You’ve reviewed the research. You’ve read the articles. You agree that social-emotional learning (SEL) is critical to academic and life success for students. . . Now what? It’s time to explore actual practices you can implement tomorrow in your afterschool program, and learn a little about the “why” behind it all.

Since the publication of initial research in 1990, educational organizations have integrated emotional intelligence into their programs through the process of social-emotional learning (or SEL).

Megan Agee, Director of Expanded Learning 360°/365 with Partnership for Children & Youth, shares that out-of-school time programs (afterschool, before school and summer) are ideal environments for SEL skill development.

“Key features of expanded learning programs (such as activities that support exploration and discovery, frequent opportunities for youth to work in groups or teams, providing youth with avenues for self-expression and decision-making, and fostering relationships between youth and caring adults) create the conditions for youth and, importantly, the adults who work with them, to practice and build skills together,” explains Agee.

A critical component to successfully implementing SEL in expanded learning programs is to ensure the individual program already has a solid foundation of program quality.

“These best practices, as defined by the Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in California, align well with the strategies and conditions needed for SEL skill development. They are: providing a safe and supportive environment; promoting active and engaged learning; offering skill building opportunities; supporting youth voice and leadership; and addressing diversity, access, and equity,” explains Agee.

Agee reflects upon her past experience working with an organization that provided high quality expanded learning programs, and on her current work with nine California districts participating in the Expanded Learning 360°/365 Professional Learning Community, and has provided the following examples of SEL practices at the program level:

Give intentional attention to fostering peer and adult relationships. For example, programs that start each day with youth and adults sitting together in community circles, in which youth and adults can respond to check-in prompts, build relationships, discuss issues or questions that impact them, and/or problem-solve collectively. This activity supports the building of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and interpersonal skills.

Offer youth opportunities to showcase mastery. For example, programs offering enrichment clubs, such as a Flash Animation club, that involves scaffolded learning, (i.e., introducing youth to the fundamentals of Flash Animation, gradually introducing animation skills of increasing complexity), which concludes with a culminating “animation screening” in which youth can showcase their finished products to their program or school community. This activity supports the building of a growth mindset, self-efficacy, and self-management.

At the systems level, you can implement the following to support SEL success in your program:

Start with the adults. For example, districts and their expanded learning partners are coming to understand that before diving into youth practices, SEL skill development needs to start with the adults first. This can mean everything from establishing a district/school/program culture that fosters SEL skill-building across all levels, to focusing on developing SEL awareness and skills in the adults who impact a student’s experience, both during the school day and in their expanded learning program.

Find common ground. For example, expanded learning providers and their school-day counterparts are starting to engage in conversations that address SEL goals and approaches for both sides of the partnership. Ideally, these conversations help identify where common ground exists, and what assets and expertise each partner can bring to the effort.

Locally, our school-day counterparts at Fresno Unified School District are rolling out new SEL programs and initiatives. Rita Baharian, Fresno Unified’s School Climate Director, describes a few of the strategies the district is using.

“Second Step is our district’s Early Learning to Grade 6 Social Emotional Learning curriculum. It is research based and identified in the CASEL Guide as a well-designed and effective program. The curriculum focuses on teaching skills for learning, empathy, emotion management and problem-solving. Elementary schools teach a 30 to 40-minute lesson each week focusing on one skill weekly which spirals throughout year,” explains Baharian.

“We build community through the implementation of class meetings kindergarten through 12th grade to promote social development and responsibility within a caring community where all students feel safe and have a sense of belonging. Class meetings provide an avenue for ‘student voice’, practice of pro-social skills, develop norms of kindness and inclusion, and enhance students’ connection to school,” continues Baharian.

Regarding afterschool programs in Fresno Unified, in August, the district provided professional learning to select afterschool program staff on building intentional community. Staff also had an opportunity to learn about social-emotional learning and how it can “come alive” in after school programs (ASP). Fresno Unified plans to expand and move towards implementation beginning with a cohort of 7 afterschool programs in November who will begin implementing community building activities in their programs.

SEL resources and trainings are now available to afterschool practioners throughout the state. Aleah Rosario, Director of Capacity Building Programs with CalSAC, shares a few professional SEL learning opportunities designed to build the capacity of out-of-school time programs to provide high-quality social-emotional learning and character development support to children and youth:

CalSAC’s onsite training is hands-on and utilizes an experiential adult learning approach.

CalSAC’s eLearning courses are available through CalSAC’s Collaboration eLearning Environment that include in-depth curriculum content, interactivity, and certificates of completed courses.

Coming soon in October 2016, CalSAC will offer a special SEL training series for both site teams and leadership. Topics covered in these trainings will include: awareness building; skill building; understanding the difference between leadership and management; supervision; leadings teams and organizations; and coaching.

Because SEL has been implemented for some time now and we can point to long term benefits to students. When schools promote students’ academic, social, and emotional learning, students will learn the basic competencies, work habits, and values for engaged postsecondary education, meaningful careers, and constructive citizenship (Dymnicki, Sambolt, & Kidron, 2013) which is really the goal of afterschool programs.