Rigorous Fun: Implementing Research-based SEL in OST settings

By: Tricia Maas and Joan Duffel, Committee for Children


Research and logic make clear that social-emotional learning (SEL) is increasingly effective the more it is reinforced throughout a child’s day. With approximately a quarter of children in the US attending afterschool programs, the potential to extend SEL from school to out-of-school time (OST) is tremendous. Committee for Children (CFC), with support from the Wallace Foundation, sees this truth as an opportunity and is developing an SEL program for OST settings. Creators of the widely used school-based Second Step program, CFC carries 35 years of deep expertise in evidence-based SEL. We’re developing a growing appreciation for the power of OST environments in developing and reinforcing social-emotional competencies. We hope to elevate the importance of reinforcing SEL across school and OST contexts and to highlight a few key considerations for bringing SEL to OST communities.


It’s important to recognize that SEL is not a new concept in OST settings. Building healthy relationships is a core value that lives at the very heart of out-of-school culture. As we develop tools to support SEL in OST professionals, we have quickly come to respect and admire how much the staff in these programs care about the social-emotional well-being of kids. Those of us with expertise in school-based SEL have a good deal to learn from OST programs.


Since beginning the development of our OST program in late 2017, CFC has partnered with 26 OST providers in four cities to serve diverse groups of children. For more than a year we’ve observed educators and children using early versions of our SEL program, interviewed and surveyed leaders and educators, and collected student knowledge assessments to understand how SEL programming can be most effective in OST settings.


Partnering with OST providers across the country has been deeply humbling, energizing, and, above all, educational. We’ve learned what makes the space exceptionally rich for SEL programming, and we’ve learned that serving these communities comes with unique challenges. We’ve learned that OST communities often have a culture primed for meaningful SEL, elevated needs for educator supports, and demand fun—imagine!


  1. The OST field’s roots in positive youth development and equity lay a powerful foundation for SEL. The youth development approach views all children as capable of learning and thriving, involves them as active agents in their learning, and builds on strengths rather than targeting weaknesses. Leaders in the OST field including the Forum for Youth Investment and the National Afterschool Association have long advanced these ideas. These orientations support equity, inclusion, and positive development and are critical for supporting SEL in any context. In this way, high quality OST providers may serve as exemplars for schools working to build a climate and culture that supports SEL.
  2. OST educators often need foundational supports. Many educators in OST settings begin their work without formal training. They often require foundational information about child development, as well as methods and structures that facilitate group interactions. These settings’ often limited access to time and money to support professional learning complicates this challenge. These realities have led us to design SEL content in OST settings that supports learning for both child and educator and regularly provides educators with just-in-time guidance.
  3. OST emphatically rejects boring. It quickly became apparent to our team through observations, interviews, and surveys that educators and children in OST contexts tend to reject content that imitates the structures of traditional school. After school, educators and children expect opportunities for highly active applied learning opportunities that take a play-based approach. These contextual norms have pushed CFC to create content that regularly engages children through movement and team challenges—activities that elevate young voices and provide substantial opportunities for implicit learning.


There is great power in incorporating high quality SEL programming into OST contexts. Although explicit SEL has largely come to the OST field later than it has to schools and districts, these settings have been laying the foundations for and supporting students’ SEL in sundry ways for decades. Indeed, many schools may learn from the youth development principles and community orientation that have long existed in OST contexts. But school and OST contexts are often starkly different in culture, expectations, and staffing, and attempts to use content created for one setting in the other are likely to fall flat. We hope lessons we’ve learned partnering with OST communities can guide others in supporting high quality SEL across contexts as educators and SEL leaders move to provide children with richer, more comprehensive SEL experiences in school and out.


Author Contact Information:

Tricia Maas – tmaas@cfchildren.org

Joan Duffel – jduffell@cfchildren.org


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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  1. I have been saying for several years…maybe 10 years….that coaches need SEL trading. This an area where much impact could be made. I have witnessed first hand the lack of adult SEL competencies in the sports world. These coaches have the power to inflate and/or demoralize kids and teens. They have an audience where their actions, their guidance and leadership in this area would be so profound. Of course many coaches are teachers too. We want a more intentional approach by educational leaders to help teachers understand and develop an awareness of their inner world. That is first. Next, how to guide a model this to youth under your care. Coaches have long been called out for lacking the awareness to fully understand their impact. Former athletes tell stories of being demoralized by their experiences in sports and at the hands of coaches who have no understanding of their impact. Anyway, there’s clearly work to be done.

  2. A concern I have about using SEL in OST settings is research I’ve seen citing After School Programs’ tendencies toward high staff turn-over & difficulty in attracting qualified staff, sparse PD, and kids’ inconsistent attendance. While increased SEL is good, and while incorporating SEL in ASP’s will encounter less push-back, I question whether these applications of SEL will bear fruit.

  3. There are high quality OST programs that embed SEL into literacy, math and science engaging activities – rather than having a separate resource that OST facilitators must find the time for, and learn to navigate. Check out KizLit, KidzMath and KidzScience from Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

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