WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Quality Summer Learning In Action: Encouraging Dancers to Create and Learn

Kids DancingAbout 20 tweens pile into the unassuming studio space of their ballet school in mid-July. There are no frills here. The waiting area is small and a bit disheveled; the cinder block building has seen its share of life. But look closer: there’s magic inside.

The dancers are not exactly sure what to expect from this week of “choreography camp,” but are glad to be there and ready for anything. Starting from nothing, in five days they will create a 20-minute ballet for family and friends. The director says she has it easy this week because the kids do all the work. The dance choreography might be the most straightforward part; they are also charged with music selection, costume and set design, hair and makeup. They first choose which story they will perform, selecting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps knowing on some level that the fun and magic of the story will parallel their own experience that week.

As a parent, I watched the final performance (criss-cross applesauce on the floor) with a huge smile on my face, amazed to see what these kids could accomplish in a week--without many resources beyond, of course, the staff’s and their own creativity, skill, and knowledge. I tapped my toe to the jazzy music they selected, laughed at the Oompa-Loompa’s pigtails and freckles, and the squirrels’ (who separate out the “bad nuts”) tails constructed out of cardboard tubes and old nylons, and was impressed by the level of dance, particularly of the older girls.

As a research associate of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I watched with a more serious eye, knowing that there were many best practices here in the room that could be shared with the larger field. What made the program seem so magical? How could the director, along with several other staff members, keep the youth so happy, relaxed, and engaged all week and guide them to create something wonderful?

The answer is simple: They do it by using many of the research-based quality practices that we know work, and are measured by field-tested tools (the APT Observation Tool, for example).

Activities were of a high quality and included:

  • Youth choice and decision making – Each decision was made by the students, so the ultimate product was theirs.
  • Project-based learning – The activities were all part of an ongoing project (the production of a ballet), designed to promote specific skills and concepts over time.
  • Opportunities for collaboration – Youth were organized into groups based on ability and age, and worked together toward a common goal.
  • Challenging activities – The week’s activities all provided challenges and stimulated thinking as youth learned and applied new skills and solved problems.

Staff were of a high quality. The director has a master’s degree in education and decades of experience teaching youth, and the assistant director is mid-way through her master’s degree in counseling. Leadership development, which helps youth and at the same time sustains quality staff, has always been built in; the small dancers hold the even smaller dancers’ hands at performances, older dancers assist the younger ones in classes, and the director offers a more formal leadership program, thus creating well-trained staff. In fact, the staff assisting at this week’s camp were former students.

But it’s what they do that counts. They:

  • Built positive relationships and supported individual youth by engaging in friendly conversation with youth, encouraging individual youth as they worked on their own goals, and listening actively and patiently.
  • Promoted youth engagement by being enthusiastic, actively engaging in the activities with youth, and helping youth think through problems themselves rather than just offering answers. They also engaged youth in reflection and feedback. The director even sneakily – and skillfully – used the time at the performance while waiting for each expected guest to arrive to engage the dancers in a discussion about what surprised them, what had been hard, and what they had learned.

At the end of the final performance, the dancers took a big bow and soaked in the well-earned applause. Was it really magic I witnessed, or simply high-quality out-of-school time programming in action? I think both – aren’t they the same thing, after all? Like any good trick, it only looks like magic.

Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women since 2007. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Back to School, This Time with Social and Emotional Learning

27659266260 e65542181d zIt’s back-to-school time and families, youth, and educators must adjust their schedules for another school year. In the midst of the forms and information families receive – or that get “lost” in a child’s backpack or locker – you may have heard something about a social and emotional learning (SEL) initiative or curriculum. In fact, the local school system in my rural, seaside community is convening a team of educators to consider how SEL can inform and improve what teachers are already doing to promote positive youth outcomes.

SEL refers to the way individuals learn and use a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills to navigate successfully in school, work, and relationships across the lifespan. Related experiences, programs, and curriculum vary widely just like the school or afterschool settings in which they are taught. Whether the particular program is focused on conflict resolution, character education, bullying prevention, or another version of social skills instruction, the development of SEL programs is based on the consensus among social scientists, educators, and health care professionals that social and emotional skills matter. The positive youth outcomes from high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs include improvements in behavior, attitudes, and academic outcomes. (Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405- 432).

Across the country at all levels of education – from state administrators of federal child care funds to infant-toddler and early childcare teachers or public school and afterschool leaders – a focus on SEL practices is gaining ground. For many, this is not a new conversation.

Here at the Wellesley Centers for Women, SEL has been an ongoing part of our work for the past thirty years.

  • In 1987, Open Circle was launched as a research project committed to the social and emotional wellbeing of children. Today, Open Circle provides a unique, evidence-based SEL program for grades K-5 aimed at proactively developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, positive relationships and problem solving, as well as helping schools develop a community where students feel safe and engaged in learning.
  • The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) has brought national attention to the importance of children's out-of-school time using research, training, and advocacy to strengthen children's emotional, physical, and social development.

gwynneblogFrom my desk at NIOST, I’m starting the school year by working at the national, state, and local levels to support educators and administrators in their efforts to promote positive youth outcomes, especially in the expanding field of SEL. Specifically, I am researching the SEL programs that states are currently adopting in preparation for our forthcoming workshop for out-of-school time (OST) leaders on how to integrate these practices into school-age child care or other OST settings. As I do this work, my background as a former school committee member and education advocate means I can’t resist passing along the newest SEL information that comes across my desk to the regional school administrators in my community who are convening the SEL planning discussions for local schools.

If you want more information about SEL programs and practices, check out the Wallace Foundation’s May 2017 report, Navigating SEL from the Inside Out.

If you simply want to celebrate the importance and purpose of afterschool care for the wellbeing of children and families, consider joining the 18th annual Lights On Afterschool on October 26, 2017. This campaign includes a series of events across the U.S. promoting awareness of the many ways OST programs contribute to positive youth outcomes and children’s wellbeing.

If you have other ideas or resource recommendations for how SEL can be incorporated more into OST programming, please share in the comments. Let’s make this a rewarding year all-around for our young people and those who support them!

Gwynne Guzzeau, M.S., J.D., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. She has been affiliated with the Gestalt International Study Center for a number of years as a faculty member and Professional Associate and served as executive director from 2014-2016.

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A Week to Appreciate Afterschool Professionals – April 24-28

SocialGraphic EmpoweringIt’s Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week! Perhaps we should back up - what is an Afterschool Professional? Maybe you call them staff, teachers, or care providers. There are many names for the same thing – someone trained to work with youth during out-of-school time.

This week is a chance to recognize the “professional” in Afterschool Professionals. We know that afterschool matters for kids, and that afterschool professionals impact the quality of that programming. Some fun facts:

  • Participation in afterschool programs consistently increased from 2004 to 2014, rising by nearly 2 million children from 2009 to 2014 alone. In 2014, 10.2 million children (18%) participated in an afterschool program.
  • Regular participation in afterschool programs has been shown to help narrow the achievement gap between high- and low-income students in math, improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and reduce school absences.
  • The Afterschool field has defined what it takes to provide quality afterschool programming. The National AfterSchool Association (NAA) has adopted a set of Core Knowledge and Competencies, and at least 24 states have their own versions.
  • Afterschool Professionals are well-educated. A recent NAA survey of its members found that 34% of staff surveyed reported having a Masters or Doctorate degree.

And some less fun facts:

  • Less than half of afterschool professionals surveyed have access to health insurance and 39% do not have any benefits (such as insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement savings).
  • The field suffers from high turnover (with some estimates up to 40% annually), with pay cited as the number one reason people leave their job.

So how can you show your appreciation? The actions of this week should be twofold. First, express your individual appreciation for those in your community who work with youth – maybe your own children - afterschool. Give them a card with words of heartfelt thanks, bake them some muffins, say thanks. But don’t stop there. Second, take some time to appreciate the incredible contribution of afterschool professionals in improving youth academic, behavioral, and social emotional outcomes. Given the proposed budget cuts of the current administration, it seems an opportune time to also suggest you contact your representatives and let them know how much you support afterschool professionals (the Afterschool Alliance also has information to guide you).

This week is a chance to both thank Afterschool Professionals for keeping our kids safe and happy, and to think bigger about what it takes to be an afterschool professional and the huge positive impact they have on the lives of youth. So, to all the Afterschool Professionals, thank you!

Betsy Starr, M.Ed. is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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