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.

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How Relational Cultural Theory Helps Us Understand the Transformative Power of OST


Below is an excerpt by Betsy Nordell, Ed.D., a NIOST master observer, from the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation. The book was co-edited by NIOST Director Georgia Hall, Ph.D., Jan Gallagher, Ph.D., of Clear, Effective Communications, and NIOST Research Associate Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed. Here, Nordell talks about Relational Cultural Theory and how it can help us understand the transformative power of OST professionals.

Ideas we as youth development professionals now take for granted, such as the human need for connection, the value of empathy and compassion, and the power of positive relationships to foster growth, can be traced back to Jean Baker Miller and her seminal book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976). The book’s content, once viewed as dangerous, radically challenged prevailing ideas about human growth and development. 

Miller offered an alternative to the entrenched psychological models that articulated healthy human development as a process of increasing separation, autonomy, and independence. These models did not align with what Miller heard from her mostly female patients in her clinical practice. She sought to add the voice of women’s experience to psychological theory, identifying connection, empathy, and mutuality not as weaknesses or lower stages of development, but as strengths. Over time, through close collaboration with others, Miller’s beginning ideas evolved into the Relational Cultural Theory (RCT).

RCT views the expansion and deepening of healthy relationships as the markers and causes of human growth and development. We are social beings, built to function optimally in supportive groups. Gains in neuroscience have demonstrated this hardwired human need for relationships

How people are met by the world, every day and over time, also matters. As RCT scholar Maureen Walker states in her most recent book, "Our sense of place and purpose in the world is shaped not only by formative relationships but by the omnipresent cultural messaging that establishes standards of beauty, goodness, worth, values, and reality." RCT reminds us to carefully consider the ways the cultural context, with its established power dynamics, shapes and constrains relationships affecting everyone's growth and development.

RCT is a natural fit for the OST field in many ways. For one, the OST program environment tends to allow more time for relationship building than traditional classroom settings do. Researchers have found this opportunity to cultivate positive relationships is a significant draw for OST professionals; it helps fuel their strong passion for and commitment to their work. 

Youth workers’ genuine interest in forging strong bonds and creating a connected community pays dividends. The positive quality of adult-youth and youth-youth relationships affects the degree to which youth can set aside distractions, feel safe enough to fully engage, admit they do not understand something, and ask for help. RCT uses the term power-with to describe environments that intentionally support connection, empowerment, and growth. This dynamic arises when adults and young people alike strive to respect and acknowledge each person’s value, knowledge, and authentic capacity to contribute, while honoring different people’s needs and roles. 

In power-with OST environments, adults tap into youth experience, expertise, and interests and provide age-appropriate leadership responsibilities. RCT specifically identifies five good things that happen within, and are outcomes of, such growth-fostering relationships: 

1. Each person feels a greater sense of zest (vitality, energy).

2. Each person feels more able to act and does act.

3. Each person has a more accurate picture of themselves and the other person(s).

4. Each person feels a greater sense of worth.

5. Each person feels more connected to other person(s) and feels a greater motivation to connect with other people beyond those in one’s primary relationships.

Youth development professionals powerfully affect young people’s beliefs about who they are, what they can do, and who they can become. The research supports what is evident in the personal stories of youth workers in this volume: that their passion for positive relationships is the mechanism by which OST programs effect transformation.


Betsy Nordell, Ed.D., is a NIOST master observer. The above excerpt appears in the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation.
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Creating and Supporting Pathways to Sustained Careers in Youth Work

Man leading afterschool program

Below is an excerpt by Nancy Peter, Ed.D., director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, from the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation. The book was co-edited by NIOST Director Georgia Hall, Ph.D., Jan Gallagher, Ph.D., of Clear, Effective Communications, and NIOST Research Associate Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed. Here, Peter talks about the many pathways people take into youth work, and the need to support them with clear entry points, opportunities for advancement, fair compensation, and continuous professional development—no matter how they arrived in the field.


Youth workers are often described as “passionate.” They feel called to do the work, have a strong desire to serve or give back to their communities, and are committed to building positive relationships with youth. Most likely a conversation with a youth worker will quickly reveal their passion. This is corroborated by the research: surveys consistently show that this passion for the work is a strength of the field. The practitioner essays that make up this book give voice to this hard-to-describe quality—a passion, a calling, an artistry, the heart work. It is part of what makes this workforce unique. Moreover, it is part of what makes this workforce impactful. It is a true strength that can and should be articulated, celebrated, and leveraged. The aim of this book is to shine a spotlight on this strength.

This passion, though, is only one part of the picture of a strong workforce, and elevating it is only one part of our work as field-builders and leaders. It also needs to be supported. Critical foundational workforce supports—clear entry points, opportunities for advancement, fair compensation, and continuous professional development—are needed to sustain the energy and commitment the workforce brings.

Whichever pathway they take into the field, youth workers are similar to workers in any other field: they need to be supported with opportunities for professional growth and continual professional development

As the field struggles with recruitment, a longstanding issue exacerbated by the pandemic, we need to better understand the mechanisms by which people currently enter youth work. Like many of the youth practitioners in this chapter’s essays, I did not set out to become a youth work professional. In college, I majored in animal behavior because I loved animals. That love led me to volunteer at the local environmental education center—where I discovered a passion for education that has guided me ever since. I worked in environmental education, then in museum education, and then in a large city park. That’s when I realized I was also interested in work that affected people. I moved into children’s policy, out-of-school time programming, and positive youth development. Today, as director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, I no longer work directly with youth. Instead, I focus on professional development, curriculum development, and organizational capacity-building.

Whichever pathway they take into the field, youth workers are similar to workers in any other field: they need to be supported with opportunities for professional growth and continual professional development. A strong system is needed to provide this support, including the option of academic pathways, both access to credentials and higher education; career pathways tying experience, professional development, and formal education to advancement; and increases in compensation and benefits commensurate with experience and training.

Professional development is one specific workforce support that enables youth workers to develop their skills and knowledge and advance in the field. The practitioner authors in this book talk about their ongoing, meaningful professional development to scaffold growing competence and confidence, whether that means attending workshops and conferences, being mentored, or coached by a supervisor or colleague, participating in a peer learning community, or—for most—some combination of these.

In these essays, mid-career youth workers present their own compelling stories of their entries into the profession, their journeys up the career ladder, their successes, and the obstacles they have overcome. Several essayists emphasize how their own participation in youth programs influenced their eventual choice to work in such programs. Three of the five describe circuitous routes into the field. Only one entered college with the intention of getting a degree to support a career in youth work, though others mention college work along the way. For all five, their professional pathways took unanticipated twists and turns. Every one of them experienced on-the-job learning and professional development that ranged from formal opportunities to informal mentorships and coaching.

As a field, we must explore the ways in which career pathways are more available to some potential youth workers than to others. Then we can integrate ongoing research with our individual and collective stories to find ways to redress these fundamental inequities.


Nancy Peter, Ed.D., is the director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund. The above excerpt appears in the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation.

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Back to School, This Time with Social and Emotional Learning

It’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.

From 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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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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