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Pursuing common good through SEL | Our Thoughts - Catherine Mitchell


In an extended 'Our Thoughts' this month to mark SEL Day, Catherine Mitchell explores how a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) in our practice and evaluation could support us with a more consistent, intentional, and equitable approach to quality.

It’s SEL Day on 11 March and this year’s theme is ‘how will we find common ground and pursue common good through SEL?’ The question really resonated with me and some recent conversations about how social and emotional learning - SEL - could support a more consistent, intentional, and equitable approach to ‘quality’.

More consistency

At the Centre, when we talk about SEL we are usually focusing on six ‘domains’ set out in the Outcomes Framework 2.0:

  • Teamwork;
  • Responsibility;
  • Problem solving;
  • Initiative;
  • Empathy; and
  • Emotion management.

There are many ways to talk about SEL skills,[1] with subtle differences when it comes to things that we might group together - like ‘self-management’, ‘self-awareness’, and ‘emotion management’. These different frameworks also tend to group together aspects of skills, behaviours and ‘mental models’, which is sometimes unhelpful in unpicking how young people learn, grow and create change. However, these differences determine the specific questions that we ask about the impact of work with young people, and how we can use the answers.

Alongside, building on our work piloting an observation-based quality improvement process in the UK (the Youth Programme Quality Intervention, or ‘YPQI’), we’ve spent some time mapping the youth sector’s different quality models, marks, and frameworks. Many of these include aspects of social and emotional learning, but the language and definitions vary. Local and tailored approaches are important and necessary - and SEL is just one aspect of ‘quality’ - but this work could be a lot more powerful if we came together on some key terminology and tools, creating greater clarity and coherence across the sector.

Using a shared language (agreeing what SEL ‘looks like’) and shared priorities about what we’re working towards can help us to develop a collective understanding of what ‘high quality’ looks like, and then how to check if it is happening, consistently, through measurement. It can also help us to learn more about who gets to access high quality provision - and who doesn’t.[2] These motivations already sit at the heart of our approach at the Centre.

Tools, frameworks, and language aside - we’ve got other challenges when it comes to quality.


More time and resources

In a recent Just One Question series, we asked practitioners what they most need to help them continually improve their practice. 61% of those who responded said ‘more time and headspace to reflect’. One respondent said:

“Without time and resource to commit to standards and frameworks, they will not be particularly useful. Internal process improvements (supervisions, quality improvement) are easier in a stable environment. Production of data requires resource, and peer learning is seen as a free activity but does involve time and resource, which can be challenging if trying to deliver too much on too little."

Coming together on SEL for frameworks and measurement won’t provide time or resources, but it could help with using them more intentionally, and may perhaps avoid some wasted effort? Perhaps more alignment could also free up headspace? This will require an investment of time and money to explore - but there’s a strong case for why we should try.


More intentional

With SEL, being intentional ‘looks’ like using specific behaviours and practices that create the optimal environment for young people to develop the skills and behaviours, through focusing their emotions and attention. These SEL skills are ones that we will benefit from employing throughout and in multiple areas of our lives; they support our wellbeingand critically, as adults working with young people, if we demonstrate them effectively, we may better support those young people to build them for themselves. [3]

Modelling SEL skills is woven throughout the Programme Quality Assessment tool that practitioners use to observe, reflect on, and improve their practice in the YPQI. Our partners in the US provide dedicated training for YPQI users to build their capacity to reflect deeply on their own SEL skills. I attended some of this training last year - in one activity, we reflected on our own biases that could influence our ability to empathise with others. We looked our emotional ‘hot buttons’; thinking about when certain thoughts and feelings might be activated, what that would mean for our interactions with others - and then how that might influence our ability to model specific SEL skills with young people.

Practitioner workshops that we convened during the pandemic highlighted this intentionality in action. Sessions focused on ‘creating safe spaces’ and ‘supportive environments’ for young people, but we could not do this without acknowledging the bizarre and challenging conditions that everyone was operating under, and the likely heightened emotions for young people and adults alike. Attendees reflected on their biggest concerns about supporting young people through lockdown; they cited engagement in the online world, rebuilding relationships, and the ‘damage caused’ by the pandemic, but also worries about shielding family members, personal responsibility to follow rules, and Covid infection. High quality practices that support safe spaces (and in turn, skills development) - e.g., maintaining a positive emotional climate or conveying an enthusiastic welcome through tone of voice and body language - must take into consideration the emotional capabilities of the adults who are doing them. The pandemic highlighted this, but it’s a reality for the rest of the time too.


More equitable

Each SEL domain in our Framework of Outcomes is important. However, I often find myself coming back to empathyin particular, especially when reflecting on our responsibility to centre equity in our work.

Empathy means relating to others with compassion, acceptance and understanding, and sensitivity to their diverse perspectives and experiences. There’s an obvious connection to inclusive youth work practice here - creating safe and welcoming spaces, and being attentive to individual needs when thinking about the accessibility of opportunities. These values sit at the heart of youth work foundations - the Code of Ethics (‘We work in a fair and inclusive way, promoting justice and equality of opportunity, challenging any discriminatory or oppressive behaviour or practice’), the cornerstones of the Youth Work Curriculum (‘Youth work is for all young people. It respects differences and builds connections between different groups and individuals’), and the National Occupational Standards which set out a commitment to ‘inclusion, equity, and young people’s interests, health, and wellbeing.’

We can also apply these values to evaluation practice. What if we looked at the process of evaluation with a greater sense of responsibility for those it is meant to serve, and with empathy to the needs and experiences of those who are involved in the process and from whom we are asking for data and information? To tackle the issues that currently make evaluation unequitable, we are also going to need to work together (teamwork), demonstrate responsible and inclusive decision-making (problem solving), and generate fresh solutions (initiative). Core SEL skills will support us to raise the bar on equitable evaluation; not only as a foundation for shared measurement and data that can be used to dig deeply into issues of quality and equity when analysed alongside other data types, but also as a tool for reflecting on how and why we approach evaluation as we do.


Common ground and common good

We prioritise SEL skills in our work because we believe they are vitally and critically important for young people to develop; supporting them to thrive in their lives today, alongside successful transitions to adulthood and positive life outcomes.[4] I think that we can reinforce this priority by demonstrating and reflecting on these skills ourselves, as we collaborate to support and strengthen the sector through work on quality and equity. Not only does this model key skills for young people in a practical way, demonstrating how they can be put into action, but if we centre SEL skills like ‘empathy’ in our values and ways of working, we also provide an example of how they can be used as tools when coming together on common ground, to pursue common good – such as more intentional, consistent, and equitable work on ‘quality’. What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Research by Berg et al (American Institutes for Research) in 2017 found over 100 different, but slightly overlapping, social and emotional learning frameworks.

[2] Findings from the Youth Investment Fund indicated that:

  • Young people in higher quality provision (as measured by the PQA) made greater progress on outcomes related to social and emotional skills, social connectedness and well-being than those in lower quality provision. Young people’s feedback was also more positive in higher quality settings.
  • Young people who faced particular disadvantage made greater ‘gains’ in their social and emotional learning in higher quality settings: in fact, these young people ‘overtook’ the SEL growth of more advantaged young people in medium quality settings. The quality of settings was also closely related to young people’s opportunities to feel heard, show leadership, and affect change. This is the ‘equity effect’ of high quality provision.


[3] Smith, C., & Peck, S. C. (2020). Measuring Socio-Emotional Skill, Impact, and Equity Outcomes [White Paper #2], p.6.

[4] McNeil, B., Millar, G., & Fernandez, S. (2019). A Framework of Outcomes for Young People 2.0.