For this interview the Afterschool Alliance spoke with Penn Shepard, the director of learning central and Sandi Skwor-Gatlin, the assistant director of learning central, at Girls Inc. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Girls Inc. is a "national organization that inspires all girls to be strong, smart, and bold, through direct service and advocacy. Girls Inc. delivers life-changing programs and experiences, in partnership with schools and at centers through a network of 81 local organizations, to help girls navigate gender, economic, and social barriers."
What terms do you use at Girls Inc. to describe the non-academic skill development that occurs in your programs and do you think it matters what you call this suite of skills? Do you use different terms when speaking to different audiences?
Penn Sheppard: It definitely matters who we’re talking to. We want a common voice across the field, and “social-emotional learning” seems to be a good common term, but corporate foundations, for example, connect more to terms like “soft skills” because they are looking at youth as potential employees. They want to know how we will help develop strong employees that get along with each other and can lead groups. We also think about character development but don’t necessarily use it as a common term.
Has the development of these skills been central to Girls Inc.'s programming from the very beginning, or is it a space that you and your team have grown into over time?
PS: Yes, it has been central to what we do for as long as we've been in existence. Our mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold (healthy, educated, and independent), so developing social and emotional skills has always been integral to what we do. Even in set curricula, we have always incorporated skill development around decision making, goal setting, and navigating relationships, all areas that fall into the social-emotional bucket.
While we don’t have specific social-emotional learning curricula, we created a social-emotional learning activity map that pulls out pieces of the larger curricula that address things like self-reliance and relationships. So SEL is woven in, not just as a stand-alone topic but has really always been part of what we do with the girls, whether it's in a formal curriculum or in what we call informal time.
Do you think that these types of skills are particularly important to young girls?
PS: Absolutely! Social-emotional skills build their understanding of the importance of relationships, both with peers and with adults, including potential co-workers and employers in the future. We also think a lot about providing a safe environment so girls feel safe enough to take healthy risks, work collaboratively, and be leaders. It is also deeply important to us to help our girls overcome gender stereotypes. We know that some of those stereotypes give false messages to girls about what they can or should do, creating barriers to their success. Social-emotional skills help build their awareness so they can overcome those barriers.
What do you do to embed these skills in daily programming?
Sandi Skwor-Gatlin: It's embedded in our programming almost every day, especially with our mission. One of the things we do in developing programming is make sure that girls have a voice in it from the beginning, giving them agency and equipping them with skills in decision-making and responsibility. Every activity has built-in reflection time, and our programs have group agreements and norms, which ensure that everyone feels safe and respected. We ask open-ended questions that let the girls speak openly, teaching them to be more self-aware. We also work on empathy and social awareness skills so students can better understand what others are going through.
Importantly, we tell our girls it is okay to be stressed and not be able to do it all. In these situations, self-awareness and self-management are especially important. We talk to the girls about anger issues and how to work through them. In our sports programming we encourage girls to get out of their comfort zone in a safe atmosphere.
Lastly, we encourage goal-setting, especially in our programs for older girls in which we focus on issues that are pertinent to them. Our STEM program is all about asking questions and taking chances in a safe environment so they know that they don't have to be perfect. Hopefully they're able to use the tools that we have to make responsible decisions even after they leave Girls Inc.
Obviously measuring these skills is quite a bit more difficult than measuring academic development. How do you evaluate your progress in developing these skills in the girls that you serve?
PS: We have a great research and evaluation team that is adding this to the measurement strategy that we've used since 2011, using an annual survey of girls ages 9 and up. Our survey measures areas that we care about such as diligence, perseverance, leadership, standing up for beliefs and fairness, social responsibility, and self-regulation. We’ve also started cross-checking the social-emotional outcomes with other pieces of that survey that are more skill-based. For example, our last survey found that girls who have the strongest mentoring relationships at Girls Inc. are more likely to consider the impact of their decisions compared with girls that don't feel like they have strong mentoring relationships. Another example is that girls who have positive perceptions of their environment are more likely to see themselves as strong advocates for themselves and others. Our survey tool is still relatively new and we're continuing to work on it but we are excited about it.
Do you have any best practices or lessons learned that you'd like to share out that you think could really help other programs support social and emotional skill development in youth?
SSG: Training is absolutely essential, not just around content, but also around social and cultural competences. Providers often don’t realize they are already doing this work, but making them aware of it can enhance their programming. It also can’t just be the program facilitators; our goal is that every adult who comes in contact with our girls will have this training, because research shows that children are more likely to be successful when they have better relationships.
It’s also important to establish a safe and supportive environment. Start by establishing group norms and revisit them frequently. Discussion and training about how to create a safe environment with the youth is important. Sharing leadership with the youth and allowing them to be a part of decision-making enhances programming with youth.
We also encourage our girls to think about how their decisions will impact their future. We often talk to older girls about the decisions they make and how they will impact their postsecondary education and life beyond that. We highlight decisions that they make and help them come to the right decisions, but also let them make mistakes and learn from them.
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