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Social Emotional Learning in Out of School Time, Part 1

Posted: February 10, 2015

This fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Momentous Institute’s “Changing the Odds” conference here in Dallas and the Expanded Learning Collaboration’s “How Kids Learn 4” conference in San Francisco.  If I simply listed the takeaways, you would be scrolling the majority of your day away.  Instead, I want to dive a little deeper into what I saw as the overriding theme and how that translates into the afterschool and out of school time (OST) space. 

The theme is something I’m sure you’ve heard lately.  It should not be new to you, but it is something we still find ourselves continually validating to our parents, funders, and other afterschool stakeholders.  Guessed it yet?  Give yourself a pat on the back if you said Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

Dominant Focus in OST

 SEL is currently prevalent in the OST setting and will not be disappearing anytime soon.  Most people in the OST sector see SEL as the focus of the decade, similar to how academics held the spotlight the previous ten years.  Gil Noam, one of the presenters in San Francisco, related the shift to SEL as “breaking the ten year chain” on afterschool called academic improvement. 

This is not to say the field of OST will relegate academics to the background or phase it out.  When the dominant trend shifted from having safe places for children afterschool to increased attention on academic improvement, the emphasis on safety did not lessen.  In other words, we are not simply discarding one focus for another. 

The process is better viewed as progressive building where each layer adds to the next.


Misguided Assumptions

The most exciting part of this process is witnessing how the newer focus can offer a new lens through which to see and improve upon the previous one.  Our longstanding assumptions can be hard to question or analyze until we have that new lens.  Allow me to retell a portion of Malcolm Gladwell’s talk from the Momentous Institute “Changing the Odds“ conference.

Gladwell illustrated this point through a football analogy.  The Wonderlic is an intelligence test given to college football players hoping to play professionally.  The coaches and scouts in the NFL maintain that a successful quarterback must be intelligent, and they assume that the Wonderlic test is the standard measure for this trait. 

Four of Gladwell’s top five quarterback Wonderlic scores belonged to unfamiliar names.  Afterwards he listed names that scored near the bottom.  Included among them were Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Donovan McNabb, and Randall Cunningham.  Even casual fans may recognize these names.  For those of you who do not recognize them, these are all players that found great success as NFL quarterbacks, while the high scoring list was filled with players who have lapsed into obscurity.  His point being, many potentially successful quarterbacks are not given an opportunity because of an indicator of success that is faulty. 

So what does this have to do with our topic?  Just like the NFL, if we base our assumptions of intelligence on measurements that do not correctly forecast success in the “real world”, we may not be maximizing our children’s potential through our current efforts.  

A Variable in the Equation

We spend the majority of our time, tools, and efforts helping children succeed on TAKS, STAAR, and other classroom grades.   More and more people are now arguing that becoming a balanced, contributing, and successful adult is not attributed to the skills learned to perform those tests.  As a society, and in the OST space, we have been functioning under a formula like this,

We must focus our efforts (X) based on our assumption that increasing test scores (Y) will enable children to lead successful lives as adults (Z).

If the “Y” assumption is incorrect, the “X” must undoubtedly change to achieve “Z”.  Everything from our program designs, teacher/staff evaluations, professional development, and even the resources we leverage are all heavily influenced by that incorrect “Y” assumption. 

A New Strategy

Now that we have a new lens to look through, we can see new ways to address the same problems.  Let’s begin by looking at a single issue through our new lens.  Toxic stress is caused by frequent and/or prolonged adversity.  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University cites examples such as “physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship.”  Studies show that toxic stress damages hippocampal neurons in the brain.  This damage can lead to the following-deficit in memory

-cognitive impairments

-lack of coping

-poor problem solving

-low self esteem

These are all negative things that can hinder academic improvement in our children, but we were focusing our efforts in ways that did not directly address toxic stress.  We spent our time on practices like drilling flashcards for memory of a certain topic for a test.  Yet, if toxic stress is preventing high-level memory function in the brain, this is doing nothing more than spending irrelevant time on task.  We’re just spinning wheels without going anywhere.  Social Emotional Learning not only prepares children for the future, but also combats any damage done by toxic stress, thanks to the brain’s plasticity.

This is only one example of how a new SEL based strategy can improve upon our long-standing mission to enable children to live successful lives.   When we equip the Out of School Time space with the means to infuse SEL in their programs, we can better prepare our children for success in school while also providing them with skills and traits necessary to be successful adults in a 21st century world.

We’ll pick this back up next month, when we will further explore how SEL is integrated into OST.



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