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Training adults to help young people succeed

March 12, 2020
Kate Walker portrait
Kate Walker

Q and A with Kate Walker, U of M Extension specialist in youth work practice

Academic skills are important, but social and emotional skills are critical to success. That is the message Kate Walker, specialist in the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development, hears frequently from college admission counselors and future employers.

“They are all saying, ‘this is what we need,’” she says.

Walker studies programs in a variety of settings, such as after-school clubs and summer camps. She develops training and strategies to help the adult leaders in these programs address complex challenges while providing a rich learning environment for young people. She also serves as editor of the Journal of Youth Development.

Walker earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She has 20 years of experience in the field.

What’s the value of youth programs?

They give young people a chance to work with others on a real-world project that interests them. They work on a team, take on responsibilities, face challenges and feel emotional ups and downs. This is a really fertile context for youth to learn and practice the social and emotional skills that will help them in the future. These skills include things like controlling your emotions, developing empathy, problem solving and perseverance.

This learning isn’t going to happen by accident. We must be intentional in how we present it. That means we need to support, train and invest in the adults leading these programs.

What is the social and emotional learning (SEL) toolkit?

It’s important to build SEL into what youth workers are already doing, so they can work smarter, not harder. Our Extension team developed Social and Emotional Learning in Practice: A toolkit of strategies and resources. First, people working with youth need to understand their own social and emotional skills. Then they can embed SEL into their program culture and provide activities that help young people learn and practice those skills. The toolkit also provides guidance on how to collect and use data to ensure continued improvement.

Youth work: SEL toolkit cover

This is not a curriculum, though. It’s not like someone can take this off the shelf and do 20 minutes of SEL, and then put it away and be back to business as usual. Instead, it looks at how youth workers can integrate SEL into other activities and lessons. For instance, if you have kids working on teams, how can you think intentionally about teaching teamwork skills, time management and problem solving?

Who can use the toolkit?

Anyone. It's a free resource. We designed it to be used with youth in middle school, but it can be adapted for younger or older groups. Since 2018, Social and Emotional Learning in Practice: A toolkit of strategies and resources has been downloaded more than 2,100 times. Between March and December 2019, it was downloaded 800 times in 46 states and 28 countries.

How have program leaders reacted to the toolkit?

We have received a lot of positive comments. Here are a few:

  • “We’ve used and adapted several activities from the ‘Designing Impactful Learning Experiences’ lesson. Youth have especially enjoyed activities that help them articulate their beliefs and understand their identity.”
  • “The ‘Power of Empathy’ lesson created a good foundation for me to facilitate a conversation about the difference between empathy and sympathy, which can be difficult to explain. The youth identified that as something they remembered and learned during the program.”
  • A participant in “Responsive Practices to Support SEL” said: “It is really refreshing to hear about how to be responsive to situations that happen rather than living in an imaginary world where everything goes exactly as planned!”

Learn more, watch short videos and download Social and Emotional Learning in Practice: A toolkit of strategies and resources. You can also find more ways to learn about youth development and register for Extension youth work courses.

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