youth, titled “Key Challenges & Opportunities to Support Thriving Youth.” Marc Chun, Program Manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, facilitated our discussion with my fellow panelists Aaliyah Samuel, EdD. President and CEO of CASEL, and author Stephanie Malia Krauss. Together, we explored the trends, challenges, and opportunities that define the landscape of supporting thriving youth.

The overarching theme that emerged from our discussion is the significance of positive relationships, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and well-being in addressing the key education and learning challenges of fall 2023. These challenges span academic recovery, mental health, chronic absenteeism, school safety, teacher shortages, and more. SEL, which encompasses character education, life skills, and workforce readiness, all share a common focus on nurturing relationships and creating supportive environments. And research tells us that creating nurturing environments can improve every one of these education challenges.

As we examine the social and emotional effects of the last few years, we find that developmental journeys have been varied. The pandemic accelerated aging for some children, as they grappled with adult fears and concerns. Simultaneously, limited opportunities for social and emotional growth hindered healthy child development, leading to scrambled developmental milestones. This has manifested in more children today struggling to adapt to classroom routines and form friendships than before the pandemic.

To address this head on, we must prioritize play, adequate rest, social experiences, and experiential and immersive learning. Collaboration among educators from different grades and between school and out-of-school activities is essential to navigate this new developmental landscape effectively.

The deep mental health crisis among young people today is closely related to but distinct from the need for every child to experience SEL as part of their enriching learning journey. All adults interacting with children must receive training in mental health, emotional support, and child/youth development to provide holistic support.

In our efforts to support academic recovery, we should not overlook the importance of enriching activities such as afterschool programs in dance, sports, STEM, arts, and more. These activities, often considered extra, are integral to a child’s well-being. Schools and communities must work together to remove barriers to participation, including fees, transportation, and scheduling conflicts. And we should avoid cutting these programs to reduce the number of spots for children and families, which will have negative effects throughout the school community and education outcomes.

The opportunities for our young people in fall 2023 are interconnected, requiring a holistic approach that prioritizes positive relationships, SEL, and well-being. By working collectively and remaining adaptable, we can pave the way for a brighter future for our young generations. I invite you to watch the seminar recording here and learn more about ExpandED Schools’ SEL program here.