Strengthening social and emotional learning of program staff Is better for youth

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is all the rage when it comes to supporting youth and young adults. But what about staff and leaders who are asked to support that learning and model those SEL skills? This question is rising to the top of conversations on SEL, and the benefits go beyond the development of youth SEL skills.

For example, we know that safe spaces and supportive adults in young people’s lives are associated with better life outcomes for those young people. SEL skills play a critical role in an adult’s ability to create that space and connection.

Jessica Newman and Gina Warner discussed ways this plays out in a youth program setting. “Staff with [social emotional] competence are better able to … take a proactive approach to support the development of youth prosocial behavior and more easily understand and address challenging behaviors … How adults talk to each other and to young people, how they respond to and resolve conflict, and the biases they may bring to the program all impact youth.”

Five years ago, I came on board with the Center for Safe Alaskans Anchorage Youth Development Coalition program. As I got to know our coalition, I heard a call from our partner organizations for ways to support SEL — not just for youth, but for youth workers, executive directors and board members.


Our coalition consists of more than 65 active member organizations and individuals who work with youth and young adults through out-of-school time programs, mental and behavioral health providers, programs that serve at-promise youth and more. We brought together coalition members and tried to crack the code on how to support adult SEL in our community of youth programs.

That was the first conversation in what became a five-year grant-funded effort. The resulting initiative catalyzed the creation of a professional learning series focused on adult social and emotional intelligence, bringing together youth programs across our city — an initiative that engaged youth workers, managers and executive leaders in strengthening their SEL skills.

We dove deep. We asked experts around the country to see how people were doing this, and had our partners review trainings on the many things that were intricately linked to adult SEL — things like building relationships and communicating with youth, being trauma informed, being culturally responsive, coaching, and wellness at work. We saw there was an opportunity to make more direct connections to staff SEL, so we built a custom experience and curriculum. We tied each of those topics listed above (e.g. cultural responsiveness) to an SEL competency in the CASEL SEL framework. Those topics opened the door for people to reflect on their own work and make connections to the SEL skills they had the opportunity to strengthen.


This learning series, named Second Order Change, just finished its third year of implementation, and the results are promising.  Our evaluation showed people grew in their SEL skills, and that it impacts the way they are interacting with their colleagues, balancing their work and life stressors, and building relationships with youth in their programs.

Those impacts parallel what the wider research tells us, that strengthening staff SEL skills can change the environments and relationships we create for youth. As one participant in our learning series shared, “There was a youth who studied every morning in my office, who had made great strides toward finishing his high school diploma, but I noticed my behavior to him started to be very punishing because he wasn’t showing up enough, or doing enough work. I started to adjust how I reacted to him and he started coming more.”

The key to the success of the Second Order Change project is rooted in the very idea that built it: We adults need to understand and model SEL skills if we are going to best support youth in developing them. We integrated SEL practices in each layer of the work we did, starting with our project development team.

From the beginning, we used what are now called the SEL 3 Signature Practices in our own work. This set of practices, developed by Oakland Unified School District and now available through CASEL’s website, guide us toward effective ways to open, engage and close every meeting of people — youth or adults.

We employ these practices in meeting with coalition partners, planning sessions with the group that designed Second Order Change and debrief sessions with the staff who facilitate our SEL professional learning series. As a result, the adults most deeply involved in developing and facilitating the professional learning series strengthened their own SEL skills and ability to model them for adult participants.

This need for adult modeling also rings true in our Youth Program Quality continuous improvement work. Our coalition uses the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality’s Social and Emotional Learning Program Quality Assessment (SEL PQA). This tool provides guidance on best practices in SEL and youth development.

We take opportunities to model those same practices for staff in the trainings that we lead — everything from sessions starting and ending on time, to using open-ended questions, to getting down on the same physical plane as participants during the training. Explicitly building these habits as adults ripples into our work beyond youth programming. Social and emotional skills are responsible for the majority of performance in any job. They are what help us manage stressors, work in teams and achieve goals we set.

We are excited to be a part of the SEL movement that is making explicit the practices that transform our work and learning experiences. From Second Order Change, to the SEL PQA, to using the SEL 3 Signature Practices in our coalition gatherings, we are seeing day after day that SEL is the best way to do business.

We have had the opportunity to present at national professional learning events about what we are doing, and each time there is a buzz of excitement in the room from the many communities interested in integrating adult SEL into their work. We even had one organization so interested that they implemented the same professional learning series with their staff across the city of Atlanta.

People are talking about SEL around the world. The Dalai Lama recently launched a social emotional and ethical curriculum that dozens of countries are planning to implement. Schools and youth organizations are embracing SEL language and research to strengthen the way they support optimal youth development. And learning starts with us as leaders.


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