Reengage to recover: How social and emotional learning helps ‘change the odds for children and youth’

Q&A with Deborah Moroney, Ph.D.

Illustration of brightly colored hands overlaid in a circle.
Illustration: aomvector/iStock

Long before COVID-19, educators across the U.S. saw an escalation in children’s and young people’s mental health needs, as well as inequitable access to services and supports. The global pandemic, bringing nearly two years of disruption, uncertainty and hardship, has broadened and deepened the impact — and the disparities.

More and more, young people are showing signs of cumulative distress, from anxiety and grief to bullying, violence and self-harm. As the nation takes stock and learns to live with a pandemic that continues to unfold, it will be critical to recognize that young people’s learning can’t be separated from their mental and physical health, to ensure that students have the services they need, to center equity in recovery and to draw on research about supportive practices like social and emotional learning.

We had the chance to catch up with Deborah Moroney to learn more about social and emotional learning and its role, particularly through out-of-school-time settings, in promoting young people’s well-being and recovery. Moroney, who holds doctoral and master’s degrees in education, is a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, where she leads work in youth, family and community development. A methodological expert in implementation science, her work often bridges the worlds of research and practice. She has authored numerous works on implementation and assessment of social and emotional learning. At AIR, she has been a principal investigator or co-PI on several national and local studies of youth development initiatives, system efforts and programs.

Mott: What exactly is social and emotional learning?

Deborah Moroney headshot.
Deborah Moroney, Ph.D.

Deborah Moroney: Social and emotional learning, or SEL, is the process by which we all learn and develop. It is both a natural process that we all go through and one that can be bolstered through intentional practices and activities. Research that is now decades old and well accepted tells us that, when children and young people engage in intentional SEL practices, they are more likely to succeed in school and in life, and even avoid some pretty tough life outcomes.

Not all ways of implementing SEL are alike, and not all SEL frameworks are culturally affirming. But when implemented well and with intention, practices to support SEL can provide opportunities to address inequalities in educational settings and to recognize, celebrate, and authentically reflect young people’s and adults’ cultures, contexts and identities.

We sometimes see SEL implemented in a deficit frame (for some) or universally (for all) — while ignoring the implications of bias, experience and opportunity. We therefore need to focus on transformative opportunities for learning and development, combined with robust equity in relation to SEL, which is the intentional counter to inequality, institutionalized privilege and prejudice, and systemic deficits — and the intentional promotion of thriving across multiple settings for those who experience inequity and injustice.

Mott: What does research on SEL tell us about creating settings in which young people of all backgrounds thrive?

Moroney: SEL is one component of what is sometimes called whole child learning and development, which includes all of the factors that influence learning and development. Significant evidence shows that learning and development happen in identity-safe and culturally reflective settings, through meaningful relationships that provide opportunities for transformative learning and skill building.

The evidence confirms that practices to support learning and development must happen across the places and spaces where young people live, learn, work and play — school, afterschool, work and home. Research tells us that afterschool programs, in particular, can support SEL and create opportunities for whole child learning and development in relational settings that reflect culture and community.

Mott: Why is understanding SEL so important now?

Moroney: The practices, places and cross-sector coordination that foster learning and development are hard to implement in the best of circumstances — which is not where we found ourselves in 2020-21. For one, you need to be able to engage in the practices and be actively present — even remotely — in places such as classrooms, programs and activities to benefit. This year, despite the best efforts of educators, we witnessed staggering levels of disengagement, especially among high school-aged youth. There are varying statistics on the number of high school-aged youth who missed significant schooling and other critically important non-school activities, like afterschool programs and extracurriculars. Some major urban districts report that upwards of 30% of high schoolers did not log in for online schooling. Anecdotal reports suggest young people were working and taking care of family members and were altogether not doing well.

Today, psychological distress among young people is higher than ever, including symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. In national surveys and reports from 4-H, America’s Promise Alliance and Mikva Challenge, youth suggest that their peers would benefit from support for addressing basic needs and mental health — and that the adults in their lives can do better to support them. Message received and rightly so. SEL can be one strategy to address young people’s mental health. A recent advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General offers several recommendations for protecting the mental health of children and youth, such as ensuring cross-sector supports in education, community and childcare settings and employing strategies to empower youth and families to recognize, manage and learn from difficult emotions. This is a start.

Mott: Why is this uniquely important for educators and programs that work with teens?

Moroney: Not only are “academic press” (believing academic success is important) and engagement (being there and paying attention) in school and activities important for young people, but the practices that support learning and development that I mentioned earlier (such as identity-safe and culturally relevant settings, positive developmental relationships and opportunities for skill building) are critically important. This is particularly true for young people in adolescence, which is second only to toddlerhood as the most opportune time for learning and development. In other words, it is an ideal time to learn about one’s self and the world, and to shape one’s identity. For example, small groups of young people in Student Conservation Association’s summer programs collaborate with adults on a collective conservation project, and staff at Camp Fire incorporate antibullying and antidiscrimination policies to help create identity-safe environments for all young people.

It is also a time of great brain growth and change. Exciting recent studies on adolescent development show us that life experiences do have real impacts on brain development, and that those impacts can be changed through practices that are critically supportive of learning and development. This means that what we do and what young people experience in adolescence is reparative and matters deeply in their learning, development and longer-term life outcomes.

Mott: As states and school districts use American Rescue Plan funds for recovery, what models and practices hold the most promise for supporting young people?

Moroney: Right now, more than ever, we need to come together across fields and sectors to bolster opportunities for learning and development for all young people. Scientists and families are not alone in this recommendation and hope. The U.S. Department of Education has released non-regulatory reopening guidance for education agencies on how to prioritize and provide school- and program-based mental health supports for children and youth. The department also has allocated American Rescue Plan funds and made other reauthorizations for education agencies, afterschool and summer programs, community-based programs and youth employment initiatives. This guidance and investment can help to dramatically change the odds for children and youth as we reopen, reengage and rebuild — ideally with evidence-backed practices in mind.

But this does nothing for young people unless they walk through the door of the school building — or the afterschool program, club or apprenticeship. How will we reengage young people who are focused on caring for family, who are working or who have just drifted a little too far? I am cautiously hopeful about the flexibility I am seeing in public agencies to “bend and blend” funds to innovate and to soften strict rules to allow young people to reengage in ways that work for them. For example, in Chicago, a particularly hard-hit city this past year, we are seeing innovative partnerships to support young people. After School Matters, a nonprofit organization that provides afterschool and summer opportunities, is partnering with the Chicago Housing Authority to provide a new “learn and earn” program that gives Chicago Housing Authority residents an opportunity to explore career fields of interest, practice academic skills and make connections while earning a monetary stipend. The Illinois State Board of Education has partnered with Lurie Children’s Hospital to support 50 schools in creating teams of teachers, administrators, social workers and 21st Century Community Learning Center staff — a model for before-school, afterschool and summer programs that will develop data-driven strategic plans to support young people’s social and emotional learning and mental health. I sincerely hope this kind of partnership, innovation and flexibility persists beyond this next year, as we now are certain that we can and should engage in learning and development across settings and even in virtual ones.

Mott: What matters most right now?

Moroney: Let’s take a step back. The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory regarding young people’s mental health. This is not a moment to be taken lightly. Our systems of education and care should be a tremendous resource to bolster, protect and preserve the mental health of children, youth and their families. One thing is clear from the evidence: Adults who work in youth and family programs and systems — from education to afterschool to service to employment — have a critical role in making sure the “doors” to reengagement are open and inviting, spaces are identity-safe and culturally affirming, and the relationships that are formed are reparative and bolstering. With this in mind, together we can ensure all young people have opportunities to thrive.

Funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supports efforts by the American Institutes for Research to increase evidence-based, quality afterschool programs for young people. The Mott Foundation also supports AIR’s work with the Afterschool Technical Assistance Collaborative to advance high-quality afterschool and summer learning programs, including addressing issues of equity in education.