Promoting Character Development Among Diverse Children and Adolescents: The Roles of Families, Schools, and Out-Of-School-Time Youth Development Programs
We recently had the opportunity to attend SRCD’s special topic session: Promoting Character Development Among Diverse Children and Adolescents. The conference touched on many things we, here at TransformEd, believe in deeply and work to integrate not only into our work with educators but also into our own lives, as parents to little ones. A key takeaway from the conference was that the onus of supporting children and youth’s prosocial development relies on caregivers and other key nurturing adults in their lives. As Marvin Berkowitz put it, “Our best leverage [for promoting positive youth development] is by changing our way of being with children.” We, as educators and parents, must be supportive and demanding in how we behave towards our children to ensure that we empower them to flourish as healthy and happy human beings. This can mean seizing opportunities to help children navigate their emotions, make better choices, and lead by example.
Promoting prosocial development also means lifting young voices, learning from their experiences and providing them with opportunities to express themselves and connect with their communities. At the conference, we saw examples from the Ella Fellowship Program, Teen Reading Lounge, and the VIEW program – programs that are leading the way in empowering youth from diverse backgrounds by facilitating experiences that promote racial and ethnic identity development through relationships, caring, and connection.
We also learned about the critical role of acknowledging young people’s resilience and their will to be positive agents of change. A study by Bruce Ellis and colleagues reported about an approach to understanding resilience wherein young people are able to use adaptive skills to succeed amid difficult circumstances. A paper symposium, led by Casta Guillaume and Jacqueline Mattis of the University of Michigan, described youth of color’s ability to turn negative situations into opportunities for prosocial behavior. For example, one of their studies found that young black men who experienced racial indignities found ways to turn their experiences into opportunities to impact the world in a better way. Another study by this group reported on youth of color’s capacity to build empathy from negative experiences and build dreams about a better world “rooted in justice and dignity.”
We were thrilled to have been accepted to the SRCD poster session to present and receive feedback on our framework for measuring student agency. Our framework rests on the assumption that student perceptions of the school environment and of their own social-emotional skills matter as much as other sources of data in informing whether a school is capable of fostering student agency.
The resounding message from this conference, reiterated from various speakers embodying different theoretical and scientific backgrounds, is that youth are strong and capable, and the role of adults is to scaffold and facilitate their positive and prosocial development. To that end, Transforming Education advisory board member Stephanie Jones offered two critical considerations for promoting prosocial development in schools. First, social-emotional learning needs to be embedded and integrated in the school day. This means that it is modeled, taught, practiced, and discussed by every educator. Taking this a step further, it means that educators must be given the space, time, and knowledge to practice, maintain and embody these skills every day.
Second, as research has shown, schools that create safe, caring learning environments and ensure effective classroom management produce better outcomes for students. At TransformEd, we believe deeply in the importance of fostering strong school environments. We also believe that student perception of the school environment is an essential source of data that is often missing in leaders’ decision-making process. Gathering student voice data on whether students feel safe, nurtured, and empowered can illuminate whether the school’s culture is supportive of all students and offer insight on ways to build a stronger school climate and culture for every student.
 Another key takeaway from this message was the concern with the “jingle-jangle” of terms in this field – referring to the notion that there are often many terms used to describe the same concept and similar terms used to describe different concepts. For example, some refer to the skills, competencies, mindsets and beliefs students need to succeed in life as character or prosocial skills (both were used throughout the conference), others refer to them as social-emotional skills, non-cognitive skills, or soft skills. We at Transforming Education prefer the term “social-emotional competencies and mindsets”.
 More information about our student agency framework can be found on our website at https://www.transformingeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Agency-Overview_ready_Sept18.pdf