This past year has taken a toll on our nation’s social and emotional well-being. Young people, in particular, have been hard hit and will continue to suffer the loss of more than a full academic year of school and limited peer interaction, both of which are critical to early and middle childhood development. Those living in low-income communities of color had access to even fewer services and resources and have lost more friends and family members due to the impact of COVID-19. These conditions have left communities in mourning with increased levels of stress, fear, and worry. 2020 has indeed magnified the inherent inequities in our society and in our school systems.
In a study conducted by America’s Promise Alliance, approximately one-quarter of students are feeling disconnected from their school communities, school adults, and classmates. More than half are much more concerned than usual about their own and their family’s physical and emotional health. In addition, a sizable proportion of young people are much more concerned about their current and future education, including their grades and getting into college. One in four students reported losses in sleep due to worry, feeling unhappy, depressed, and under strain. They also report a loss of confidence in themselves. These diminishing indicators in well-being were especially salient for young people living in cities, for Asian and Latinx young people, and for those born outside the United States.
When young people are stressed or worried, they have difficulty focusing, learning, and coping. In fact, neuroscience has long shown us that stress actually changes how the brain develops in size, structure, and functioning (Murgia, M. Nov. 9 2015). In many low-income communities, young people have already been experiencing chronic stress. “Chronic stress occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis…. This affects virtually every system in the body, either directly or indirectly.” (Scott, E., 2020) It has been considered a “well-established mental health and medical [liability] for low-income communities and people of color, already persistently contributing to disruption in educational attainment" (Porche, Fortuna, Lin, & Alegria, 2011). Chronic stress also contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline (Barnes & Motz, 2018; Mallett, 2017) and the disproportionate representation of young people of color in juvenile justice system and experiencing chronic poverty (Robles-Ramamurthy & Watson, 2019). Lisa R. Fortuna (2020) and her colleagues point this out in their recent study "Inequity and the disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color in the United States: The need for a trauma-informed social justice response."
In this article, the authors call for a focused and collaborative response to this crisis, moving away from siloed actions toward integration across social service agencies, mental health professionals, and the medical community. They state that it will be necessary to create environments and relationships in school and other community settings that involve young people in positive activities to help children sustain self-regulation, social, and problem-solving skills — in other words, social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. But how do we prepare staff to promote these skills?
PROMOTING SEL IN CONTEXT
For the past 10 years, both in-school- and out-of-school-time, programs have been learning how to promote SEL. They have chosen to focus on this set of outcomes because they know it is a key predictor of long-term outcomes such as academic success, college and career readiness, civic engagement, and thriving. CASEL, an organization that is committed to advancing equity and excellence in education through social and emotional learning, is an amazing source of information for anyone looking for recommended classroom curricula or assessment tools in this area. In fact, Hello Insight is a vetted tool that is part of their resource center.
However, in some cases, the subject of SEL is taught much like math or science, with hopes that cognitive understanding will lead to improved mental health and behavior. In some cases, it has even been applied as a behavior management tool, especially for young people of color.
I have heard SEL repeatedly discussed as an opportunity for compliance for kids of color or used to show how children of color are deficient in something else. For white youth and privileged students, SEL is about college and career readiness. - Simmons, D., 2019
Researchers, educators, and frontline staff have begun to criticize this practice and offer solutions that contextualize SEL within the social, political, and cultural challenges of the moment. They advocate for a more culturally-rich solution that focuses on changes to relationships, community, and society. In the section below I will describe four such approaches.
Dr. Simmons argues that adult staff and practitioners need to be cautious that we are not triggering even greater trauma, especially in communities of color, by teaching SEL absent of the “larger social political context, which is fraught with injustice and inequity and affects our students’ lives” (2019). She argues, “What’s the point of teaching children about conflict resolution skills, if we’re not talking about the conflicts that exist because of racism or white supremacy?" Without that nuance, she says SEL risks turning into "white supremacy with a hug.” Dr. Simmons calls for strategies that teach “Fearless SEL,” a strategy that fully embraces all that young people bring to the table (such as their race, ethnicity, identities, and histories). Fearless SEL encourages staff to:
- Provide opportunities to reflect on identity and equity to build self-awareness by including activities that push students to reflect on how their identity hinders or enhances their life opportunities.
- Enhance relationship skills by rewarding making and maintaining relationships with diverse individuals and groups and being able to communicate, cooperate, and negotiate conflict constructively.
- Develop responsible decision-making skills through community-based projects that support young people to make constructive choices about how we behave and interact based on safety, social norms, and ethical standards.
- Use current topics to foster social awareness that involve appreciating diversity, building empathy, and respecting others.
- Explore different expectations for self-management in different situations by investigating the relationship between emotional regulation and race, gender, and other aspects of a person's identity. This includes, supporting young people to explore the different expectations for marginalized groups in this area.
YOUTH ORGANIZING AND ADVOCACY
Many of the strategies outlined in Dena Simmon’s “Fearless SEL” model don’t teach SEL. Rather, they create an environment in which young people can develop SEL that is grounded in their real-life experiences and the social, political, and cultural contexts of the moment. Youth Organizing (YO) groups tend to do this extraordinarily well by engaging young people in efforts that directly address systemic issues facing their lives. Findings from a study conducted by Hello Insight and the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing show that youth organizing groups offer high-quality, research-based programming that has led to statistically significant growth in SEL, especially self-management and contribution. In fact, their growth in self-management and contribution was significantly greater than a control group of peers who participated in more traditional afterschool programming. In addition, young organizers develop greater critical consciousness — the ability to analyze social conditions and act to create change.
What is so unique about youth organizing programs, and why do they make such an impact on young people? This study shows that young organizers experience far more high-quality positive youth development (PYD) experiences than their peers in more traditional programs. It turns out that YO groups intuitively use a PYD approach and take it a step further, ensuring that young people’s stories, identities, and experiences remain centered in all campaigns, advocacy efforts, and outreach. They work with young people to unpack their challenges and understand them within a larger social, political, and cultural context. Specifically, this report shows that young organizers have the following experiences that promote SEL growth:
- Engaging Equitably and Authentically: Young people in these groups have strong relationships with adults who place their interests and experiences at the center of the work, paying specific attention to culture, race, gender, age, and class as well as the broader community and political context.
- Sharing Power: Young people in these groups have adult allies that address power differentials and ageism directly, assuring they have opportunities to authentically amplify their voices, thoughts, and opinions.
- Promoting Peer and Adult Partnership: Young people in these groups also have many opportunities to learn about and work alongside peers and adults from different backgrounds with a wide variety of perspectives.
- Expanding Opportunities to Make Change: Working on real-world campaigns and actions that matter to them and make a difference in their lives.
Another critical area of practice that recognizes the impact of trauma on learning and healthy childhood development, including SEL, is called “trauma-informed care.” This approach has gained traction in schools, juvenile justice departments, and mental health agencies. Trauma-informed care encourages the treatment of the whole person rather than individual symptoms or specific behaviors. While this approach is a radical step forward, it too suffers from a limited understanding of the importance of social, political and cultural context in three key way. First, it assumes that the trauma is an individual experience rather than a collective one. Second, it requires that the trauma is treated in people, but provides very little insight into how to address the root causes of trauma in neighborhoods, families, and schools. Third, the term "trauma-informed care" runs the risk of focusing on the treatment of pathology (trauma), rather than fostering the possibility (well-being). Dr. Ginwright calls for a more holistic approach which he calls Healing-Centered Engagement (HCE) that is strength based, advances a collective view of healing, and re-centers culture as a feature in well-being. This approach differs from trauma-informed care in four ways. Healing-Centered Engagement is:
- Explicitly political, rather than clinical: Communities and individuals who experience trauma are agents in restoring their own well-being.
- Culturally grounded and views healing as the restoration of identity: It uses culture as a way to ground young people in a solid sense of meaning, self-perception, and purpose.
- Asset driven and focuses on the well-being we want, rather than symptoms we want to suppress: It offers an important departure from solely viewing young people through the lens of harm, and focuses on asset-driven strategies that highlight possibilities for well-being.
- Supports adult providers with their own healing: It requires that we consider how to support adult providers in sustaining their own healing and well-being.
POSITIVE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT
Positive Youth Development (PYD) is not a curriculum, it is a way of working with young people that has been proven to promote SEL. It also includes key practices that overlap with many of the features outlined in Fearless SEL, Youth Organizing, and Healing Centered Engagement. It is asset-based, it can be culturally grounding and focused on the restoration of identity, and it is inherently relational. In fact, when it comes to developing social and emotional learning outcomes for young people, positive youth-adult and youth-youth relationships are more important than dosage, type of activity, age, ethnicity, or gender. Young people in programs that purposefully created space for this work demonstrate growth in SEL that is more than double that in other programs ( Search Institute 2015 & 2017; Hello Insight 2017).
In organizations that spur extraordinary SEL gains, young people experience authentic relationships with adults who take the time to get to know them by listening and understanding who they are — their cultural and lived experiences, their interests, and their passions. These adults also encourage them to take positive risks and perform beyond their own expectations, they challenge them and support them to try new things, broaden their horizons, learn about other people’s cultures and perspectives, and explore their own identities. Young people are supported to voice their opinions and views and work with one another to create safe spaces in which young people can learn from one another through exploring similarities and differences, developing deep bonds and relationships.
The data from the 2017 Hello Insight report shows that, no matter the type of program such as STEM, arts, sports, or college and career readiness, PYD approaches can be applied and are shown to promote the development of social and emotional outcomes in young people and even adults. However, there is also a great opportunity for PYD practitioners to take their practice even further, using more of the approaches seen in the YO groups — centering the social, political, and cultural context of the moment to help young people reflect on their multiple identities, engaging in creating more equitable environments both within the program and society, participating in opportunities to learn from one another about similarities and differences, as well as working on projects, campaigns and initiatives that give them a voice in reshaping society and the inequities that limit their development.
Hello Insight’s Response
In response to what we have learned through the amazing work cited above and through our own studies and conversations with Hello Insight members, we spent most of 2020 conducting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) audit of all our tools and resources. This has led to new survey items and recommendations that lean into greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This year, expect to see new questions on our surveys and recommendations in our reports that directly address issues and DEI. Specifically, we have included questions that will help us understand how young people experience authentic and equitable engagement with staff. In other words, do adults take the time to understand each young person, highlighting their skills, experiences, cultures, and heritages to promote stronger peer bonds and understanding? We have also included new questions that will explore aspects of positive cultural identity which has been shown to promote long-term thriving and self-confidence.
To address issues that specifically relate to self-management and self-control, we are removing questions that ask if young people "know how to and can calm down during difficult situations," as we believe that “calming down” may not be the appropriate response to every situation. Instead, we are focusing on questions that address a young person’s ability to understand and identify their emotions. We are also including items related to growth orientation or a belief that mistakes and challenges can help you grow.
With the help of our members, we have begun testing these questions and hope to make them available in reports by spring of 2023!
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