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Principles to enhance social-emotional outcomes in adolescents: informing implementation

Photo credit: Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

Adolescents 1 differ greatly from children and intervention approaches effective for children may not work for adolescents — and, in some cases, may backfire. This stems from differing ways of processing information at different ages, as childrens’ and adolescents’ brains activate differently in response to the same stimuli. Children seek and respond well to direct instructions; adolescents do not. To illustrate, in one study researchers showed adolescents a clip of their mothers telling them to change their behaviour. In response, adolescent brains light up fMRI scans in regions relevant to anger but not to information processing. This literally highlights adolescents’ aversion to receiving direct instructions (Kyung Hwa Lee et al., 2014). With this in mind, it is critical to craft SEL interventions, and broader teaching practices, in ways appropriate and effective for adolescents. 

In this document, we consider what the literature says is appropriate and effective for adolescents to change behavior and socio-emotional outcomes. Specifically, we develop practices for organizations to incorporate and to avoid when designing and delivering SEL interventions.

To incorporate:
  • Interventions:
    • Given the developmental stage of adolescents, SEL interventions should create opportunities for learning through self-persuasion 
    • Offer a purpose larger than self
    • Ensure that the interventions contains a growth mindset component
    • Co-design the curriculum which allows teachers to improve buy-in. Allow for implementation of learning activities flexibility and give teachers choices on “how”/”when” to teach SEL skills. Practically speaking this can be introduced in a form of bite-size exercises that teachers are equipped with during lessons, in addition to official SEL lessons.
  • Environments:
    • SE skills are not learned in isolation. Given the importance of positive learning environments, it’s crucial that students are surrounded by conditions which are conducive to development of SE skills
      • Ensure teachers/staff actually, consistently display the behaviour that adolescents are taught, all the time and not just during the SEL block
        • Invest in professional development of teachers of SE skills; some light-touch interventions can be effective if done right but many involve more intense training
        • Change disciplinary practices; stay away from punitive actions
      • Foster positive and respectful learning environments by providing emotional support to students 
    • Change is impossible without commitment from principals and teachers. Given the role other people play in SE development, ensure that the majority of school staff believes in the importance of this work
      • Encourage and support champions for change in each school, who will be the subject matter expert(s). 
      • Create a peer leader in addition to the change champion, who will be able to reinforce the message among students.
To avoid:
  • Interventions:
    • Avoid didactic, directive teaching approaches
    • Avoid instruction or direct persuasion about what constitutes good and bad behavior
    • Avoid purely information or theory sessions
    • Avoid incorporating scare tactics
  • Environments:
    • Avoid punitive disciplinary actions 
    • Do not neglect teacher’s professional development trainings to foster SE skills
    • Do not underestimate importance of buy-in from school leadership to foster change

For each of these, we more clearly define and motivate each principle, then discuss available literature (most is from the United States), why it has/not worked and how it may/not apply to implementation. We draw heavily from David Yeager’s comprehensive “The Future of Children,” but incorporate other relevant readings as well.

  1. 1. “Adolescence is the stage of development which begins with puberty and ends with economic and social independence of a young person from his or her parents.” Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.