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Research to Practice, Practice to Research

Implementing SEL in STEM—Challenges and Opportunities

Connected Science Learning May–June 2023 (Volume 5, Issue 3)

By Megan Bettis

Implementing SEL in STEM—Challenges and Opportunities

Today more than ever there is a need to support students’ social emotional learning (SEL) in and out of the classroom. Bridging SEL between in-school and out-of-school settings can provide more robust support for students, as SEL aims to improve students’ academic outcomes, behavior, and mental health (CASEL, n.d.). And while SEL seems like a ubiquitous term in education fields, is it? And what about the out-of-school time (OST) program staff who support educational opportunities but may not have the same depth of knowledge as those situated in in-school settings? What assumptions do OST programs need to reevaluate as they move toward incorporating SEL activities? To adequately support students’ SEL in OST programs, staff need to understand what SEL is, as well as best practices for supporting students’ social emotional development (SED). The goal of this study included exploring how the staff of a STEM-focused OST summer program understood and defined SEL, as well as reflecting on how the program, the Young Scholars Program, might make programmatic changes to support the further implementation of SEL. The sections of the study discussed here sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What is staff’s understanding of SEL?
  2. What barriers did staff face when implementing suggested SEL activities?
  3. How might the program address barriers or approaches to implementing SEL activities going forward?

Social Emotional Learning In and Out of the Classroom

Between November 2019 and April 2021 spending by schools and districts on SEL programs increased by 45% (Tyton 2021). This significant increase represents a shift in educational priorities. Post-pandemic, “improving students’ mental health and well-being” and “promoting students’ social and emotional competence” ranked as schools’ top two priorities (Tyton 2021). Paralleling the shift in educational priorities is the increase of SEL practices used in school settings. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has arguably developed the most well-known framework for SEL used in schools. However, SEL does not need to be limited to school settings. To be most effective, SEL practice should be consistent across settings, including OST programs (Bouffard 2021).

OST programs broadly include school and community-based programs, and participation in summer and other OST programs are valuable opportunities for students to expand learning and development. OST programs can support participants' social, emotional, and academic development (Bouffard et al. 2006) and increase student motivation and interest in other academic pursuits (Luehmann and Markowitz 2007). For example, students participating in high-quality STEM programs report increased positive attitudes toward STEM (Allen et al. 2020), and for historically marginalized students, an increased interest in STEM fields (NRC 2015).

Previous research has shown that staff training is one of the core drivers in implementing an effective OST program (Bouffard and Little 2004). Despite this, many OST staff have had little to no prior training for working with youth (Bouffard and Little 2004; Metz et al. 2009). Metz et al. (2009) found that program directors of OST programs identified four ways staff training supports effective programs, including preparing new staff to work with participants and teaching teachers—who often work with OST programs—how to be better youth workers. Effective staff training has the potential to influence the implementation of SEL efforts in OST programs.

Leaders play a key role in advancing a constructive SEL environment and set the tone and expectations of a program. As they work to integrate SEL into their educational programs, be it in school or OST contexts, leaders should offer professional development or staff training around SEL that emphasizes SEL is not just another “add-on,” but rather something to be integrated throughout the work of the school or program (White et al. 2020), with a focus on supporting students’ SED.

Research Context: Young Scholars Program

The Young Scholars Program (YSP) is a fee-based residential summer program focused on engaging high school juniors and seniors in authentic research, primarily in the biological sciences. Students are assigned to a lab and take on a portion of an ongoing research project. They participate in lab meetings, write about and present their findings, and engage in other STEM-focused activities. The program is based at a large public university in California and runs for six weeks, serving 40–50 students each summer. Students are supported by six to eight staff members who are pre- or inservice science teachers. A program director (author) oversees staff training opportunities, works closely with the associate director on the implementation of the program curriculum, and in 2022 conducted research on the program.

During the summer of 2022, 26 female and 20 male students participated in the program. The majority identified as Asian and five identified as first-generation college students. Nine participants received fee reductions, the majority of whom reported a family income of less than $65,000. Students came with a range of previous research experience ranging from typical high school lab experiences to elective OST research experiences. Program recruitment efforts target schools that serve historically marginalized students, and information regarding fee reductions is made readily available and accessible.

YSP participants engage in community building activities at the beginning of the program.
YSP participants engage in community building activities at the beginning of the program.

COVID Disruptions: An Opportunity for the Young Scholars Program

Like many programs, YSP was canceled for the summer of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This disruption provided an opportunity for program staff to focus on developing programmatic changes that might better serve students, which was a starting point for this study. Developing students’ self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills had always been implicitly valued by YSP, but the development of those skills and mindsets had not been centered in the program curriculum.

Reflecting on the implicit values of the program, YSP staff decided to tackle implementing more purposeful SEL activities throughout the program. At the time, the majority of the staff were 8- to 12th-grade inservice classroom teachers who had a front row seat to how distance learning was affecting students. This decision also supported the program goal of targeted outreach. SEL supports all students but is particularly important for students from historically marginalized backgrounds (Beyer 2017), and staff wanted to be prepared to support all students. The developed changes included implementing SEL activities in small group meetings and individual student journaling assignments. For example, one activity asked students to reflect on their comfort with communication and being assertive and then engage in practice. The goal was to support students as they engaged in experiences that mirrored those they might have as undergraduate or graduate students in STEM (e.g., developing relationships with mentors, seeking feedback and communicating with others, and managing their time and stress). Staff drew on their own experiences as classroom teachers to identify SEL skills to highlight, find activities to support the development of those skills, and craft reflective journal prompts.

Summer 2022 was the first opportunity to fully implement the new SEL activities. Yet, the cohort of staff that summer was different from those that developed the activities in 2020. These staff members received no training on what SEL is or how to implement the activities beyond the instructions included in the activity description written by 2020 staff. Further, although the 2022 counselors were provided with the SEL activities, they used their discretion on whether to implement them.

YSP participants gather before breaking into small group meetings
YSP participants gather before breaking into small group meetings.

SEL: Toward Understanding and Implementation

When YSP decided to purposefully implement SEL activities for the first time, it was done inconsistently, leaving decision making around which activities to include up to individual staff members. Program administrators assumed staff, who are pre- or inservice teachers, had an understanding of SEL practices. But as the program progressed, it became evident that the idea of SEL was not as ubiquitous as initially believed. To refine and improve for future summers, this study focused on understanding how YSP staff perceived the inclusion of SEL activities in the program, barriers to implementing SEL in YSP, and changes that could be made to improve the integration of SEL in our program moving forward.


In 2022 there were six staff members, all of whom were new to the YSP. Five of the six participated in this study. The five participating staff members were all preservice teachers entering a credential program in fall of 2022 and had varying levels of previous experience working with youth. A snapshot of participants is included in Figure 1. There were two female and three male participants who ranged in age from 21 to 26. When explicitly asked whether they had previous opportunities implementing SEL activities with young people, only one staff member, Corrine (all staff names are pseudonyms), indicated she had implemented SEL activities as part of a college opportunity program for high school students.

Figure 1. Snapshot of participants.
Figure 1. Snapshot of participants.


To better understand the experience of staff members implementing the new SEL activities, this study used a qualitative case-study design based on semi-structured interviews after the conclusion of the 2022 program. Within two weeks of the conclusion of the summer program, one-on-one interviews were conducted either in person or over Zoom. Participants were asked questions regarding their experiences with SEL and what support the program could offer them for implementing SEL activities. After each interview, the transcripts were uploaded to the qualitative analysis software Dedoose to begin analysis.

To understand the experiences of staff members related to SEL, interview analysis focused on three cycles of coding. First, an inductive approach was used, coding holistically to identify broad ideas and concepts represented throughout the interviews. As seen in a word cloud generated from the initial codes in Figure 2, SEL, time, and students were at the center of the coding.

Figure 2. Word cloud generated from initial codes.
Figure 2. Word cloud generated from initial codes.

Four categories related to SEL were identified from the initial coding. The broad categories and descriptions, as well as example codes, can be seen in Table 1. For the second round of coding, the broad categories identified during the first round were used as a deductive coding scheme to look more closely at specific excerpts within these categories. As a result, “Structure of Activities” and “Support Implementation” were grouped together because both categories spoke to how program administrators might shape expectations of SEL implementation. In vivo coding was used to analyze the excerpts of each category. Codes were then grouped into categories, which can be seen in Table 2.


SEL has become a buzzword in education and society at large. As a result, it is easy to assume there is a universal understanding of what SEL is and means in the education community. This was certainly the case in YSP, and this study found that staff member’s definition of SEL was not congruent with widely accepted definitions and that there was tension between staffs’ definition of SEL and their approach to SEL. For example, staff worried about how students would respond to being asked to make time for those activities and worried their efforts to facilitate would come off as inauthentic. During the study, staff shared that having a better understanding of the purpose or value of the activities might have mitigated some of those worries. Further, we found that staff members wanted more explicit directions and strategies for leading the activities and felt having a better understanding of individual students from the beginning would help them support student SEL more effectively. The major findings of our study are explored in greater detail in the following sections.

Creating a shared definition

As discussed earlier, CASEL has developed a SEL framework for schools and defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (n.d.). While staffs’ definition of SEL hit on some of the same ideas as CASEL’s definition, staff’s collective understanding of SEL was very teacher-centric.

For example, when asked what they thought of when they heard the term “social emotional learning,” staff shared a range of ideas. They defined SEL as a student-driven partnership between a student and teacher in which the teacher understands the student’s background and acts as a facilitator to help the student navigate interactions with others and attend to the student's emotional needs. For example, when asked about SEL, Lucio shared, “student-driven. So in other words, it’s like, you have to get it from a partnership between this mentor or teacher and the students.” Cole mentioned, “it’s the interactions that they learned about how to interact with their peers, how to interact with others in general” and David shared, “and so you’re not just teaching this information as if every student has the same experiences, emotions, and background.” Staff members’ understanding of SEL was less ubiquitous than expected, even after having the opportunity to engage students in SEL activities.

Further, Corrine’s view of SEL included, “taking [students’] personal views and backgrounds into consideration when you’re teaching” and discussed not implementing SEL activities because “I didn’t really have any issues with students not turning in assignments or turning in assignments late.” This understanding of SEL is less a definition and more a reflection of how staff members see SEL being facilitated. Lucio’s understanding, shared earlier, that SEL happens as a partnership between teacher and student, focuses on the teacher’s facilitation rather than students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, that is, their social emotional development. Likewise Cole centered teachers’ facilitation when he expressed that “social emotional learning was a lot of the social [activities] we had…where all the [staff] would help out, kind of facilitate students interacting.” Cole also focused on staff member’s actions, rather than students acquiring and applying SEL skills.

Barriers to implementation

This study also explored the barriers or issues staff members faced when implementing SEL activities. Since implementation was inconsistent, initial impressions from the interviews pointed to structural issues as the primary barrier to implementing activities, seen by staffs’ quotes in Figure 3. For example, several staff members referenced the stress management activity. Lucio, for example, said, “So I picked the ones that I was definitely comfortable talking about. So the stress one, because…I use that one a lot, because, I mean, I also am very stressed a lot.” Cole explained, “I would actually take whatever the social emotional learning was for that week, I kind of took the main ideas for that and then go over that in the meeting.”

Figure 3. Staff quotes when asked how often they implemented the suggested social emotional activities.
Figure 3. Staff quotes when asked how often they implemented the suggested social emotional activities.

As part of the program, staff were expected to have weekly meetings with their small group, which is when the suggested SEL activities were to be implemented. However, due to space constraints staff shared a single common meeting space large enough to accommodate their groups, so felt rushed to allow other groups to meet. Early in analysis this space constraint was seen as the limiting factor; if more meeting spaces were available, staff would be more likely to implement the activities. However, further analysis showed that most barriers to implementing SEL activities were perceived, rather than actual. That is, barriers to implementation were self-imposed by the staff’s perceptions about how students would respond to the activities. For example, David worried that students would think, “Why am I here talking about this when I could be writing my paper?” and Corrine shared that she “didn't want to make [students] more stressed out by taking some of that time later they needed.” Time was one of the biggest concerns of the staff. They were concerned about wasting students' time or that students would perceive SEL activities as a waste of time. Additionally, staff members weren't just worried that students would see the activities as a waste of time but that the activities were a waste of time. For example, Sonia expressed that she felt “bad just kind of taking more of their time than I needed to.”

Further, at least one staff member worried about coming off as "cheap" or inauthentic when implementing the activities. David used the word “cheap” when discussing his comfort level implementing the SEL activities. When pressed, David explained what he meant, based on his experiences as a student:

So teachers would tell me these things, and I'd be like, Okay, what do you know? What do you know about stress, like you're not doing the same things I'm doing. So, I think that was a part of it, and it kind of just felt like, okay, we're talking about these things, and they don't apply to what I'm doing right now, and I don't feel that you understand what I'm talking about. Okay, so it always felt just kind of like they were doing it because they had to, not because they wanted to address it on that level.

Supporting implementation of SEL activities

Finally, this study sought to understand how the program might address barriers to implementation of SEL activities going forward. Through their reflections staff clearly indicated their need to better understand the value of the activities for students. When asked if anything would have changed the way she implemented the SEL activities, Sonia shared, “probably if I would have understood more what students are getting out of it [I would] change stuff to fit our program a little more, fit what [the students are] going through a little more.” Likewise, David shared he would have felt more comfortable implementing the SEL activities if “that kind of activity [was addressed] before the program start[ed]…it would help to just know, okay, we’re gonna be doing these kinds of things and this is kind of the schema that we’re working with here.” Staff members wanted more preparation or training to better understand the SEL activities. They also wanted more explicit directions on how to implement activities and suggested having all needed materials prepared from the start. Additionally, staff wanted help planning ahead to develop activities and conduct meetings, as well as strategies for getting students together and focused. Cole, who hadn’t worked previously with youth, shared, “I personally am a person who likes a little bit of structure, especially when I haven't really been in this field” and that he would “like a little bit more direction.”

The staff recognized the need to develop greater knowledge about students’ backgrounds. Although staff had reviewed student information as part of entry into the program, they recommended reviewing materials again, or asking students to share more about themselves and their past experiences to inform how they could best support students. This may help shift the focus from how teachers facilitate SEL activities to specifically supporting students’ SED.

Lessons Learned, Looking Ahead, and Implications for the Field

During this study YSP staff focused more on their role as facilitators of SEL, rather than students' social emotional development. Since many OST staff have little training working with youth (Bouffard and Little 2004), this finding is unsurprising, especially if implementing SEL activities is a new experience, as it was for YSP staff. The next sections explore what lessons were learned from the study and how they can be applied to future programming, as well as broader implications for the OST field.

Lessons learned

YSP staff members’ experiences implementing SEL activities is likely something that educators in other OST programs have also experienced. As this study found, dropping in SEL activities is not an effective way to implement SEL in an OST STEM program as staff focused on facilitation of learning rather than students’ SED. And while structural barriers likely impacted implementation, there were also perceived barriers (e.g., student perception of the activities) that need to be addressed. Being more clear about the value of activities and how they contribute to students’ SED may help mitigate this issue because despite concerns about students’ engagement, staff felt that overall students responded positively to the activities, saying “I think for the most part they were all really engaged and active with it” and “[the students] really liked what we were talking about.”

Looking ahead

This first exploratory year of pointedly creating SEL opportunities for students allowed YSP administrators to move toward better understanding and implementation of SEL. Going forward, continuing to study ways to better implement SEL activities into YSP—as well as provide staff with opportunities to develop their capacity through learning workshops and collaborative practice—will be beneficial. The program needs to help staff better understand what SEL encompasses and how supporting student SED is in line with the goals of YSP generally. Staff were worried about student buy-in, but program administrators need to make sure staff buy-in first.

Training might include how to engage and draw students into the activities, as well as having staff experience activities themselves. If YSP staff have not had opportunities to work extensively with youth, they may feel unsure of the expectations. Providing structure and support material could help ensure that activities were implemented with fidelity. Finally, it’s important to consider structural support for feasible implementation of SEL.

Broader implications

One of the things programs need to do to more effectively implement SEL activities is to take time to understand staff’s current understanding and develop a shared definition of what SEL is. This way programs can approach the implementation of SEL activities from a common understanding. The benefits of SEL are well documented (CASEL, n.d.): in the short-term including improved attitudes toward self and less emotional distress, and in the long term greater college and career readiness and improved mental health (Borowski 2019). To be most effective, however, SEL should be consistent across facilitators and settings (Bouffard 2021) and as STEM-focused OST programs work to implement more SEL activities, it will be imperative to provide training for staff that work with students.

White et al.’s study of early career STEM teachers that found that efficacy for supporting SEL varied and often reflected ad hoc strategies (2020) and that “an important limitation of the effectiveness of teacher SEL competency might be the lack of a shared understanding of SEL goals and practices in the school setting” (DePaoli et al. 2015). YSP is not the only OST program that draws their staff from pre- and inservice teachers or those interested in the education field. YSP is a somewhat unique program in that it draws participants from across California and the nation. However, many OST STEM programs are more local and an effective option could be collaborating with and leveraging the SEL training their staff might already be engaging with as in-school educators.

More seamlessly implementing SEL into OST STEM spaces remains an area of growth for many programs. While programs are figuring out the best ways to support their students’ SED, they should find ways to leverage what teachers are already doing. Further learning teachers gain as OST staff can likewise be transferred to their in-school settings. There is a need to blur the boundaries between the in-school and OST knowledge staff have so that they can draw on and transfer their experiences.

Megan M. Bettis is a lecturer and supervisor of teacher education at the University of California, Davis School of Education in Davis, California.


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