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Creating the Right Environment

A useful set of resources and ideas for anyone who is interested in how environments can affect socio-emotional skills development.

In this section, we explore the idea of creating a learning environment for facilitating SESD. You will find articles that talk specifically about and SESD conducive environment, and also related ideas that look at different types of environments for learning which, although they do not mention SESD, are still applicable if you want to focus on developing SESD. Each article has been selected for its nuanced view on learning environments. 

Theories and ideas

A series of articles and reflective activities designed to link practice with the theories and ideas which inform socio-emotional skills development.

Social and Emotional Learning Program Quality Assessment (PQA) Manual and Guide

In their guide to SEL for practitioners, Smith and Peck (ibid) introduce the importance of environments which foster the development of socio-emotional skills. The starting point is a safe environment, moving on to an environment which is supportive, followed by the idea of interactive environment and finally an engaging environment. As you read through the stages and descriptors perhaps you can recognise an increase in the participation of young people, as they engage more deeply with the environment around them. ​

Specific training on how to use the guide is available from the College, contact for more information. For now, it provides a useful landing page as you start to reflect on your own practice.  

Peck, S and Smith, C (2022)

NB - please note you may not copy or distribute these materials outside your own organisation. Weikart grants to the Centre for Youth Impact a non-exclusive license to print, copy, use, publicly perform, display, and/or distribute copies of the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) PQA.

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'What is informal education?' The encyclopaedia of pedagogy and informal education

In this article Jeffs and Smith (ibid) introduce the idea of informal education; a spontaneous process which works through conversation to help others to explore and make sense of experiences. Like formal education it has a clear purpose  which is to connect in a way that allows us to build relationships and communities, where people can be happy and fulfilled (ibid). ​

​Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1997, 2005, 2011 and 2019)

Reflection point: read through the article by Jeffs and Smith, and then re-read the previous article by Peck and Smith. It might help for you to have both articles open at the same time. Pay special attention to the descriptors in which score 5 (page 4ff). Can you see a connection between the ‘staff approach’ and the role of the informal educator?  ​

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Paradoxical Tensions for Learning and Teaching Spaces

In the previous two articles, we have looked at what needs to happen in a group for SESD to occur, and we have started to think a bit about the role of the informal educator as the environment facilitator. In this article, we are going to think a bit about boundaries in the learning environment. To help us, we will look at Palmer’s notion of paradoxical tensions in learning and teaching spaces.  Palmer suggests the learning environment needs to be both open and 'boundaried', and hospitable and charged, giving voice to the individual and the collective, a space for the little and big stories, a place of solitude and community, and finally, a space in which both silence and speech is welcome. On the face of things, this appears to be a series of contradictions, however as you read through the article you will see this is not the case. ​

Palmer, P J (2009)

Reflection point: read through the article and return to the article by Peck and Smith. Again, it might help for you to have both articles open at the same time. Pay special attention to the descriptors. Can you see a connection between the environments which are safe, supportive, interactive and engaging, and  the learning environment described by Palmer? ​

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Social and emotional learning (toolkit)

In this article by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), you will find a compelling argument for SEL programmes in UK schools, and the need for a common-sense integrated approach. If you have read through any of the articles in the previous section you will know that this message resonates nationally and globally, among academics and policymakers. Herein, we see a contrast with the informal, relational approach of non-formal/informal approaches to Social Emotional Skill development as articulated in the previous three articles in this section. The need for an SEL-integrated approach that embraces all forms of education is perhaps best articulated by CASEL’s framework (2021). The framework notes different areas of social-emotional skills, very similar to the College’s domains models, whilst acknowledging that the development of SEL skills takes place in different contexts including classes, the school environment, families, and community organisations. ​

Education Endowment Foundation (2021)

Reflection point: think about how SEL is embedded in your practice. You may want to look back over your notes from previous reflection points. Now ask yourself what do you know about some of the other contexts in which the young people you are working with are developing social-emotional skills? Are these different areas aligned? What could you do to connect with the other areas, for example, schools and families to think about an integrated approach?​

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Ethical Conduct in Youth Work

As practitioners working with young people, we must look not only at what views we think we are conveying through our actions, but also at how young people view our practice. This is because the way we conduct ourselves in practice forms an integral part of the learning environment. Young people will learn at least as much from what we do or do not do as from what we say. If we think about this in the context of social-emotional learning and development, the way we behave, the character we present, and our values and beliefs will shape the learning environment. To help us make better sense of the values and principles that guide practice, we draw you attention to a couple of documents. Firstly, the NYA has produced a helpful booklet called Ethical Conduct in Youth Work (see below) or alternatively, The Institute of Youth Work Code of Ethics, available at ​

Reflection point – Read through one or both or the codes and look back through your notes from the article by Peck and Smith. Are you able to connect the ethical principles of youth work with environments which are safe, supportive, interactive and engaging? Where are the connections/gaps in your practice? ​

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Further reading

A selection of articles, books and websites offering additional resources designed to deepen your appreciation of socio-emotional skills development.

SEL Standards

This resource from CASCAID provides a helpful focus on social-emotional learning skills and competencies for education.

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The Emotional Environment

A useful reminder of the need to plan for and manage the learning environment to ensure emotional development.

Croner, I

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Why Your Brain on Stress Fails to Learn Properly

In this article, the relationship between stress and learning is carefully explained from a neuroscience perspective. Being able to appreciate how a stressful learning environment can interfere with SESD reinforces the need to create spaces where young people feel safe and secure. ​

Hobson, N

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Recognition of Non-Formal and Informal Learning

A helpful frame of reference for understanding informal/non-formal and formal learning as environments for socio-emotional learning.

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The Importance of Instructional Scaffolding in SEL Programming

This brief introduction to scaffolding learning shows why we need to build a progressive environment in which children and young people develop socio-emotional skills.

Rivin, L (2022)

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SEL Challenge/Thrive Guides

A comprehensive set of resources designed to underpin the PQA – see article 20​.


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Facilitating learning and change in groups

A helpful reminder that the way we facilitate work with groups of young people is very much a part of the learning environment.

Smith, Mark K. (2001; 2009)

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The Powerful Combination of PBL and SEL

In this blog, Spencer carefully considers the relationship between social-emotional learning, SEL, and project-based learning, PBL. The focus is very much around SESD as embedded in a formal/structured learning environment, as opposed to being explicitly taught. A helpful reminder that SESD can be delivered both explicitly and implicitly within existing youth programmes. ​

Spencer, J. (2021)

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