By Sam Piha
All children and youth need social-emotional and character skills in order to thrive in school, work, and life. A broad body of research substantiates that academic ability works in tandem with social-emotional and character skills to support young people’s success in the 21st Century. Young people need to be able to assess their own skills and behaviors, work with others, and persist when faced with challenges. We want our youth, as they reach adulthood, to be well-prepared for productive careers and as socially conscious, engaged citizens.
To get there, they need to succeed in school and that means mastering the complex and demanding new learning goals embodied in the Common Core standards. By their design and structure, high-quality expanded learning programs provide valuable opportunities for children and youth to develop social-emotional and character skills. Families with sufficient resources spend freely to provide these opportunities through private lessons, summer camps, and special programs. California’s unparalleled expanded learning infrastructure makes similar experiences accessible to young people whose parents wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.
We believe expanded learning and school day programs can and must work together to ensure that our investments result in real and equitable gains in young people’s success. They can do this by consistently and coherently prioritizing students’ social-emotional learning and character development. Read it now.
By Sam Piha
If programs want to be serious about changing practice and the structure of program activities, being part of a professional learning community with other practitioners is an excellent way to approach this task. Learning communities are especially effective for programs wishing to better align their work with character building and social emotional learning.
Thus, we were very pleased to see the release of a study of the effectiveness of professional learning communities (PLCs) by Public Profit entitled, Professional Learning Communities in the Expanded Learning Field.
Below is an interview with the research staff at Public Profit regarding this study. In a subsequent blog post, we will interview practitioners who have been part of a learning community.
Q: Can you help us with a brief definition of “professional learning communities”?
A: PLCs are collaborative cohorts of professionals with a shared interest in improving their practice in order to better serve youth. They meet regularly to reflect, to review data, and to share and develop strategies to improve their professional practice.
In the expanded learning setting, PLCs tend to follow one of two models: one, for front line staff, emphasizes improving the quality of content-specific activities through trainings on delivering curricula and facilitating group activities and on-site coaching. They can be broad, open to staff from multiple organizations, or narrow, open to staff from one organization.
PLCs for managers in expanded learning programs focus more on innovative approaches to organizational and systemic improvement via discussion-based meetings and support for continued collaboration. These PLCs tend to be broadly open to mid-level and senior managers from multiple organizations.
Q: What inspired you to explore this concept? Is this particularly relevant, given recent events in the ELP field?
A: As interest in promoting quality expands throughout the field, more and more of our clients found traditional approaches to PD – like workshops and user’s guides – weren’t enough to really support sustained practice improvements.
Our clients in Oakland supported several Professional Learning Communities for expanded learning time staff at all levels, and asked us to evaluate several of them. We found that some really strong benefits for staff who participate (see below), and we wanted to share their successes more broadly.
Q: What are the benefits of participating in a PLC?
A: PLCs benefit participating staff in a number of key ways. Participating in a PLC can give staff increased knowledge in a specific content area, and in process-, role-specific knowledge. For example, a staff member participating in a PLC about wellness will build her knowledge in delivering wellness curriculum specifically, and in planning and delivering high quality activities more broadly.
This happens because PLC facilitators model effective facilitation skills and engage youth workers in practical, hands-on approaches to learning that they can replicate in their programs. Giving staff the opportunity to network with peers and participate in ongoing professional development may even improve retention.
Q: Can you describe some of the best practices of PLCs?
A: Many of the best practices of PLCs are related to the pre-work needed before implementation. Assess organizational readiness by asking key questions about logistics and staff capacity. Budget for extra staff time so that participating staff can not only attend PLC meetings, but also can participate in coaching and practice-sharing with colleagues, and spend additional time planning. Create a process by which participating staff can document and share what they’ll learn in the PLC.
Once the PLC is off the ground, best practices include developing the goals and structure of the PLC based on participants’ needs and ideas, implementing on-site observations and coaching, and leveraging partnerships to give participants access to experts and other resources.
Q: Are there particular settings or situations that are well-suited to PLCs?
A: There are some organizational conditions that can make a PLC more effective. To ensure that an organization’s PLC learning is planted in fertile soil where it can thrive, consider making the PLC a long-term professional development strategy complete with a multi-year commitment. Organizations thinking of taking on a PLC should also consider the implementation environment: will the program schedule accommodate new activities? Is there a sufficient budget for materials? Are staff consistently using positive youth development practices in the program? These factors all contribute to the success of the PLC.
At the staff level, PLCs can be more effective if organizations choose participating staff carefully, making sure that any participants are equipped with strong facilitation skills and eager to grow in their practice.
Q: How do you know if a PLC is working?
A: We use a five-step framework from Thomas Guskey to think about PLCs, and have found it helpful in tracking the benefits of PLCs. The framework’s steps are:
Many existing evaluation tools can help address these questions, including session feedback forms, observations, and surveys of youth and staff.
By Sam Piha
In our last blog post, we discussed the film, “Inside Out”, and the importance of children having an awareness of their internal feelings as well as the ability to manage their feelings to avoid negative behavior toward others.
Below are the responses of an interview we did with Sheri Glucoft Wong, LCSW. Ms. Wong is a well-known family therapist who focuses on children’s issues. She is a leading consultant to schools in the Bay Area and is best known for her parenting workshops.
Q: Did you see “Inside Out” and/or our blog post? If yes, what did you think?
A: Although I haven't yet seen "Inside Out”, I found your blog post about it to be one of the most thoughtful and useful pieces I've read about the film.
Q: There is a great interest in social emotional learning and character building within afterschool and summer programs. Important components are “self-awareness” and “self-control". This includes understanding and being able to identify one’s own emotions. How important is it that we help kids with this task?
A: While it's always been important, I think it's more important now than ever. Self-awareness and self-control are key aspects to relating, and the ability to relate well to others is at the core of every aspect of development: emotional, social, academic, team-playing, and navigating one's world.
Q: What are some of the consequences if we ignore this?
A: There are consequences to every aspect of a child's being when we ignore this core aspect of children's development--their sense of self and relationship to others-- and when we fail to guide them and provide them with the tools they need to understand themselves and relate to others. To succeed academically and eventually in the work force, to contribute to positive social environments (home, school, afterschool, sports teams, etc.) and to manage any of those when they are challenging, children need self-awareness and communication tools.
Q: Do you agree that the out-of-school setting is the right place to contribute to this?
A: Yes, I do. I think out-of-school settings give kids an opportunity, on a more leveled playing field than the classroom or sports teams can offer, to develop aspects of themselves and their relationships with others. Staff can be trained and these programs can be structured so that the HOW of performance and achievement becomes integral to the activities and learning that takes place; for example, how kids demonstrate caring, compassion, cooperation, collaboration emphasizes the importance of knowing and managing their feelings and behaviors toward others.
Q: How might efforts to promote self-awareness and self-control look different for elementary age kids versus older youth in middle and high school?
A: Young kids are still trying to figure out how the world works and are especially responsive to understanding "results”, that this behavior prompts that reaction, and that there is a connection between what they do and what ends up happening. With younger kids, it's especially important to let the learning about emotions, behaviors and relationships emerge from what is happening in real time.
Q: What kind of training do adults who work with children in out-of-school programs need to provide the learning, guidance and support that children need in these areas?
A: The adults need to be self-aware so that they can identify their own responses and interact with kids with the kind of clarity and human values that we are trying to encourage. Much of what we would like to see in terms of kids' behavior and interactions cannot be legislated, it needs to be inspired, so adults in teaching roles need to understand how, at each developmental phase, kids experience and process feelings, and what children are capable of regarding behaviors and relating. Educators should also be provided with the communication skills training needed to coach kids and to partner with parents in these areas.
Sheri Glucoft Wong, LCSW is a family therapist, parent educator and consultant who is known for offering practical, useable tools for raising kids. Sheri has led workshops for Bay Area public and private schools for over 30 years. In addition to working with parents and children, Sheri has provided training to teachers, school administrators, counselors and others who work with children and families.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.