By Sam Piha
Social-emotional learning (SEL) and character skills are increasingly accepted as vital for youth to promote their success in school, work, and life. Dr. Dale Blyth has been a leader in youth development and SEL for many years. Below we offer a brief interview with Dr. Blyth. (He will also be a featured speaker at our Speaker's Forum on April 6th in Los Angeles and April 10th in Oakland. We have also posted three briefing papers on SEL authored by Dr. Blyth on our Expanded Learning 360°/365 website.)
Q: Can you give a brief description of what you mean by social-emotional learning?
A: I see social emotional learning as the ways children and young people learn to deal with emotions, other people, and tasks -- what I call their ways of being.
Q: SEL (sometimes talked about using the terms of non-cognitive skills, growth mindsets, etc.) has gained acceptance as vital for success in school, work, and life. How did this acceptance come about?
A: Partly from new research on a clearer set of measured concepts in this area and partially from the failure of a strictly academic or "cognitive" focus to provide results.
Q: You also talk about "program quality". Can you define this?
A: Program quality is about the processes and practices that programs use to ensure youth are safe, engaged and have voice. I like the way the Weikert Center's Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) defines and operates in this space.
Q: In your mind, how is SEL different than the principles and practices of "youth development", which we learned about in years past?
A: I see a lot of compatibility or overlap in good youth development and good SEL practices. Youth development is less focused on any specific outcomes, meets youth where they are, and is youth centric. Good SEL is also youth centric but more conscious or deliberate about helping youth build social and emotional competencies (knowledge, skills, attitudes) needed for success.
Q: You write about the importance of pursuing SEL through intentional practice. Can you say what you mean by this and offer a couple of examples?
A: Intentional practice involves preparing adults to do SEL, creating environments that use routines that deliberately foster SEL, designing programs/activities/experiences that deliberately involve SEL competencies and help youth practice SEL. This includes using data to improve these skills in young people and the climate of the program.
Examples: Program practices that create space for emotions and seek to understand where youth are at each day; programs that involve team problem solving and promote positive relationships; and feedback from staff that promotes self reflection and is more about feedback than advice.
Q: Could you explain the idea that some SEL skills are "taught" while others are "caught"? Can you give some examples?
A: Young people are learning how to deal with the emotions, relationships and tasks everyday. In this sense, SEL skills are being caught from role models and others around us -- whether positive or negative.
At the same time, we can also deliberately or intentionally teach youth these kinds of competencies and help them have experiences where they use them. Unlike math which needs to be primarily taught to be learned, SEL is learned in both ways and we miss a lot of opportunities to shape SEL competencies if we limit ourselves to just a teaching mode. SEL competencies may even be primarily caught and not taught. The distinction is important so that we do not create a class on SEL and think our job is done -- teaching is not enough.
Q: Due to rising costs (including the raise in minimum wage), afterschool programs increasingly have less to invest in staff development and training. Can you suggest some core staff competencies that can lead to a program quality "floor"? (Example: facilitating youth discussions that can lead to the establishment of group agreements and check in circles).
A: I am not a believer in raising the floor as the right approach to professional development in the field. I would argue for a middle out development of the field and its professionals. Great middle managers, site coordinators, and such are the key to supporting the front line -- training the front line in basics as a whole will not do the job we need in my view. Great youth development is more about expertise -- knowing how to read the situation and respond - than it is about a checklist of basic competencies.
Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer project promotes five learning principles that are based on "how" not "what" children learn (learning that is active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery, and expands horizons). How well do these principles link with SEL and program quality?
A: They are highly related and very compatible. Best SEL practices include the SAFE elements - sequenced, active, focused and explicit.
Dr. Dale Blyth served as the Howland Endowed Chair in Youth Leadership Development with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development and the College of Education and Human Development. From 2013 to 2015 he led the SEL Initiative, a partnership between the University and Youthprise. The American Youth Policy Forum describes Dr. Blyth as "one of our favorite SEL gurus".
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.