Social and Emotional Learning

Decoding the art of practice: an update on the SEL Challenge

How do young people learn to thrive? This is the driving question behind SCE’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Challenge, which aims to decode the art of teaching youth the skills for defining their path in life.

The SEL Challenge brings together experts in youth programming, developmental science, and performance measurement to explore how five SEL skill sets – emotion management, empathy/teamwork, responsibility, initiative/grit, and problem solving – are best cultivated in youth.

Our carefully selected partners are now working together as a Learning Community, to dissect and detail the art of their practice. Researchers are working alongside these top youth organizations to codify their practices using developmental science and performance measurement. The result will be a playbook for youth-serving organizations of all kinds to remix and adapt the SEL practices in their own settings.

So just what has the SEL Challenge project learned so far? At the inaugural convening held in June 2014, the Learning Community came together to develop a shared framework and common language, setting the stage for a game-changing study and ultimately, a field guide, outlining the best practices in SEL.

Building a shared framework

The eight SEL Challenge partners encompass an incredible diversity of youth programming, from inner-city theater production, to back country hiking, to building wooden boats in Philly. To reflect how and why these organizations have been successful—and share the discoveries with any interested practitioner or organization— the Learning Community built a framework for assessing just how SEL processes evolve.

At their first meeting, practitioners mapped out the elements of program design, staff practice, and key youth experience that shape how youth develop and build skills in each domain (empathy, agency, etc.) over the course of a program year.

Each group created a graphic, sketching out where design, practice and experience come together for “aha” moments for youth in each of the five domains. Researchers will work from this basis to develop performance measures revealing how these three elements converge to form learning cycles, the process of social and emotional skill-building.

Demystifying how youth learn social and emotional skills

The three elements framework—program design, staff practice, and key youth experiences—is a practical way to define the learning science of skill-building. Just as kids learn math and reading, learning social and emotional skills requires targeted focus and guided practice, and usually begins with a problem to solve or a goal to meet.

In our eight partner programs, learning is experiential and unfolds through key experiences that entail a cycle of learning – problems emerge, ideas are discussed, energy is gathered, solutions are pursued, and finally, youth think together and with adults about what it means and how to move forward.

These cycles are structured by program designs that offer youth real-world work with real-world challenges and consequences, from organizing school reform campaigns, to building boats, to building their own truths about healthy relationships, sexuality and intimacy.

Within each program, staff practice is focused on stepping in to the youth cycle of learning at the right moment: to create a safe space, to scaffold to a higher level on the next attempt, or to coach as ownership of the work transfers from staff to youth.

From qualitative data to performance data

Here’s how researchers at the Weikart Center designed the methodology for the 18-month exploration:

Map of the SEL Challenge discovery and learning process


First, staff at each organization were interviewed extensively to build case studies of each program. Using this material, the research team will create a cross-case analysis of SEL practices and processes at each program site. These will yield a set of standards for program designs, staff practices, and key experiences that correspond with skill development in the five domains.

The research team will also talk with program staff about issues that cut across the domains: how does a kid’s exposure to traumatic experience impact program design and objectives? What supports do your staff need to effectively build SEL skills with youth? How do you recruit the right youth for your program design?

The research team will also examine management and staff practices, as well as youth skill growth. Youth skills will be measured at three time points and will capture youth beliefs about their own efficacy, as well as staff ratings of youth behaviors in the program context. The five-domain picture, we know, is not a complete one, but is sufficient to take advantage of an important principle: growth is a dynamic interweaving of many skills, and viewing youth development one skill at a time may obscure as much as it informs.

During the last phase of the project, the research team will create several products: case narratives for each program, a technical report describing methods and findings, the set of standards and performance measures developed during the SEL Challenge, and a guide for promising practices in SEL for adolescents. The guide will then be translated across media formats using the principles of user-centered design, making the findings accessible and actionable for practitioners and programs far and wide.

From data to action

While the discussion of social and emotional learning involves very few new ideas, the field is currently caught in an obstacle course where the bewildering array of terms, theories, curricula, and measures leads to either inaction or uncoordinated action. The result has been a lack of cumulative evidence around best practices for helping youth grow in SEL domains.  Our hope is to extend the conversation about social and emotional learning to include the “how “of cultivating these essential skills that can make us happier, more productive, thriving people.