Monday, May 9, 2016

SEL Practice and Research: An Interview with Charles Smith

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
“Social and emotional learning (SEL) must be accounted for if we want our youth to succeed. Empathy is just as important as English. The David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a division of the Forum, is working hard to shed new light on ways to equip youth with the valuable social and emotional skills they need.” - Forum for Youth Investment

The How Kids Learn Foundation sponsored a Speaker's Forum with Charles Smith, Founder and Executive Director of the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality on May 6th in Oakland, CA and on May 10th in Los Angeles, CA. The Speaker's Forum topic focused on Social Emotional Learning in Afterschool – Research, Measurement, and Best Practices. The Weikart Center identifies six important domains of SEL: emotion management, empathy, teamwork, responsibility, initiative, and problem solving. 

Below is an interview with Charles Smith. 

Charles Smith at the HKL Speaker's Forum, Oakland, CA

Q: Can you briefly describe the origins of the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA)? Why were you interested in the development of this?

A: The Youth PQA was developed to address a number of problems that were occurring for teachers and youth workers, and their organizations, in out-of-school time field. First and foremost, in the era of “education accountability” and No Child Left Behind (circa 2000) people who were focused on Positive Youth Development practice had few tools to demonstrate that they were doing work at a high standard. The PQA was designed to help people demonstrate their good work and that they were being accountable to a standard. A second reason for development of the PQA was to get the discussion of practice to the right level of granularity so that when the measure was used, practice could actually be discussed. 

Finally, we were frustrated that training in curriculum for teachers and youth workers wasn’t resulting in lasting changes in the organizations, i.e., participation in training didn’t result in changed practice. The PQA was built for a continuous improvement model that required system leaders and funders to send clear signals that (1) the quality of adult-youth interaction at the point of service was the most important part of the work and (2) that front line teachers and youth workers were going to be empowered to make decisions about how to create high quality.

Q: You have been involved in helping programs conduct data driven program improvement. What do you believe are the greatest challenges to this work?  

A: This is hard work so there are many challenges – and rewards. One of the greatest challenges is getting people to trust the process, which is why we advocate for “lower stakes” approaches. A majority of individuals in a continuous improvement system have to feel that the standard for quality is fair, that it’s possible to improve to meet that standard, and that supports are available to help them get there. When we achieve these criteria, many OST professionals and their organizations have been willing to do the work year after year and have reported very high levels of satisfaction with the process.

Q: We have found that one of the inhibiting factors for program improvement within afterschool programs is the fact that this work takes time and due to budget restrictions, organizations are less inclined to grant the needed time for reflection and planning to complete this work. What are your thoughts regarding this issue?

A: Time is always a challenge and some circumstances make it difficult to do the continuous improvement (CI) work. The challenge with time is almost always a system issue – if leaders are committed to doing the CI work then they focus on all of the things that can be done to integrate continuous improvement into everyday operations: Recognizing that CI time is also professional development time; moving org cultures and resources from “monitoring inputs” to “coaching on performance data” so that leaders become part of the CI resource; and there are many other ways that we’ve learned over the years. A PQA driven CI process is currently happening in over 4,000 OST sites each year so we know it can be done in lots of circumstances but it takes time to experiment and “fit” the CI process to how an organization does its everyday business.

Q: Can you briefly describe the Weikart Center? What was the link between the YPQA and the development of the Weikart Center, if any? 

A: The Weikart Center was started to take the PQA and CI work to scale. In many ways, the most important role of the Weikart Center is to help clients adapt the CI methods and measures to the circumstances that are unique to their OST systems. In our view, one size does not fit all when it comes to working with young people and communities – one size typically fits one. Every use of the PQA has to adapt to produce value for each specific community of users and that has been the primary role of the Weikart Center.

Q: Can you briefly describe why you are now focusing on SEL? 

A: In a very general sense, quality (i.e., PQA) is framework for understanding the OST settings where children and youth spend time. The other side of that framework needs to describe the skills that individual young people build as they engage with high quality OST settings. Social and emotional learning can have many different specific definitions but, in general, SEL skills are how we understand those individual youth skills. SEL skills are the skills that grow in high quality OST settings.

Q: You put a lot of work in the Preparing Youth to Thrive field guide. Why did you develop this, what is the focus? Who does the guide target (what age group, etc.)? 

Photos by Max Piha, Temescal Associates
A: Preparing Youth to Thrive was a unique opportunity to work with expert practitioners to define best practices that have emerged from their many years of experience and their many types of clinical and professional expertise. Our primary goal in the guide was to get the descriptions of practice to a “granular” level of actual behaviors and conditions in OST settings. 

Most SEL research is focused on what changes inside of individual youth while the conditions and practices that support that change are either too abstract or too sketchy for use. Our goal in the guide was to both name the key practices (none of which are new to most OST professionals) and then produce descriptions of the practices that users could recognize their own work in. 

Charles Smith is the founder and Executive Director of the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a division of the Forum for Youth Investment, and Senior Vice President at the Forum. The Weikart Center currently provides technical supports to a portfolio of over 115 quality improvement systems service a total of 4,250 sites, including several thousand direct service organizations that provide out-of-school time learning opportunities for children and youth. Dr. Smith leads the measures and analytics team at the Weikart Center and guides the Center’s efforts to design and implement lower stakes accountability policies.