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Lessons Learned From Nurturing SEL in Expanded Learning Time | SELConnections

Katie Brohawn

Katie Brohawn is Senior Director of Research for ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our SELConnections blog series, where we explore social and emotional learning.


Here at ExpandED Schools, we have been deeply immersed in the area of social-emotional learning (SEL) for nearly five years now, and our recent award from the New York Life Foundation supports the notion that the focus of SEL in expanded learning time is no passing fad. The more attention this topic receives, however, the more questions emerge: How intentional should educators be when implementing SEL in the expanded learning space? Do they need a commercially available curriculum or can they make their own? Do students need to take an SEL ‘class’ or is SEL best delivered as a set of overarching practices? How much training does staff need? 

A recent report by Public Profit titled Nurturing Social-Emotional Learning in Out-of-School Time sought to explore the answers to these questions. As part of a multi-phase project, they present reflections and lessons learned from an initiative in which nine out-of-school time (OST) organizations in California focused on improving non-cognitive skills in the youth they serve.

The commonality across the organizations was that, after an intensive five month planning process, they all agreed on three core areas to focus their attention: academic mindsets, learning strategies and social skills. In the first year, they all used a commercially available curriculum (Brainology, Student Success Skills or SOAR). Staff received extensive training in a number of formats including in-person and web-based, as well as regular participation in a professional learning community. In the second year, half of the organizations transitioned to using a self-designed curriculum (with the assistance of a consultant).

The report is rich in content (and I highly recommend anyone interested in implementing an SEL initiative to read fully), but the following are some of the lessons I found most enlightening:

The need for customization

  • While all agencies used a commercially available curriculum in the first year, they still needed to make adaptations to ensure that the material was both relevant and engaging to all of the students they served. However, despite the need for customization, half of the organizations still preferred to use these curricula in the second year. 

  • The other half of the organizations chose to develop their own non-cognitive skill-building approach in the second year. However, this route required a great deal of effort (including support by a consultant). This route was better suited to SEL efforts woven into the fabric of programming (vs specific lessons) and for older youth.

The need for continuous and targeted staff training

  • Staff need to be well-informed about what SEL is, why it’s important and how to implement it effectively. High turnover rates are endemic to the OST space, which has an impact on SEL. Staff who were in their program for more than two years were more likely to know about non-cognitive skills than new staff, but only 20% had been in the program that long. Therefore the report highlights the need for continuous staff training, ideally via a train-the-trainer model.

The need to be more explicit with youth

  • Regardless of whether students are taking an SEL class or SEL is woven into the fabric of programming, the intentionality in SEL skill building includes the need for students to understand the SEL goals of a given activity or intervention. The article gives a nice example of a shift from implicit to explicit SEL:“Before, we’d take our kids to the pool in the summer in the hopes that the experience would help them feel comfortable trying new things. Now we tell the kids, ‘We’re taking you to the pool to help you feel more comfortable trying new things.’ It helps us all to make the connection between program activities and skills we’re working on building.” 

As the authors conclude: “There is no ‘one right way’ to begin (supporting young people’s non-cognitive skill development); find approaches that are rooted in best practices and engaging for staff, and work to broaden and deepen from there.” Despite the freedom and flexibility that the quote implies, the study’s findings with respect to the need for continuous staff training and intentionality in SEL implementation and measurement are critical. Here at ExpandED Schools, we will surely be taking these lessons to bear as we continue to refine our approach to both implementing and measuring SEL. We look forward to reporting back on our process as it continuously evolves.



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