Brodrick Clarke is the Director of Training & Technical Assistance for the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA). In this blog post, he shares best practices for designing summer programs that uplift student voices and build social-emotional competencies.
During my decades of experience working with summer and out-of-school time programs, I have found that youth development practitioners who act with intention are most successful in achieving high student engagement while meeting their social-emotional needs.
With historic levels of federal funds available to states and school districts for education recovery through the American Rescue Plan, U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona is encouraging leaders to “use this moment to reimagine what fun, engaging summer programs can look like, make it accessible for all students.” It’s also a time for practitioners to recognize that even high-quality programs still have room to grow and improve, and now is a great time to assess the quality of the program.
The National Summer Learning Association and its partner, the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, co-developed a program quality assessment tool that focuses on four domains: safe environment, supportive environment, interaction, and engagement. The tool determines whether or not those domains are evident and where there are opportunities for growth and improvement in summer programs.
A growing body of research shows that the most effective summer programs seamlessly blend academics, enrichment, nutrition, student choice and identity, and of course, fun. Recent research commissioned by The Wallace Foundation reaffirms that summers matter. As practitioners learn about strategies and techniques for improvement, here are a few things to keep in mind when designing summer programs that uplift youth voices and build their social-emotional competencies.
1. Connection Over Content
Sometimes we focus so much on the programmatic elements and forget that the sport or poetry activity is just the medium. Let us not lose sight that our bigger purpose is to engage with the participants. If we stay focused on meaningful engagement with youth, it provides opportunities for them to play an active role in their own growth and development. For example, incorporating the methodology of “youth voice and choice” in the design of the program empowers them to showcase their problem-solving, team, and leadership skills. Additionally, including youth as equal collaborators with staff validates that the ideas and strengths they bring to the table are valued. With that in mind, I’m a firm believer that youth should also be compensated with a stipend, wage, or internship credits to further affirm their value.
2. Intentional Interaction and Engagement
Ask participants to be part of a focus group to talk about what they think will be interesting and engaging. This is a great opportunity to practice their problem-solving and leadership skills. But leader beware: It is better to not ask, then to ask and dismiss or not incorporate any of their ideas into the program. It is about the youth seeing their ideas come to fruition.
3. Play an Active Role in Meeting Youth Where They Are, Daily
It is important to always have a pulse on youths’ needs, daily. A simple, “How’s everyone doing today?” doesn’t really dig into deeper feelings. During one summer program I took digital photos of all of the students, asking each of them to make a face that expressed a feeling or emotion. Each morning the students were asked to put a clothespin on the facial expression that best represented their mood. It was a perfect gauge for me to meet my students where they were, at that moment. I could not ask them to do a high-energy activity if a majority of the students were feeling melancholy from the news of current events. The activity gave me insight on how I needed to shift my intent for the morning to meet the students’ social-emotional needs of the day.
4. Genuine and Authentic Staff
Professional development can help staff gain the knowledge, skills, and the competencies they need to successfully work with youth. It is essential that staff members have a good disposition that youth will gravitate toward. Youth are quick to figure out which staff members are genuine and when you develop staff that can deliver on authenticity, that is when the engagement magic happens.
5. Listen and Don’t Judge
It is sometimes instinctive to lead with our life experiences when working with youth, but I would encourage practitioners and staff to let go of biases, judgment, and assumptions. The greatest youth development practitioners lead with intent through active listening, validating feelings, and giving youth the confidence to problem-solve on their own. Our role is to create safe spaces for them. When a student’s feelings are dismissed and not validated it shrinks their willingness to engage and share.
6. Be Present
It is important for staff to practice methods that help them clear their minds and leave their personal worries and stresses at the door. As a group or independently, take a few deep breaths, 5-minute yoga stretches, meditate, recite a mantra or intent, or create a ritual that allows you to enter the room mindfully present and available to youth participants.
7. Finally, Representation Matters
It’s important to make sure that you’re recruiting and investing in talent that reflects the young people that they're serving. Furthermore, practitioners should be cognizant of extending opportunities for youth to see themselves in different spaces, places, and career paths through guest speakers, workshops with professionals, or on field trips. We cannot be what we cannot see. When youth see themselves in their program coordinator, director, or executive staff, it can be transformational.
As we jump into summer, let’s keep in mind that learning happens anywhere anytime and project-based experiences offer a chance to individualize opportunities for exploration that help students, particularly our most vulnerable, acquire a deeper knowledge of themselves and the world around them. This summer’s learning journey starts with truly tapping into the genius, identity, and voices of every student.