How Will We Address the Social-Emotional Learning Loss from COVID-19? Lessons from Camp Common Ground

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the second in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. If you want to learn more about the other researchers and practitioners who inspired this post, read the first post here.

Highlights:

  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • With COVID-19 and distance learning, students are experiencing more social-emotional learning loss than ever before. 
  • In the second and final post of this series, I further explore the “Four Factors for Youth Moral Development”: (1) safe-environment, (2) well-trained facilitators, (3) experiential pedagogy/youth power, and (4) accessible to most students. I use this framework to evaluate different interventions for doing social-emotional learning work in our current education environment.
Source: Color War Simulation from Zach Bell & Camp Common Ground

“I don’t know if my school is really a safe place to do this work,” I admitted to the 2019 Youth-Nex conference chamber, referring to the Color War simulation we run at Camp Common Ground.

In this simulation, campers experience inequality in an embodied way through a day-long competition where students hold positional privilege or disadvantage based on their assigned color team. Youth must navigate their emotional reactions towards their peers, and towards the authority figures (me and the other staff members) who are enforcing this inequitable system – and make hard choices whether to “rebel” and face consequences. For the full talk about Color War, watch the video here.

What I didn’t realize at the time of the conference was that school might be the only place in 2020 to do “this work” of developing our youth’s social-emotional skills, moral development, and dialogical abilities because in-person programming for Camp Common Ground (and so many other related programs) were cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

Camp Common Ground, is a two-week overnight summer camp for a diverse cohort of Bay Area middle schoolers, was co-founded by myself and current Executive Director Ron Towns, both Oakland educators. The camp includes carefully scaffolded skill-building workshops that lead up to integrative simulations, like Color War. Our program has led to statistically significant boosts in empathy, perspective-taking, self-esteem, and cross-cultural friendships. To learn more about the organization and our impact, click here.

As a middle school math teacher at an experimental bilingual public school in Oakland Unified School District during distance learning, I found that even the “normal” social-emotional learning this year was largely disrupted. I tried to engage students with “virtual restorative justice circles” and daily check-ins, but it simply was not the same. I found that the students who were most active over Zoom and Google Classroom were more likely to be affluent and with a quiet space in their home, and not necessarily the students who were in the greatest need of social-emotional support (though, all students need social and emotional support and development).

So how can we address this social-emotional learning loss from “distance learning” and cancelled summer and after school programs?

Can we use the disruption of COVID-19 as an opportunity to think more broadly about how to reorient our “education system” (or perhaps “holistic child development system”) to prioritize non-academic skills?

If so, where, when, and how do we implement this “re-prioritization”?

What I learned from the 2019 Youth-Nex conference is that for moral development, dialogue, and social justice education to be effective we need the following in place. I’ll refer to these as the Four Factors going forward.

  1. Safe environment with bonds of community, belonging, and trust, so that youth can be vulnerable.
  2. Well-trained adult facilitators who can responsively adapt their work to the developmental and identity intersections of their youth. 
  3. Experiential pedagogy and power structures that share authority with youth so that there is authentic co-construction of rule-based systems with meaningful stakes (e.g. hiring staff) and space for critical reflection and praxis.
  4. Accessibility to most students. In hopes of being realistic given the often under-resourced state of public schools and structural inequity that exist in our systems, I want to add one “realism-check” category so that we’re not just finding solutions for affluent youth.

Below are avenues I see to explore options for doing social-emotional learning work, and admittedly cursory evaluations of each option’s potential:

To read more about the pros and cons of each of these venues please see this downloadable PDF.

At the end of the day, a diversity of tactics is likely the approach we’ll need to take to address this overwhelming need – now more than ever – to teach our youth to be moral actors with a strong foundation of social-emotional and dialogical skills.

The gaps can be daunting; when I recently searched for “gender education nonprofits” there was not a single hit on the first page of Google that mentioned boys or men, so we have a long way to go on providing truly holistic identity development for all of our kids.

But as many of us take a step back during the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate our current systems, it may be time to think imaginatively and critically of concrete ways that we can support all students in becoming moral actors, in whatever context they are in.

Let’s look at our educational practices with that lens. Rather than just asking “can they score a point?”, let’s ask, “are they grappling with what’s a fair rule?” and “are they deciding how to score the points, and if they even want to?” May we approach these challenging tasks with playfulness and a love of learning (see the Calvin & Hobbes comic in the downloadable PDF).


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

1-Year Later, Reflecting on Dialoging for Democracy and Teaching in a Pandemic

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the first in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. Read more about how to address the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19 in the second blog post here.

Highlights:

  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • In the first post of this series, I examine the content from the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice” and consider what it means for the future of social-emotional learning in public schools.
  • Reflecting on the presentations and panels from youth performances, practitioners and researchers, I provide a foundation for Four Factors I will refer to later (safe-environment, well-trained facilitators, experiential pedagogy/youth power, and accessible to most students).
Zach Bell presents at the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference.

One year ago in November 2019, I attended and presented at the Youth-Nex 2019 conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice.” Since then, the world for teachers and after-school programs has changed dramatically. In this short series, I reflect on what I learned at the conference on moral development, dialogue, and social justice education, and then apply this to my experience as a P.E. and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher.

What’s required of the setting for youth to develop as moral actors?

Social and emotional growth requires vulnerability, and the opening panelists at the conference discussed the need for creating an environment of safety and trust for youth to be open to vulnerability. Similarly, the power dynamics in the space need to actually trust youth with authority if we expect them to practice being moral actors, not just rule-followers.

Shawn Brown, at Teen Empowerment Rochester, said it “Takes real time, and effort, and trust…young people come to us because they’re needed, not because they’re needy.” At TE-Rochester, the ten young people in their program had a 50% vote on adult staff hiring decisions. Emma Yackso, Director of the Side-by-Side Youth Leadership Council, an LGBTQ “youth led, adult supported” center in Virginia gives the youth council a say in all decisions each week, from the design of the space to curricular choices, from the date for prom to the strategic priorities for the organization.

How can these models of “youth led, adult supported” learning be applied in a school setting? Is that even possible without totally reimagining school?

Further panelists discussed the need for not just safe environments, but well-trained educators who have done their own internal work and can provide developmentally appropriate curricula. For example, Larry Nucci, PhD, Professor of Education at UC Berkeley, discussed the “Moral Development Curve,” in which 8-year olds and 19-year olds are more likely to have similar responses than 11 to 16-year olds to a situation where they see someone drop a $20 bill.

Gutsavo Carlo, PhD, Professor of Human Development at University of Missouri, explained the necessity of layering in cultural identity when cultivating moral development. For example, he found that understanding the concept of familismo, the family unit, was important in predicting prosocial behavior in Latinx communities. Emma Yackso, from the youth-led Side-by-Side center mentioned above, noted that she needed to “prep the adults in the board meeting about what it’s like to have kids there.”

It’s hard enough to find qualified educators amidst a national teacher shortage. How can we find, or train, educators with these complex identity and moral-development skills?

My panel was tasked with speaking to the actual pedagogical practices to cultivate these skills. This included elevating youth voices, like the Mikva Challenge’s “Project Soapbox” that supports youth in engaging in civic participation on issues they’re passionate about. Similarly, it included resourcing youth artistic creation, like A King’s Story, a play by Joshua St. Hill, a high school student, about police violence. 

In my talk, I shared about simulation and game-based pedagogy for moral development, looking at the co-construction of rule-based systems like in John Hunter’s famous “World Peace Game”, and Jane Elliott’’s famous 1968 blue-eyes brown-eyes experiment to process Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination with her third graders.

That sounds “cool”, but seriously, how can any of these pedagogical practices find their way into 48-minute academic period-packed school days?

Well, the truth is I don’t know. But I want to explore that with educators and collaborators at a distance. Using these experiences, I created Four Factors to evaluate possible routes to democratizing these critical moral and social-emotional skills in the context of the U.S. education system. These Four Factors are:

  1. Safe-environment,
  2. Well-trained facilitators,
  3. Pedagogy/youth power, and
  4. Accessibility to most students.

To learn more about these factors and an evaluation of different routes for addressing the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19, please read the second blog posted here


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

For Youth, COVID-19 Changed Everything, but the National Response Movement Gave Me New Purpose

By Isabella, a 16-year old in Oregon.

Highlights:

  • My name is Isabella and I am a 16-year old junior who wants to share more about my COVID-19 experience.
  • During COVID-19, I joined the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement (NYRM) and after 8 months I have some advice for others.
  • In this youth-led group, myself and others like me encouraged youth to share their experiences from the pandemic, did social media takeovers, developed policy recommendations, and organized a national roundtable discussion.

As a junior at one of the largest public high schools in Portland, Oregon, I have always cared a lot about my education, and have attended school everyday. From the age of four I have been dedicated to dance and have taken classes 3-6 days a week after school. Through dance, school, and other activities over the years, I have developed multiple different friend groups I’m equally close to and whom I rely on.

The pandemic changed everything. In less than 24 hours, every constant that I once had in my life had been taken from me, and from everyone I knew.

Life in the Pandemic & an Opportunity

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I no longer had school, dance, or access to my friends in the way I had always known. It felt like someone just flipped a switch and nothing would ever be the same again; I felt panicked and anxious. To fill my days and distract myself, I took up running, I started reading more, and taking more time for myself. 

A couple weeks into the stay at home order, my Mock Trial teacher sent me an email telling me that he was choosing me to be one of his three nominees for the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement. I was honored when I saw that email and knew I wanted to be a part of this, I wanted my voice to be heard. To my surprise, two days later I was notified of acceptance from Mikva Challenge, changing the way the rest of my year and summer would go. 

The Youth Response & Community

The National Youth Response Movement (NYRM), is a national group of 19 high school and college students from 14 states. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we gathered virtually to share our experiences and concerns for youth during this pandemic. We created a series of projects and initiatives for the spring and summer:

  1. Our first project as NYRM was to encourage youth to share their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. In creating this project, we wanted young people to share the issues that were most important and pressing to them during this pandemic, and then also create a call to action on how something could be done about it. This way, youth could be part of the national conversation about the next steps. 
  2. Our second project was focused on destigmatizing mental health and making virtual mental health resources more accessible to youth, since this is one of the major issues that we recognized was impacting young people during this pandemic. In order to do this, we held a social media takeover week on Mikva Challenge’s Instagram and my colleague Jennifer and I co-hosted an Instagram live to facilitate a conversation about mental health and self-care for youth. 
  3. Later in the summer, our team shifted focus to making schools more equitable, just, and student-centered. To accomplish this, we sent letters (which other youth can still do using the template provided in the previous link) to elected officials across the country about the importance of Social Emotional Learning in schools. We also held discussions on racial injustice and forms of activism with experts and other youth organizations, and created policy recommendations which we shared with stakeholders (like school board members, principals and teachers, and decision makers across the country). 
  4. As a culmination of our work, we planned and held a National Youth Policy Roundtable with 3 current and former members of Congress, 6 influencers, and a grand total of 91 youth participants from across the country who got to hear from and engage with these national decision makers about the quest to make schools more just, equitable, and student-centered places. 

We accomplished a lot this summer as NYRM, and have made our voices heard by many! 

One of the most amazing things about being a part of NYRM was the sense of family and community we accomplished through using Zoom. The tremendous amount of support and encouragement that everyone gave, along with the amount of fun we had, created a bond between us all. What made this NYRM family even better is that we’ve had each other through this time of uncertainty. We’ve had each other’s support, shoulders to cry on, and we are each other’s support system. This is what made NYRM so special.

Now more than ever, this sense of community and family is important for youth, whether it’s at home, with family, school, friends, or anywhere else.

Even if there was not a global pandemic, a support system is extremely important to have in one’s life, one’s mental health, and wellbeing. The really special thing about our NYRM family is that we share common goals and similar values. Working with such driven people inspired me. They empowered me, built me up, and they continue to do this for me today. 

Living during this pandemic has changed my life, and not necessarily in a negative way. There are many challenges that I am still experiencing, especially as we go back into the school year. If it weren’t for this pandemic, NYRM wouldn’t exist so I would have never had the opportunity to be a part of it. I have another family now, I know other people who share the same values I do and who will have my back no matter what. This has sparked a passion for activism in me that I have never felt before. The experience with NYRM has inspired my colleague Shanthi and I to start a local steering committee within our school called the “Youth Advocacy Coalition.” We will work with our principal and school administrators to implement more avenues for youth voices within our school community and district. 

Advice for Others

One lesson and word of advice I would like to share with schools, administrators, teachers, and parents/guardians regarding the development of youth during this time, is to take the time to really listen. Listen to young people, listen to your students, listen to your children, because the best way you can make change or help them is to pause and hear what they are saying.

To listen isn’t only the act of listening, but also the responsibility for action, like asking questions or advocating on the behalf of youth. Listen to what youth have to say, and then find out the actions you can take to help make said change.

I believe people underestimate youth. We are paying attention to what is going on, we are keeping ourselves informed around what is going on in the world, and we care about how this pandemic is going to impact our lives in the future and possibly forever. Right now, finding solutions to racial injustice and the importance of the upcoming election are more important than ever. Right now, action from the people, local and federal state leaders, and community members is necessary. Young people are the leaders of today and of the future, and our voices matter.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Isabella is a junior in High School in Portland, OR. She has had a passion for youth advocacy since elementary school. During the spring and summer of 2020, she was 1 of 19 student steering committee members of Mikva Challenge’s National Youth Response Movement team. They began as a response to COVID-19 addressing issues important to young people and raising awareness of these to local and federal decision makers. She is passionate about photography as an outlet for creativity and storytelling, and she loves spending time with her two dogs!

Voting: Video Blog from a Charlottesville Freedom School Scholar

Highlights:

  • In the summer of 2020, the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) launched the first Charlottesville Freedom School.
  • Third to fifth graders from the greater Charlottesville area participated in a virtual summer school that on focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.
  • In this video blog, one student scholar shared more about what she thinks adults should vote for, why it is important, and what young people can do.

CRPES launched Charlottesville’s first Freedom School in the summer of 2020! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Freedom School was virtual and had 70 students from the Charlottesville area participating. This year’s Freedom School focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.

Safalani was one of the outstanding 4th grade students. She created a poem or essay about what she wanted adults to vote for on her behalf. It was so fantastic, the National Freedom School staff chose it to be presented during the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Day of Social Action Pep Rally. The Charlottesville Freedom School was honored to have her as a scholar and can’t wait to see the incredible future she has ahead of her!


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Centering Youth Voice: School Climate & Culture in the Middle Grades

By Dr. Dimelza Gonzales-Flores

This blog post is the third in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the second post from the Professional Learning & Development Design Team

Highlights:

  • The middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life, including their education.
  • The Remaking Middle School School Climate & Culture Design Team created a toolkit to help educators understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades.
  • The toolkit provides a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school, recognizing that giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter.
Explore the full toolkit here.

For too long we’ve brushed aside the importance of the middle school years. Policymakers talk about the critical need for access to quality early childhood education and the necessity to graduate with real-world skills. Agreed. But what about the middle school years? To put it plainly, what we’ve done isn’t enough. Our schools are not equitable. The student experience is not optimal. We need to reimagine the middle school experience for all students – and we should start with school climate and culture.

The School Climate and Culture Design Team was tasked with taking a closer look at school climate and culture in the middle grades. The team discussed a number of core challenges related to school climate and culture, and a common theme that emerged was the influence of youth voice in shaping school climate and culture.

What makes the period of early adolescence development unique is that youth are beginning to develop complex thinking skills and perspective taking . These skills are critical as they give young people the ability to initiate a deeper exploration of issues within their school. With these new burgeoning skills, adolescents can begin to ask questions about the world around them and how societies and institutions, like education, function. Thus, the middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life. Giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter. These competency feelings also help middle school youth fully engage and create space for a positive school climate and culture.

It is widely recognized that school climate and culture impacts the ways in which students successfully achieve learning outcomes. When youth are given the space for innovation and their voices are centered, the school climate can be shaped to promote equity and fairness, and the school culture can allow opportunity for youth to respond to their own learning needs. Engaging youth voice must be considered an essential element in creating a school climate and culture that promotes engagement and success for all youth.

Centering youth voice in school climate and culture requires middle school educators to think critically about when they need to step up (and step out) to best support adolescence during this critical developmental period. To truly center the voice of youth, we must create space for all youth to lead in shaping school climate and culture. This is particularly important for those youth whose voices often go unheard because they are minoritized based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, ability, or other identities. To successfully accomplish this goal, our middle schools must move beyond school clubs and siloed events emphasizing student voice, and weave specific practices into the daily fabric of school life.

As a Design Team, we believe there is tremendous opportunity to empower young adolescents in helping to shape and improve their school culture and climate such that students are engaged and growing – academically, socially, and emotionally – to their fullest potential. With this in mind, our team created a toolkit to help educators in schools to:

  • More deeply understand the importance of youth voice in the middle grades;
  • Understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades; and 
  • Provide a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school. 

The toolkit includes several components:

  • The rationale statement helps readers to understand what youth voice is, the importance of the youth voice for young adolescents (and how it aligns to the developmental needs and capabilities of this age), and how youth voice can have an impact on school climate and culture.
  • The inspirational stories and examples illustrate youth voice in schools and specifically how youth voice can positively impact school climate and culture. 
  • The getting started section is a set of beginning prompts and resources that educators can use to advocate for and support the implementation of youth voice practices in their schools to promote positive school climate and culture.

Explore the full toolkit here.

The toolkit was designed to be utilized and implemented in any given conditions. The diversity of resources in the last part of the toolkit exemplifies the range of conditions in which this toolkit can be used.

We recognize that we are sharing this tool during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the complexities and challenges of COVID-19. While school may look different this year, whether virtual or in-person, one might argue that school climate matters now more than ever. We hope that this resource encourages educators to keep student voices and ideas at the core to ensure young people are getting what they need most during this time. 

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dimelza currently serves as the Director of Academics & Social-Emotional Learning at Higher Achievement, where she designs out-of-school programming to support in-school learning. She is a former middle school teacher, avid advocate for English language learners, and a proud cat-mom.

Designing Responsive Learning Opportunities: A Resource Bank for Middle Grades Educators

By Penny Bishop and Christine Thielen

This blog post is the second in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the third post from the School Climate & Culture Design Team.

Highlights:

  • Young adolescents benefit from teachers who understand their diverse needs and identities, however, specialized teacher preparation for this age group remains inadequate.
  • The Remaking Middle School Professional Learning & Development Design Team created an online, open-access resource bank aimed to help educators create developmentally responsive learning opportunities.
  • The resource bank offers educators clear and compelling materials that describe characteristics of young adolescents and illustrate how specific teaching approaches can align with these characteristics to optimize student learning.
You can find the resource here

Young adolescence is a unique and promising time in a young person’s life. Middle schoolers face a dizzying pace of cognitive, social, physical, emotional, and neurological changes.1 They are also increasingly aware of how their social identities– such as race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, and social class– may affect their experiences and opportunities.2 While young adolescence presents complex challenges, it also opens up exciting new worlds, as students learn and grow in new ways and in new contexts.

Unfortunately, despite research demonstrating that young adolescents benefit from teachers who understand their diverse needs and identities, specialized teacher preparation for this age group remains inadequate, as “nearly half of the institutions preparing middle level teachers do not offer specialized middle level teacher preparation.”3 Because students benefit from access to learning environments that are based on their developmental needs and social identities,4 the inconsistent training of teachers presents a fundamental equity issue. In this era of decreased funding for professional development, high stakes accountability, and initiative fatigue, educators need high quality resources that are easily accessible and research-based.

Beginning in 2019, our Remaking Middle School Design Team aspired to address just this need. Our primary goal as a team was to help educators who work with young adolescents create responsive learning opportunities. We began our work by brainstorming current challenges, issues, and opportunities related to our goal. One theme that emerged was providing educators easily accessible information about the developmental science of young adolescence ‒ and how to connect the information and research to practice in concrete ways. Additionally, educators were seeking opportunities to direct their own professional learning based on the needs of their individual school communities and students.

With this in mind, our Design Team set out to assemble an open-source resource bank for middle grades teachers (both pre-service and in-service) to create learning opportunities based on young adolescents’ needs and identities in responsive ways. Over the course of six months, our team developed a prototype of an online, open-access resource bank aimed to help teachers achieve four student-focused outcomes: autonomy, belonging, competence, and identity.5 Each desired outcome includes a (1) research-based rationale explaining why it’s critical during early adolescence; and (2) a minimum of ten multimedia resources that illustrate how to teach toward outcome.

By offering an online, open-access resource, we hope to offer educators clear and compelling materials that describe some of the characteristics of young adolescents and illustrate how specific teaching approaches can align with these characteristics to optimize student learning. The resource is free and need not be used sequentially. Educators can personalize their use of it by selecting the outcomes and resources most applicable to their setting and needs.

You can find the resource here

We recognize that we are launching the resource during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the challenges and complexities of COVID-19. While we designed the product prior to pandemic, we believe the information and resources remain relevant as we consider ways that we can apply the developmental science to current learning settings. Whether we are online or in-person, we should continue to prioritize teaching to support autonomy, belonging, competence, and identity, and we hope the resources highlighted in the resource bank will amplify that need and spark creativity in how best to support these developmental needs for students in the school year ahead.

As we launch this resource, we will be eager to gather feedback about its use and how the Remaking Middle School Design Lab can continue to build upon the work our team started. For example, our team discussed the possibility of the resource bank being a “living resource” to which others could provide additional resource suggestions.

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


1 Eccles & Roeser, 1999; Williams, Mims & Johnson, 2019.

2 Brinegar, K.M., Harrison, L.M., & Hurd, E. (Eds.) (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publications.

3 Howell et al. 2016, p.10.

4 Bishop & Downes, 2019; Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000, Brinegar, K.M., Harrison, L.M., & Hurd, E. (Eds.) (2019). Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publications.

5 Bishop & Downes, 2019.


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Penny Bishop is Professor of Education at the University of Vermont, where she teaches middle grades educators and conducts research on schooling for young adolescents. She is co-author of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, to be released by the Association for Middle Level Education in October 2020.

Author Bio: Christine Thielen is a middle school math teacher in Park Ridge, Illinois and adjunct instructor of middle level methods classes. She is a trustee for the Association for Middle Level Education and serves on the board’s Executive Council.

What Do You Know About Young Adolescent Development?

By Aleta Meyer and Katie Powell

This blog post is the first in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the second post from the Teacher Learning & Professional Development Design Team and the third post from the School Climate & Culture Design Team.

Highlights:

  • To transform middle grades programs, practices, and policies, it is important that young adolescents have access to experiences that align to and support their developmental needs.
  • The Remaking Middle School Research to Practice Design Team created a self-assessment tool that allows practitioners to reflect on aligning their practices to key principles of young adolescent learning and development.
  • The tool should appeal to school leaders, classroom teachers, school support staff, district leaders, and policymakers. Users of the tool will receive a better understanding of their knowledge of adolescent development, with the hope being that this understanding will encourage users to seek more information based on their results.
You can find the assessment tool here.

Research shows that early adolescence is a key window of cognitive, social, and emotional transformation, making the middle school years an extraordinary and yet critical opportunity for long-lasting, positive learning and development. But middle schools largely appear out of sync with the diverse unique developmental needs of their students. The middle school period is particularly important since data across the board shows that the steepest declines in student outcomes occur from sixth through ninth grades. Many young people are not getting what they need, and significant gaps in educational achievement persist among students of color and from low-income households. In essence, we are failing to provide all of our young people the environments they need to be successful in school and life.

Research shows us how to meet the needs of adolescents but the research is sporadically applied to practices in schools. Transformation of middle grades programs, practices, and policies is needed to ensure all young people have access to middle grades experiences that are aligned to and support their developmental needs. 

With this in mind, as a Design Team, our leading question became “How might we inspire and support educators to translate the science of young adolescent learning and development into how we design and practice within learning environments?”

This question led us to create a self-assessment tool that allows practitioners to reflect on what their school and school system is already doing and what they need to improve upon to align their practices to key principles of young adolescent learning and development. When we said assessment, we didn’t have in mind high-stress testing, but rather wanted this to be an accessible, engaging, and even fun, tool for school teams to have available.

We envisioned creating separate self-assessments in four key developmental domains: supporting autonomy, fostering belonging, advancing competence, and promoting identity. Our team created the first assessment in the series focused on autonomy, with the goal being that the Remaking Middle School Design Lab will continue to develop complementary self-assessments for the remaining three domains.

The tool should appeal to school leaders, classroom teachers, school support staff (e.g., counselors), district leaders, and policymakers. Users of the tool will receive a better understanding of their knowledge of adolescent development, and we hope this understanding will encourage users to seek more information based on their results. The tool serves as a great entry-point into the products of the other Remaking Middle School Design Teams.

You can find the assessment tool here.

The design process led our team to many engaging discussions about the relationship between research and practice in the middle grades years. We’ll offer up a few of our open questions that we encourage the Remaking Middle School initiative, and field more broadly, to continue to dive into: 

  • How might we further strengthen and encourage the reciprocal relationship between researchers and practitioners?
  • How might we make existing research more accessible to practitioners?
  • How can we remain inclusive of and responsive to all potential target audiences in this work (i.e., beyond classroom teachers and school-level administrators)?
  • How can we include and empower youth voice in this project, and the work more broadly?
  • How might we continue to support teachers from having awareness about adolescent development to taking actions that support adolescent development?

We hope you will find the Autonomy Self-Assessment to be a helpful tool for your own learning – and we encourage you to share broadly!

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Aleta Meyer is President of Prevention Opportunities, LLC, and lead author of Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways, a middle school violence prevention program. She and her husband recently moved to New Mexico from Virginia.

Author Bio: Katie Powell is a 6th grade teacher and author of Boredom Busters: Transform Worksheets, Lectures, and Grading into Engaging, Meaningful Learning Experiences. She lives with her family in Indiana.

Keeping Students Safe: Talking about Alcohol and Hazing

By Susie Bruce, M.Ed.

Highlights:

  • Alcohol overdose and hazing can be prevented.
  • Educating youth on the signs of alcohol overdose can reduce risk of death.
  • Encouraging students to learn about organizations before they join can reduce hazing experiences.
  • Successful conversations with teens focus on openness, honesty, mutual respect, and trust. 

“It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t be able to handle a situation. I really didn’t have any worries.”

– Leslie Lanahan, mother of hazing victim Gordie Bailey

Lynn Gordon (“Gordie”) Bailey died 3 weeks into his freshman year of college from an alcohol overdose related to hazing. After a bid night tradition where pledges were encouraged to drink large quantities of alcohol, Gordie passed out at his fraternity house. His new “brothers” put him on a couch, wrote all over his body with permanent marker, gave him a bucket for vomit, and then left him alone. By the time someone checked on him the next morning, it was too late.

“Everybody thinks it’s not going to happen to them. We were in that crowd. It wouldn’t happen to us.  We want parents to learn from our tragedy.” 

– Michael Lanahan, Gordie’s step-father

Most parents and schools talk with students about the dangers of drinking and driving, but far fewer discuss the lethal risks of drinking too much alcohol too quickly or the prevalence and risks of hazing. Teens are unlikely to initiate conversations on these topics with adults, and it can be easy for parents and caregivers to avoid these uncomfortable topics. However, it’s worth noting that parental expectations and opinions do have an impact on student behaviors, both positively and negatively.

How can you prepare for these conversations? Be factual and straightforward about your expectations as well as your concerns. Teens want to talk with adults if the conversation is structured for openness, honesty, mutual respect, and trust. Focus more on strategies to protect health and safety and less on legal consequences.

Ready to get started? Here are some initial topics to cover.

Make sure youth know the signs of overdose

Even if a student doesn’t drink, or is under the legal drinking age of 21, knowing the “PUBS” overdose symptoms could save someone’s life. Seeing even one sign is an indication of a medical emergency requiring a call to 911. 

  • P – puking while passed out
  • U – unresponsive to a pinch of shaking
  • B – breathing is slow, shallow or has stopped
  • S – skin is blue, cold or clammy.  If the person has darker skin, check their lips or nailbeds to see if they are getting pale.

Consider showing the Gordie Center’s 1-minute PUBS video and ask:

  • “How likely is it that you’d call 911 if you’re in a situation where someone has one of the PUBS symptoms?”
  • “What would you do if friends minimize your concerns and tell you not to call?”

Encourage youth to add the national Poison Control hotline to their contact list

Students may be scared of getting themselves, their friends or their group in trouble and hesitate in a situation where seconds count. The Poison Control hotline (1-800-222-1222) connects to a national network of regional centers that provide confidential, expert advice 24/7. Talking with a medical expert can make the difference between life and death by giving students someone to “blame” for calling 911.

Talk with youth about how to choose groups that don’t haze

As Gordie’s story illustrates, hazing can happen to anyone. Hazing is perpetuated in all types of organizations, and nearly half of college students endured some level of physical or psychological hazing in high school. Students want to feel like they worked hard to achieve the privilege of being part of a group, so how can parents and other adults provide guidance in choosing groups that don’t haze?

The discussion starters below are also provided in an animated Gordie Center video:

  • Which types of groups or organizations have you thought about joining, and why?
  • What do you know about the group you are joining? How can you find out more?
  • Is this group included on your school’s hazing violation list?
  • What kinds of activities are required to join? Will it take away from academics? Is drinking involved?
  • How comfortable are you with those activities, or the unknowns of the membership process?
  • Will you promise to tell me if any activities cause you physical pain or emotional distress, even if the group swears you to secrecy?

Viewing HAZE to start the conversation

The Gordie Center’s 37-minute HAZE documentary film tells Gordie’s story through interviews with his friends and family, as well as with national experts on alcohol misuse and hazing prevention. The film is available for purchase or rental to schools and anyone who wants to view HAZE with their family can request a link to stream the film for free.  A free discussion guide is available.

The first discussion on a challenging issue is often the most difficult, so don’t try to cover every topic at once.  Spreading out conversations on alcohol, hazing, and other safety issues will have a more long-lasting impact than one marathon session.  Keep your focus on having a two-way discussion where your teen gets to share their thoughts and ideas instead of a one-sided lecture. Sometimes the best question can be a simple, “What do you know about…?” and see where the conversation goes.

“Before Gordie died, I’d never given any thought to death by alcohol. I’d received almost no education about it—teachers never talked about it.”

-Serena Keith, close friend of Gordie’s

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Susie Bruce, M.Ed., is director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center, which works to end hazing and substance misuse among high school and college students.  She is a Faculty Affiliate of Youth-Nex, and directs the NCAA-funded APPLE Training Institutes: the leading national strategic training program for substance misuse prevention and health promotion for student-athletes and athletics departments.

Measuring Key Processes in Youth Mentoring

By Julia Augenstern

Highlights:

  • Mentoring programs are essential resources in many communities and one of the best supported approaches for fostering positive youth development.
  • However, despite a long record of empirical support for their positive impact, little is known about how mentoring benefits are rendered or the specific processes by which mentoring relationships work.
  • Presented here is recent work to help assess five key mentoring processes with the hope that when used this survey can reveal what makes some mentoring programs more effective than others.

Over the past 30 years, there have been numerous studies that show mentoring can help reduce youth risk of substance use, school failure and delinquency, and can increase their sense of support, connection, and self-efficacy. Not all programs show these benefits, with some even showing null or negative impacts. The question still remains:

What makes some programs beneficial and how do these benefits occur?

This requires looking into the processes that make up mentoring interactions; to understand the “how” of mentoring. Through reviewing theoretical and practical literature on mentoring we identified a set of 5 processes that were commonly mentioned as occurring within mentoring relationship and developed an assessment tool to capture them (See the original research article in the Journal of Community Psychology at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jcop.22408).

Five Key Mentoring Processes

The follow five mentoring processes are measured by the Mentoring Process Scale (MPS):

  • Role Modeling – Activities and discussions that provide the mentee opportunity to experience the mentor as a role model or figure of identification, those in which the effect may be to evoke admiration, respect, felt positive similarity and connection, or emulation.
  • Advocacy – A process by which the mentor speaks up for or supports the mentee to others, connects the protégé with resources, and/or helps the mentee seek and access skills and opportunities, helping support navigation of social systems.
  • Relationship and Emotional Support – Instances where the mentor provides open and genuine positive regard and companionship to the mentee in ways that would be expected to lead the mentee to feel supported and cared for by the mentor. This process is characterized by regular and open communication, with empathy and/or reciprocity prominent.
  • Teaching and Information Provision – A process by which the mentor teaches new things to the mentee and/or provides information that might aid the mentee in managing social, educational, legal, family, and peer challenges.
  • Shared Activity – The mentor and mentee engage in activities together (e.g., cooking, playing sports, going out to eat, watching tv) or simply spend time together.
Click here to see the large PDF.

Our goal was to capture and understand these processes from both the adult mentor and youth mentee perspectives. Our study validated these five components as distinct and important factors making up the overall scale and showed that these processes relate to other important characteristics of effective mentoring, when rated by adult mentors. For youth, the items formed as a single general positive mentoring activity scale.

We think the scale can help reveal how mentoring works, what differentiates effective and ineffective mentoring, and what might be important training targets and skills for mentors.

This scale also has promise to help address inequities in access to quality mentoring. Presently, too often, the quality of mentoring available is dependent on economic and social resources, with little guidance on critical components of the mentoring relationship. If we can learn what makes mentoring effective, then training can concentrate on those skills and activities. The scale and the practices it measures can be used to help guide initial and ongoing training. It can also be used to highlight if and how mentors might be applying learned skills in their daily work with mentees. By better understanding the mechanisms of positive influences, disparities in mentoring program quality can be better identified and remediated, thus ensuring a greater likelihood for successful mentoring impacts across communities.

Mentoring in COVID-19

Finally, in a world of physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, mentoring programs must adapt to new ways of engaging youth. They must find ways to successfully maintain the mentoring relationship and address new and unique needs of youth and communities. By considering what processes to emphasize and assessing variation in engagement and outcome as different ones are emphasized, we can learn how to ensure effective mentoring in these new circumstances. These five key processes can be helpful in guiding program adaptation to ensure that important components of the mentoring relationship are still maintained, regardless of the modality through which contact is made.


For more information about this research and the MPS, please see:

Tolan, P. H., McDaniel, H. L., Richardson, M., Arkin, N., Augenstern, J., & DuBois, D. L. (2020). Improving understanding of how mentoring works: Measuring multiple intervention processes. Journal of Community Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jcop.22408

or contact Patrick Tolan, Ph.D. at pht6t@virginia.edu


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Julia Augenstern, M.Ed. is a fourth year doctoral student in the Curry School of Education and Human Services Clinical and School Psychology Program. She studies positive youth development and social emotional learning in a Youth Nex affiliate lab and is a recent Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEAs) grant recipient.

Adolescence in the Time of COVID-19: Building an Identity Focused Online Environment

By Karis Lee, Juliana Salcedo, Jack Wren, & Lily Zhang

Highlights:

  • Adolescents explore different identities as they begin to figure out who they are and want to be.
  • Identity development is impacted by one’s social environment including family, peers, community, and online activities.
  • Even with the switch to online learning, adults can implement strategies to support students’ identity development.
Source: Curry School of Education & Human Development

Identity development in adolescents begins with their personal backgrounds and changes as adolescents encounter new experiences, ideas, environments, and people. Adolescents begin to answer “who am I?” by thinking about themselves in various contexts and from different perspectives. Adolescents may identify themselves in many ways such as race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and family. Younger adolescents are more sensitive to external feedback whereas older adolescents learn to hold stronger identity stances and consider themselves in broader contexts. There are many ways to navigate identity formation during adolescence that are relevant to education and distance learning. 

Why Identity Development is Important in Adolescence

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, adolescence (ages 13-19) marks stage five of development and is key in the lifelong process of identity construction. During this period, individuals grapple with identity versus role confusion, and they focus on organizing their skills, interests, and values into a core sense of self. These tasks are also supported by key changes that occur in the brain during this time period, such as abstract processing, consideration of multiple perspectives and possibilities, and the reasoning of truths. Adolescents engage in the identity “search process,” in which they explore different identities and eventually commit and follow through. Adolescents spend a significant amount of time in school so peers and curriculum both play crucial roles during this search process. Since many students are engaging in distance learning at the moment, peer-interactions, online activities, and community support are elements educators must consider when building an identity-based learning environment. 

Adolescence is also the period in which individuals process their beliefs and attitudes about their ethnic-racial identity (ERI) membership. ERI is multidimensional, and it is impacted by how one’s racial identity is regarded by others, how identities are formed based on racial beliefs (or how a group “should” act), and the internal reconciliation of these various perspectives. It can be a combination of the maturity of one’s self-perception and the broader contexts that affect that self-perception. According to William Cross’s model of ERI development, a racial or ethnic “encounter” often catalyzes one’s processing. The “encounter” and how that impacts students’ ERI is especially important to keep in mind, as it could be affected by both the move to online classes and the current Black Lives Matter movement.

Adolescents Shifting to an Online Environment

Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the move online may affect adolescents’ identity development  by restricting their autonomy. In-person school can provide a needed environment in which students can engage in the identity search process, where they can “try on” different identities without familial identity constraints or pressures. For example, schools can provide a needed social outlet for  LGBTQ students to learn about their sexual or gender identity. Online learning, however, constricts students to their home environments and thus limits the search process. Students may not feel as comfortable exploring their identity with the influence of their parents and their parent’s beliefs surrounding them as they are learning.

In an online learning environment, teachers can continue to support identity development through assignments that have students engage with their interests. Teachers will likely need to rely on parents and families to engage with students through this process. However, not all students have the same access to resources at home so flexibility should be a guiding principle.

Building an Identity Focused Online Environment

Here are some suggestions for building a identity focused online learning environment that teachers could consider:

  • Have students read books that are of interest to them and form reading circles to share.
  • Create playlists of music, podcasts, or documentaries that relate to class material and introduce students to new ideas and perspectives.
  • Encourage students and parents to work together to engage with their community by walking around to historical sites and landmarks, or exploring historical sites online. Students can use this activity to talk with parents and/or other family members about their own identity. 
  • Have students reflect on current global and social events, such as the role of social media during COVID-19, being GenZ, the Black Lives Matter movement and Supreme Court cases.
  • Continue school-sponsored activities online so students have the opportunity to stay connected with others and gain support for organizations that are important for identity development.
  • Provide flexibility and freedom when doing identity-based work so that students are not constricted by labels. 
  • Cultivate cognitive routines with a set of prompts allowing the teacher to guide the activity rather than directly transfer knowledge (this helps students to develop their own opinions and think for themselves).Use prompts such as: “What was the biggest surprise?” or “I used to think ____. But now I think ___.” It is important to let students showcase their interests and knowledge!

In sum, the school environment plays a crucial role in adolescents’ exploration of identity, and their interactions both inside and outside the classroom help them answer the key “who am I?” question. It’s important for teachers to be aware of how the transition to online learning can impact this exploration and develop class strategies that allow students to continue engaging with the identity search process.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Juliana Salcedo is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education and Human Development working on her master’s in teaching for secondary science education. She is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary with a degree in Biology and Chemistry.


Author Bio: Karis Lee is a student at the Curry School of Education working towards her masters in teaching secondary language arts. She is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary, where she studied English and history.


Author Bio: Lily Zhang is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education and Human Development working on her master’s in teaching for secondary English education. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2019 with degrees in English and Psychology.


Author Bio: Jack Wren is a graduate student in the Curry School of Education working on a master’s in teaching for secondary Mathematics education.  He recently graduated from UVA in May 2020 with a degree in Mathematics.