SEL in girls and non-binary youth: Insights from Sadie Nash Leadership Project, L.O.V.E., and STEM from Dance

Here at SSN, our 40+ members use a common social-emotional learning measurement tool and dataset to shine a light on compelling trends and questions, seek out opportunities for collaboration, and strengthen the impact of our network. This year, we categorized our more than 40 member organizations in an effort to identify data trends, shared challenges, and promising practices across program types. We explored many interesting trends in this exercise, including relationships between gender and SEL and between participation in programs specifically for female and non-binary youth and SEL. In the first of a series of posts illuminating and exploring data trends across the network, today we share insights on how gender relates to SEL gleaned from a focus group with practitioners from three programs in the Network that serve girls and non-binary youth of color: Sadie Nash Leadership Project, Latinas on the Verge of Excellence (L.O.V.E.), and STEM from Dance. Read on to learn about three key responses to SEL trends in girls that have powerful applications for working with youth.

Academic Self-Efficacy: “Give Girls a Space”

“Oftentimes, young men are conditioned to take up space, whereas we often condition our young women to diminish and not take up as much space.” – Morgan Little, Sadie Nash Leadership Project

Academic literature has shown that young women consistently express lower academic self-efficacy or confidence in their ability to succeed academically than young men [1]. We saw this in the Network baseline survey – girls had lower academic self-efficacy than boys in both middle school and high school, with the gap widening in high school. The internalization of gender stereotypes often results in young women viewing their own success as unlikely or even undesirable.

Academic Self Efficacy between girls and boys

This problem is further compounded by norms that encourage young men to be the more dominant and vocal presence in an academic space.

To increase the self-efficacy of young women, the practitioners we spoke with fostered an environment where their girls were welcome to take up space, and express themselves without fear of “being wrong.” Morgan from Sadie Nash said, “We’ve created culture to step in and say what you need to say: ‘If you’re wrong, be wrong and strong.’” Christina Jean-Louis, also from Sadie Nash said, “We want young folks to feel seen and heard, maybe for the first times in their lives, for who they are and in what they are.”

Several of the practitioners we spoke to said belonging is at the core of what they do, reflected not only with students but among staff as well. Their organizational leadership is compassionate, and often structured with horizontal hierarchy to embody what they teach. All of the practitioners emphasized the importance of hiring leaders that demographically look like the young women and non-binary youth they serve. When girls feel that they belong because people in their program see them for who they are, their confidence increases, and they break down the narrative that, as Christina from Sadie Nash said, “this space is not for you.”

Belonging: “Center the Margins”

“We explore identities. We have them decide and label themselves. We talk about racism and colorism within communities themselves. We talk about and explore topics around gender oppression, like what does it mean when we talk about like privilege? So I think all of these are ways in which we unpack the way that systems of oppression affect them as mostly women of color and their day-to-day lives.” – Morgan Little, Sadie Nash Leadership Project

Explicit efforts to center marginalized experiences helps students build strong SEL skills. Research on the effects of single-sex education suggests that there is nothing inherently beneficial about separating students by their gender. Rather, single-sex schools that that examine social justice issues have the most positive outcomes on the academic and social and emotional well-being of students.

Sense of Belonging by Race and Ethnicity for girls in co-ed vs all girls programs

On our survey, we see in particular that students in programs for female and non-binary youth have a high sense of belonging across races, which could be due to the work these programs put into centering on their lived experiences. Sade-Amour Mirabal from L.O.V.E. said “…our whole idea is, yes, we center black and Latinx young people because they are not centered in other spaces”. These programs devote time to unpacking social identity on topics ranging from racial oppression to toxic masculinity. “We have to get rid of idea that certain types of conversations are not appropriate for the classroom” said Doretha Dawkins from STEM from Dance.

The female and non-binary programs don’t just center marginalized experiences, they also prepare students to enter oppressive spaces by giving them honest advice and teaching them skills for self-care. For example, STEM from Dance holds “Hot Topics,” sessions where students learn the soft skills needed to persist in STEM fields as young women of color. Skills like self-love, having a strong sense of personhood, and knowing how to build community. “We want you to be active in STEM fields while being yourselves,” said Doretha.

Belonging & Self-Awareness: “Boys Need LOVE Too”

“One thing that I hear a lot from our girls is that ‘boys need love, boys need a program like this too’. And when I say ‘what do you mean by that?’ They’re saying guys need to be able to be realized, to be themselves, to be more self-aware and be aware of what their experiences mean for girls and women as well.” – Sade-Amour, L.O.V.E.

Our practitioners emphasized that, just as young women struggle to ‘take up space’ academically, young men are conditioned to view vulnerability and processing emotion as ‘feminine’ and negative. When young men are not given the space to self-actualize, students of all genders lose out. The practitioners said programs must form a tight community to access this self-actualization. “Before we get into content, we have to build community,” said a practitioner from Sadie Nash.

SSN’s programs for female and non-binary young people build community through bonding activities, opening and closing program rituals, and creating mutual vulnerability between staff and students. “Adults have to show that it’s safe to be vulnerable as well by sharing their own experiences.” Morgan Little from Sadie Nash said. This community plays a huge role in building girls’ and non-binary youths’ confidence, and could be a powerful tool for boys in other programs.

Bringing young men’s attention to deeply ingrained concepts of gender has been a successful method of encouraging greater emotional literacy in boys. Allowing boys to unpack this societal norm, participants explained, is not only important for boys’ own well-being but also crucial to learning how their adherence to these norms can negatively affect and impact girls and gender non-binary youth.

The practitioners we spoke to brought context to SEL trends that many researchers are currently trying to understand. They shared with us how gender norms can work to limit all student’s academic potential and well-being, and how youth development programs can respond to these forces by fostering a strong sense of belonging and creating spaces where young people feel safe to explore their identity and express themselves. We hope that grouping SSN’s programs and analyzing the survey in this way will continue to reveal more information about how to better serve each unique student population.

Written by: Corall Azouri, Sophie E. McGuinness, Alexandra Lotero

[1]: Epstein, N., & Fischer, M. R. (2017). Academic career intentions in the life sciences: Can research self-efficacy beliefs explain low numbers of aspiring physician and female scientists?. PloS one, 12(9), e0184543.

Bondy, J. M., Peguero, A. A., & Johnson, B. E. (2017). The children of immigrants’ academic self-efficacy: The significance of gender, race, ethnicity, and segmented assimilation. Education and Urban Society, 49(5), 486-517.

Clifford, H. (1998). A Comparison of Gender-related Attitudes towards Mathematics between Girls in Single-sex and Co-educational Schools. webdoc. sub. gwdg.de/edoc/e/pome/clifford.

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Alexandra Lotero
alexandra@ssn-nyc.org

Alexandra is passionate about the power of putting actionable data in the hands of practitioners and youth. Her mission is to support practitioners, researchers, and youth in creating data-informed, relationship-driven cultures that continuously improve student experiences that put all youth on a path to success. She is the proud daughter of Latin American immigrants, a City Year New York AmeriCorps alum, and the former Operations and Program Director for the 115-member NYC Civic Corps and 10-member NYC VISTA AmeriCorps programs at the NYC Mayor’s Office.

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