Three Steps for Supporting Intentional SEL in Out-of-School Time

By: Jessica Newman and Deborah Moroney; American Institutes for Research

There is a lot of attention to SEL, both in and out of school. If you are reading this blog, it is likely you care very much about the topic. In this post, we focus our attention on SEL in out-of-school time (OST), which includes before and after school programs, community-based programs, and summer programs, and informal learning settings like museums, libraries, and recess. A key recommendation in the recently released call to action for whole child efforts, A Nation at Hope, was to intentionally partner outside of the school. This is common sense: children and youth spend 80% of their waking hours outside of school. Further, we know that young people benefit from OST programming in a variety of ways, including improved personal and social skills (see Durlak & Weissberg’s seminal meta-analysis from 2007). In our work with OST initiatives around the country, we hear a similar refrain: “SEL isn’t new – we’ve been doing this forever” or “this is just good youth development practice and we’ve been doing that!”

OST programs often subscribe to a youth development (YD) approach, which is a strengths-based way of providing opportunities for young people to build skills and practice leadership, in partnership with families, schools, and communities. In many ways, YD and SEL are complementary: they are designed to create safe and supportive spaces where relationships can flourish. We know that many OST professionals are on the road to intentional SEL and that many YD principles are aligned with and can be supportive of SEL. But we also know that quality YD, alone, is not enough for young people to develop key social and emotional competencies (Shernoff, 2013;.Devaney & Moroney, 2018). We believe that starting with a foundation of YD practice and growing that practice to intentionally support SEL is an effective approach that will fit in OST.

This approach may also support the kinds of OST professionals who, in a 2015 survey conducted by the National AfterSchool Association (NAA), shared that they value and implement SEL but do not feel knowledgeable talking about what it is. In addition, those survey respondents emphasized a need for SEL training as well as practice and activity ideas. The NAA survey findings are somewhat like national surveys conducted by CASEL of principals which show that principals value SEL but want additional guidance, training, and implementation resources.

We find ourselves asking the same question: how can we better support the adults and programs that endeavor to implement intentional opportunities for SEL? Well, there are three important steps:

First, get everyone on the same page (generally) about what SEL is and what it can look like in OST. There are so many resources out there that define SEL – from the competencies we aim to develop to the practices that support social and emotional development. The Taxonomy Project from Harvard’s EASEL Lab is a noteworthy step in the right direction, serving as a “navigator” for the frameworks and skills in the field. And a much needed one, too! In a recent review, Berg and colleagues (2017) (who employed Jones’ approach from the Taxonomy Project), identified 136 different competency frameworks. The same holds true for the SEL practice space. Another recently released resource from NAA, SEL to the Core, highlights 11 resources on SEL practice – seven of which came out in 2017 and ten of which have come out since 2015. Although many SEL-focused frameworks and resources emphasize the in-school space, there is increasing attention to the role of OST, what SEL looks like in OST, the need for in- and out-of-school time to align around SEL, and how we can better support OST professionals  who endeavor to support SEL. The Afterschool Alliance offers a free and handy toolkit on communicating the value of SEL to afterschool stakeholders and the Partnership for Children and Youth facilitated Professional Learning Communities of K-12 and OST professionals in nine California districts to create a vision and action plan for SEL. More is needed but the valuable and newly developed resources and strategies tell us that we are on the right track.

Second, identify and strengthen the synergies between what we do well (quality YD practice) and what we aim to support (intentional SEL). NAA’s new guide, SEL to the Core,  highlights eight SEL practices that are most commonly described in SEL resources, while also linking them with the NAA Core Knowledge and Competencies (CKCs) for Afterschool and Youth Development Professionals. The goal of the guide is to identify and align what OST professionals need to be able to do to support quality SEL practice, noting that they should focus on building from a foundation of quality YD practice (spelled out in the NAA CKCs). It is also important to point out that the OST field has come a long way in the understanding of what quality practice looks like and how to measure it. Many quality tool developers have recently revised or are in the process of adapting their measurement tools to emphasize SEL practice. For instance, the David P. Weikart Center’s SEL Program Quality Assessment is an extension of the original PQA and includes core content in several SEL domains. Similarly, the National Institute for Out of School Time added SEL scales to their Afterschool Program Assessment System quality toolkit.

The positive news is that, as a field, we have gotten better (maybe even pretty good) at defining and measuring practice, which is critical if we hope to ever see outcomes. We understand what quality YD and SEL implementation looks like and we are working to develop practical resources to ensure OST professionals can implement these practices with quality.

Yet, while we are moving the field forward – aligning frameworks, developing new practice guides – there is a third, very important, step that will require a reflective step back: Getting ready to engage in SEL.

We have all seen it before: failed attempts at engaging in a new, great thing (like SEL) because the people and programs were not ready for implementation. The good news is that there is something we can do about that, but we have to first acknowledge that readiness is a factor.

What does it mean to be ready? The first thing to bear in mind is that readiness refers to both program readiness and individual readiness. Research by Scaccia and colleagues (2014) suggests that readiness encompasses three components: motivation, general capacity, and innovation-specific capacity. We’ll apply each of those components to the SEL, specifically.

Motivation is your belief in and support for the innovation (in this case, SEL), which influences your desire to engage in and adopt practices. For example, if staff do not see that SEL aligns with their organizational mission, their job description, or if they just finished implementing something new that took a lot of time and resources (i.e., innovation fatigue), they may not be motivated to even try something new.

General capacity refers to whether your organization functions in a way that would support implementation of anything new. This is a basic, and unfortunately persistent, issue in OST. If an OST program does not have the basic resources, staff, time, and quality practice in place, it is less likely that they would be successful in implementing something new, like SEL. It is not impossible, but it certainly provides additional hurdles. This is not to disparage well-meaning programs that don’t have adequate resources but rather to highlight for stakeholders where to start, and what expectations are realistic when implementing anything new.

Innovation-specific capacity refers to specific knowledge, attitudes, and skills that are needed to effectively engage in SEL. The funny thing is that this is often where we start in technical assistance for programs and individuals. We provide tools, resources, and professional learning specific to the innovation (e.g., SEL). We applaud those efforts, but we are also compelled to reiterate the importance of exploring general capacity and motivation a priori to ultimately ensure the implementation of the intervention is a success.

As we continue to move forward, as a field, in support of young people’s social and emotional development, it is critical that we (1) get on the same page, (2) build from our youth development foundation, and (3) make sure that we are ready. As we have suggested, there are resources available to support those three steps and more are on the way. We encourage you to consider each of these three steps and to ask yourself (and your colleagues) whether and how you are doing, in each of these areas, as you endeavor to support SEL. Your SEL practice—and the young people, families, and communities you serve—will thank you for it!


Author Contact Information

Jessica Newman –

Deborah Moroney –



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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