You Can’t Oops into Excellence: A Primer for Social Emotional Learning Implementation in High-Quality Youth Development Programming

by Tasha Franklin Johnson, Ph.D. and Aasha Joshi, Ph.D., YMCA-USA

Who hasn’t heard the statistic that it takes 21 days to change a habit? You know, remember when you most recently tried to start a new diet, engage in a new exercise routine or make a lifestyle shift. But if a behavior change or forming a new habit takes 21 days, then how many days are needed to change or develop a habit of mind? And, what if you want to change habits of mind for lots of people? How many days are needed to change an already up and running system? Grappling with these questions are essential to cultivating a game changing, training and development paradigm for character development with adult youth development professionals and cultivating the social emotional competencies adults need to model, support, affirm and celebrate prosocial behaviors when working with youth. The answers which we have pursued for the last 1460 days consistently points us to intentional practices that, for the YMCA, joined cause, concern and commitment through a framework of adult practices and related strategies, tactics, and indicators leading to high-quality youth development.

In 2016, the YMCA identified 5 adult practices – empathy, emotion management, relationship building, personal development and responsibility – that evolved from its core values of honesty, caring, respect and responsibility to key cornerstones for supporting the development of the mind, body, spirt and soul of next generation youth. The research suggests that how youth develop is deeply influenced by interaction with adults and that an organization-wide, concerted, intentional effort made to support youth character development has the potential to create positive, lasting youth impact. We posit that institutional leaders—from the CEO to the guest greeter—are best able to affect positive youth development when there is support by the organization, the program, and front-line staff and volunteers. In the YMCA, at the organizational level, this means that Ys have an infrastructure in place to implement youth development principles, strategies, and support for developmentally appropriate and culturally and contextually relevant implementation. At the program level, this means youth programming is characterized by high-quality practices with a caring, responsible adult.  At the frontline, youth development leader level, this means adults intentionally focus their practice in the five areas mentioned when interacting with youth. If our intention is to influence the lives of youth, then our focus is on adults so that they are best supported to encourage youth to develop and integrate values, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that allow them be successful in learning, work, and life.

As youth development professionals, we commit to establishing high-quality programs and modeling prosocial engagements – adult to adult and adult to youth. This includes monitoring progress and continuously improving while integrating inclusion, diversity and global mindedness in our work. Doing so has meant for the YMCA that at our core we refrain from becoming unconfirmed legends in our own minds but instead we intentionally use the evidence, the research and the practice to inform a focus on all aspects of whole child education.  

Below are five main questions that one can use to sharpen your focus on a systems level approach for supporting practitioners to develop social emotional competencies in youth:

  1. Goal Orientation: What is your starting point? What goals do you want to achieve? Where have you been and where are you going? We looked to the research to orient ourselves, knowing we wanted to collect trustworthy data about our progress and improvement. Several frameworks and tools adopted in the out-of-school time field are applicable and adaptable to Y settings. Our identified five practice areas were cross-referenced and verified with other well-known character development resources, including the Weikart Social-Emotional Program Quality Assessment (SEL PQA), CASEL’s integrated framework of core Social and Emotional Learning competencies, the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), and Algorhythm’s staff surveys and their ‘Hello Insight’ youth surveys. Although sometimes called something different, the five adult practice areas align with these research-informed frameworks, can be measured with validated tools, and can be implemented within the variety of youth development programs at Ys.
  2. A Framework of Fidelity: What is our framework? By using a system’s approach, no one person is responsible for the institutional knowledge and strategy or goal execution. In the YMCAs character development work, to systematize the adoption of character development as a habit of mind, training centered on goal awareness and pedagogical practices for all, to be adopted by everyone, at all levels of the organization. This meant that we provided technical support, professional development resources, direct training, and evaluation support.
  3. Visionary Expectations: What is the expected change? Outline social emotional learning expectations that are directly hinged to program inputs. What percentage of your stakeholders report increased excitement, commitment, courage or enthusiasm as a result of experiences in your care – programmatically and/or individually? With related outputs and outcomes, this puts into the practice the mantra, “when you know better, you do better.”
  4. Continuous Improvement: How will we know if we are making progress? Understanding your organization’s capacity to design and implement high-quality youth work as well as one’s own skill and will is a critical first step. The YMCA developed a capacity assessment – YCAP – comprised of core supports of which continuous improvement is one – and program and self-reflection tools that local affiliates can use to gauge their readiness and ability to develop and scale a diverse suite of youth programs.
  5. Success in Principle and Practice: What does success look like? Define the indicators and related strategies and tactics for success. Because youth development professionals emerge from different entry points in the profession, the point of service remains a common node on which practitioners, C-suite staff, and volunteers can connect. Arrange time for these professionals to define success in words and deeds for themselves. Exercising this practice cannot only activate buy-in but also model for youth personal development, relationship building, and responsibility – essential social emotional constructs.

Hopefully by now you are considering factors – the cost and benefits, the resources needed, or simply why now and why you? Navigating the ‘what? now what? so what?’ helps one get to the heart of the matter which is when we know better, we do better, and we can support better. If everyone working with youth operated as the adult you needed as a child, fewer than 48,000 youth in the United States would be incarcerated in correctional facilities on a daily basis, less than 2/3rd of youth would experience trauma by age 16, and more than 34% of youth between the ages of 8-18 in the United States would have a mentor or positive role model. Let this primer lay the groundwork for your moonshot and remember, if not now, when and if not you, who?

About the Authors:
Dr. Tasha Nicole Johnson, Senior Director, Character Development Learning Institute, is an educational strategist with expertise in the areas of teacher development, leadership development and urban education. She has international and domestic experience developing transformative practices that will have high impact results on issues of social justice and equity among diverse stakeholders, particularly in the K-12 education sector. Tasha holds several degrees, including Bachelor’s degrees in Organizational Behavior & Business Policy and African American studies from Southern Methodist University, a Master’s degree in Administration, Planning & Social Policy from Harvard, and a PhD in Early Childhood & Elementary Education from New York University.

Aasha’s work is guided by three questions: What’s being done? Is it working? And how can we make it work better? For nearly 15 years, she has conducted research within and for organizations so that they can improve their processes, services, and products to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Aasha Joshi earned her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Cambridge in England, studying social influence, teachers’ work, and attitudes.



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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2 Comments

  1. I love the whole “it takes a village” mentality. This is so important when making character development a priority. Too often people will say “it takes a village” because it sounds nice, but expect that others will be ultimately responsible for the successes or failures within the work. People on the front-line expect the people at the top to take the responsibility. People at the top expect results from the people on the front lines. But as we see from this research, we are all successful when everyone is working with the intention of success. This work is for all of us. We all need to find our place in it, hone in on our personal purposes, and play to our personal strengths, skills, and capabilities. We need to learn from our struggles and celebrate our successes and use that information to continue the journey forward. Thank you for this article. It is a concise reflection on the work we will continue to do.

    • This so accurately characterizes the tension in “good work” that advances positive youth development. If we get stuck in the duality of who’s in charge or who’s responsible, as youth developers, we’ll never put the youth and their caregivers at the heart of the work. Thanks for providing further insight on the complexities of positive youth development. Onwards and upwards…

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