Flipping the Script on Social Emotional Learning in Afterschool Spaces

By Kari Denissen Cunnien

In 2016, I was part of Propel SEL, a broad-based community partnership in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul designed to strengthen social emotional learning across multiple afterschool, summer learning, and mentoring sites. The initiative could have taken a more well-worn path: select a common SEL framework to use across sites, train adults to implement it, measure the outcomes.  But that is not what happened.  Instead, we walked a less tread path and the results changed minds and program practices.  Afterschool program staff who participated in Propel SEL commented that the experience was, “powerful”, “brought staff together”, and “changed everything about the way we thought of SEL.”

Here is how Propel SEL flipped the script on the way organizations embark on social emotional learning with young people.

Listen. Then act. 

Propel SEL began as a three-year funding partnership between the Carlson Family Foundation and the Greater Twin Cities United Way with goals to better understand SEL needs in the afterschool and mentoring fields, infuse SEL into youth and mentoring programs, and approach SEL through an equity and identity lens. Initiative leaders engaged 300 stakeholders (25% of whom were youth) from 81 youth serving organizations in community listening sessions and learned: 1) it would be impossible to select one unifying framework for us in all program sites across the region, and 2) we must engage staff in professional development before encouraging them to select and implement any framework. 

Because we took time to listen, we designed the next phase of the Propel SEL differently than we may have otherwise.  We started with professional development and designed it based on the learning experience staff requested and focused on topics supported by listening session data. A year-long professional development cohort was designed to support teams from organizations to go both deep and wide (and, not surprising, organizations that sustained teams with staff at multiple levels had an easier time implementing projects that mattered to the organization).  The community engagement sessions revealed that while 85% of programs reported they already supported some social emotional skill building in their programs, only 27% integrated culture and identity into that work.  With this information in hand, professional development designers kicked off the cohort sessions with time spent understanding the relationship between equity work, identity formation and social emotional learning before digging into SEL frameworks and tips to select one that supports the families and young people in each organizational context.

Standardization is efficient but not always better.

There was a time when I, and others in the Propel SEL initiative, thought all organizations across the Twin Cities should align behind one SEL framework.  This standardization would create a common language around SEL knowledge and skills. Funders could get behind one approach and it would be more efficient if organizations could skip learning about the plethora of SEL frameworks, having to puzzle out which, if any, best aligns with their community, families, young people, program goals and design. 

But those benefits would not have meant better experiences for young people or more intentional programs.  Instead, we decided to embrace complexity.  We designed the Propel SEL professional development curriculum to build the staff skills to analyze, select and, perhaps, modify SEL frameworks from both the perspective of culture and identity and from the perspective of program goals and design. 

When we start from the assumption that social and emotional knowledge and skills are formed within the context of culture, family and community (which we did in Propel SEL) then it’s important for each organization to understand this context for the young people they work with.  For example, there are 113 native languages represented by families and students in Saint Paul Public Schools and while language is not a perfect proxy for culture, it is one indicator of our region’s cultural diversity. Building organizational ability to identify a framework that works with young people’s culture makes all the difference.  For example, one Native American organization modified a commonly used SEL framework to demonstrate its relationship to the traditional 7 grandfather teachings. 

Secondly, intentionality matters.  Not all afterschool programs are designed to achieve the same outcomes.  Organizations must map which knowledge and skills their program is already designed to support and select a framework that aligns.  If their chosen framework does not align, they should be ready for some program redesign. One Propel SEL organization mapped their chosen framework back to specific, existing program activities.

Adults must start with themselves and address bias.

Twenty one organizations sent a team to the year-long Propel SEL professional development cohort that met monthly (with a summer break to implement action projects).  One of the first reflections we heard from participants was, “I never thought this was going to be so much about me!”  It would follow that if Propel SEL is about supporting the SEL of young people then the professional development would center around, well, how it is we support young people!  And, young people were at the center.  That’s why we asked adults to spend time thinking about their own SEL before digging into how they support young people.  SEL is not like learning addition, you don’t learn it and then just know it.  Adults may have more experience and practice with social emotional learning but they are not done with SEL themselves and their own assumptions and perceptions are grounded in their culture, family and community experiences.  Adults must unpack this and understand their own assumptions and biases before they can optimally support young people in their social emotional learning. 

At the end of this three-year initiative, Propel SEL had a variety of results from organizations adjusting their theories of change and/or logic models, to some integrating new program practices that intentionally lift up social emotional learning, and others changing organizational policy around hiring and student discipline.  Flipping the script paid off and I hope you’ll learn more about our journey, our lessons learned, and our recommendations for other’s work by reading our full report: Flipping the Script: A New Way to Do, See, and Understand Social Emotional Learning.

Kari Denissen Cunnien is the Executive Director of Ignite Afterschool, Minnesota’s representative in the 50 State National Afterschool Network.  She was a community stakeholder on the Propel SEL Community Advisory Team and also provided project management to the many partners who contributed to the year-long professional development learning cohort.  Kari has 20 years of experience in community network building and afterschool learning.  She studied education and youth policy at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (currently the Humphrey School).

Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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