Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become the most well-known approach to PYD in the U.S. It encompasses a variety of programs to develop social and reasoning skills primarily for elementary and middle school contexts. This approach follows a long tradition focused on the importance of adaptive decision-making (e.g., judgement and decision-making; Klaczynski, 2005), which is also a cornerstone of Aristotle’s reasoning virtues. The virtuous decision maker learns to generate alternative solutions to any problem and to evaluate the solutions with regard to likely outcomes. Furthermore, in considering consequences, one needs to consider their effects on others, especially their welfare in addition to that of the actor. This paradigm has been widely followed in programs that encourage adaptive problem-solving. For example, one of the earliest is the I Can Problem Solve approach of Shure and Spivack (1982) designed for use in preschool to grade 6 to encourage adaptive responses to common conflicts, such as sharing of resources or confronting bullying (Shure, 2001, 2003).
Effective problem-solving strategies are also central to the development of self-determination because they enable the individual to exert control over the process of making difficult decisions. These strategies also focus on emotional self-regulation to regulate one’s temper as well as to recognize others’ feelings. Thus, it is not surprising that these strategies are fundamental to school programs that develop competencies in what has become known as social-emotional learning.
According to Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, and Schellinger (2011), youth in SEL programs are taught how to acquire “core competencies to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively” (p. 406). These competencies are clearly valuable, and this has given the approach much of its appeal. In addition, the meta-analysis of Durlak et al. (2011) indicated that programs that developed these skills also enhanced academic outcomes, which also added to its appeal. Kern et al. (2017) provided an overview of the various evaluations of these programs which have tended to show favourable outcomes in terms of better school achievement and fewer unhealthy behaviours in elementary and middle schools.
The challenge that such a broad set of goals raises, however, is how to adapt the educational mission and curricula of schools to achieve them. Some programs have focused heavily on training the various skills that are encompassed by SEL isolated from a school’s curriculum without considering how the training can best be integrated into the school curriculum. Attempting to teach SEL skills in isolation has created a somewhat unrealistic expectation about the ability of SEL programs to produce the results promised, such as improved academic achievement. As a result, many programs that claim to train SEL skills may do so without integrating them into the school’s educational practices and, consequently, there is considerable variation in outcomes. For example, while it is expected that developing SEL competencies should reduce anti-social behaviour such as bullying, not all programs have been successful in this endeavour (Jones et al., 2017). SEL programs have also been more easily adapted for younger children than for adolescents (Yeager, 2017), perhaps because adolescents require a greater degree of respect for their autonomy than typical SEL training allows.
Although meta-analyses of SEL programs in schools tend to show favourable effects, many of the studies have not employed random assignment to conditions, nor have they validated assessments across all of the outcomes that are expected to be improved by SEL training. In response, the U.S. Department of Education undertook an intensive evaluation of seven programs that were regarded as having a strong evidence base (Social and Character Development Research Consortium, 2010). The study was carried out in six states with 42 schools that were randomly assigned to receive the interventions versus continuing their regular programming. The programs were evaluated starting in third grade and continued through fifth grade. In total, over 6000 students were included in the evaluation. One of the programs focused more on character education, which is a strategy discussed below. Although all of the programs were found to implement their teaching objectives, the evaluation was essentially unable to identify consistent effects on the many outcomes said to comprise SEL outcomes during the period of the intervention. One of the interventions did begin to demonstrate effects after continued intervention into the seventh and eighth grades (Duncan et al., 2017).
It is clear that to reach the many goals of SEL, one needs a strategy for achieving them within the school context. As noted by Brunn (2014), “[t]he difficult thing for schools is not deciding whether or not to include social and emotional learning with the academic curriculum. The challenge is trying to figure out how to do it” (p. 265). Simply providing students with skills disconnected from the context in which they are practiced may not be sufficient to produce lasting change.
We illustrate how schools can integrate SEL principles into the school curriculum by looking at two programs that successfully achieved this goal. These programs use a whole school approach in which teachers are trained to create a caring environment that increases attachment to the school and that fosters a cooperative and respectful climate. We now turn to programs that focus on creating a school climate that fosters the goals of PYD.
Successful PYD programs in schools adopt a whole-school approach that integrates the goals of PYD into the academic program. This approach, like SEL, has many exemplars but also tends to be implemented at the elementary level. In this approach, the aim is to create a learning environment that is safe and respectful of student needs. Students are given a voice in how classes are structured and cooperation in group activities is encouraged. Two successful exemplars of this approach are the Seattle Social Development Project (SSSP) (Hawkins et al., 2001) and the Child Development Project (CDP) of the Developmental Studies Center (Battistich et al., 2004). Both programs adopt as the primary goal the establishment of a caring school climate that encourages bonding or attachment to the teachers and fellow students, an important form of connection. In these climates, students feel part of a community that is accepting and respectful of individuals. In the process, students adopt the norms and behaviours inculcated by teachers in their instructional styles (cf. LaRusso, Romer, & Selman, 2007).
What distinguishes these programs is the careful integration of PYD goals into the curriculum such that students learn how to cooperate and show respect towards each other and towards teachers by engaging in activities that embody these goals. For example, in the CDP, “students work together in pairs or small groups on tasks that require collaboration and often have group products” (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000, p. 6). In addition, “teachers discuss with students the values—such as fairness, consideration for others, responsibility—that underlie groupwork and the specific social skills and behavior from the values” (p. 7). They also learn decision-making skills as part of the academic program. This strategy is consistent with the Aristotelian approach of doing virtuous activity in order to develop virtuous capacities.
Evaluations of both programs have shown that attachment to school is a primary outcome from which other effects stem. In the case of the SSSP, school bonding was assessed with items reflecting liking for school. These effects lasted until the last years of high school indicating that early bonding experiences endured into later years of schooling. Remaining attached to school is an important outcome in its own right because it tends to enhance academic achievement and reduce unhealthy behaviours, such as drug use and early sexual activity, all of which were observed as a result of the SSSP (Hawkins et al., 2001). In the case of the CDP, measures of seeing the school as a community were stronger in intervention schools with an effect size of r = .47, and this outcome mediated a range of PYD outcomes, such as feeling a sense of heightened intrinsic academic motivation, with an effect size of r = .33.
These examples illustrate the potential for implementing PYD programs in elementary schools with lasting effects. Evidence for middle and high schools is less robust. However, there is evidence that schools that encourage respectful relations between students and teachers in a fair disciplinary structure promote enhanced academic outcomes even in grades 9 through 12 (e.g., Cornell, Shulka, & Konold, 2016). There is also evidence that school climates that encourage respectful relations reduce adverse interpersonal events such as bullying (Voight & Nation, 2016). A meta-analysis across 51 studies mostly in the USA and Australia found that relationships with teachers play a large role in reports of school attachment at the high school level (Allen et al., 2018).
The field of character education overlaps with SEL and other approaches to PYD, but according to Berkowitz and Bier (2014):
Character is the set of psychological characteristics that motivate and enable an individual to function as a competent moral agent. In other words, it is those aspects of one’s psychological makeup that impact whether one does the right thing, whether that entails telling the truth, helping an unpopular student who is in jeopardy, resisting the temptation to cheat or steal, or some other matter of moral functioning. (p. 250)
This definition clearly places ethics at the centre of character education, a focus in line with the Aristotelian approach to happiness. Berkowitz sees character education as a subset of SEL, which we have already discussed. However, because SEL does not directly focus on ethics per se, this leaves the question of how best to inculcate the virtues into schooling unexplained. Indeed, Berkowitz and Bier in their latest review essentially sidestep this question.
Another approach to character education is presented by Davidson, Lickona, and Khmelkov (2014), who encapsulate it as containing two goals, the development of performance and moral character. Performance character is the set of qualities or assets that enable one “to realize one’s potential for excellence” (p. 293) such as developing an ethic of perseverance. Moral character is the set of virtues that enable one to treat others with respect and care. These two aspects of character are closely in line with Aristotelian approaches to self-fulfilment and happiness. They cite approaches that can be used in high schools to cultivate both sides of character, one of which is service learning, to which we turn below.
In a yet different approach, Narvez and Bock (2014) argued for the development of “moral expertise” much again in line with Aristotle: “applying the right virtue in the right amount in the right way at the right time” (p. 142). Their approach emphasizes the same principles that have been identified in the creation of supportive social climates in schools, such as establishing caring relationships with students and encouraging respect for peers as well as teachers in a cooperative learning environment. They also highlight the importance of developing a civic identity so that the student will be able to become a virtuous citizen. This form of PYD is advanced through civic education, which we also discuss below.
Organized Youth Programs
Early conceptions of PYD focused on the importance of youth programs available outside of the typical school day. These programs were seen as providing opportunities for youth to develop talents and become connected to their community. Advocates of this source of PYD noted that programs such as 4H-Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and scouting have long been promoted as avenues for PYD. During the early 2000s, scholars began to identify components of out-of-school programs that promote positive development (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2004; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Lerner, 2004; Mahoney, Larson, Eccles, & Lord, 2005). In 2005, the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine published a summary of the research on community programs that promote positive development (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). In this publication, scholars identified eight features of positive developmental settings including: physical and psychological safety, appropriate structure, supportive relationships, opportunities to belong, positive social norms, support for efficacy, and mattering, opportunities for skill-building, and integration of family, school, and community efforts. These features embody PYD principles and have served to frame research on organized youth programs.
Participation and PYD. A recent analysis by Agans et al. (2014) from the Lerner longitudinal study of out-of-school participation in grades 7 through 12 identified the importance of sustained participation in such programs. They found that youth who reported greater overall participation in various out-of-school programs over the course of middle and high school experienced greater levels of PYD as measured by the 5Cs. Not surprisingly, sports programs were the most popular activity, but religious programs were also quite popular, especially among youth who participated in multiple programs. These youth also tended to experience less depression and lower levels of risk behaviour, although this was not consistently true across the entire age span. In addition, two Cs were most important as outcomes of PYD, connection, and competencies, again reflecting what has been found in the SEL approach and what is emphasized by Deci and Ryan as important components of intrinsic motivation.
PYD and developmental experiences. Hansen and Larson conceptualized and developed a PYD research agenda around youth developmental experiences (e.g., goal setting, prosocial norms) in organized youth programs (Hansen, Larson, & Dworkin, 2003; Hansen, Moore, & Jessop, 2018; Hansen, Skorupski, & Arrington, 2010; Larson & Hansen, 2005; Larson, Hansen, & Moneta, 2006; Larson, Hansen, & Walker, 2005; Larson, Lampkins-Uthando, & Armstrong, 2014). An example of a specific developmental experience resulting from youth programs is related to identity: This activity got me thinking about who I am (Hansen & Larson, 2002). Theoretically, these developmental experiences form the basis for learning positive skills and competencies, although there is not yet research explicitly linking specific experiences to relevant skills.
In a study with a representative sample of 2280 11th grade students, Larson et al. (2006) examined profiles of developmental experiences across a wide range of out-of-school programs in which students participated. Results indicated that different types of youth programs, such as sports and arts, demonstrated distinct profiles of experiences. For example, compared to other youth programs, faith-based programs were associated with higher rates of identity, initiative, emotion regulation, teamwork and social skills, positive relationship, and adult network and social capital experiences. By way of comparison, sports were associated with higher rates of initiative, emotion regulation, and teamwork experiences but lower rates of identity, positive relationships, and adult network experiences. It is important to note that comparisons of developmental experiences between youth programs and English and Math classes indicated that youth programs were rated considerably higher on all developmental experiences.
Using a subsample of the representative sample in Larson et al. (2006), Hansen and Larson (2007) examined the association between developmental experiences and four program involvement indicators: “dosage” (hours per week), motivations for participating in the program, holding a lead role, and the ratio of adults-to-youth in the program. Results indicated that each of the indicators was independently associated with PYD developmental experiences, accounting for a total of 23% of the variance in experiences.
Overall, research on adolescents’ developmental experiences suggests organized youth activities are a beneficial context for PYD. What this line of research does not yet address is the impact, both immediate and long term, of positive experiences on skill development. In addition, the measure of developmental experiences, the Youth Experience Survey (YES), was developed specifically to reflect the youth program setting. Thus, how well these experiences capture PYD experiences in other settings is unknown.
Program characteristics that promote PYD. Meta-analyses of the effects of extracurricular programs have produced mixed results. This is likely due to the great heterogeneity in program goals and strategies for attaining them. Durlak, Weissberg, and Pachan (2010) examined a wide range of programs mostly in the USA and found that the programs that followed what they called SAFE implementation were the most successful in achieving favourable outcomes. These programs had practices that were sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. In short, they used strategies that employed a structured set of goals that helped youth to build social and personal skills as described in their program manual and used active rather than merely didactic teaching styles that were focused on specific learning goals. They identified 41 SAFE programs out of 68 that had been studied. Most of the programs were designed for local elementary and middle school students rather than being part of large national organizations such as the 4-H or Boys and Girls clubs.
Durlak et al. (2010) looked at several outcomes, such as self-perceptions (e.g., self-esteem and self-efficacy) as well as bonding to school and school achievement as important effects. They found that the SAFE programs produced effects in the range of r = .14 (for school attendance) to r = .37 (for self-perceptions). However, the effects for the other programs were largely negligible. Thus, their review suggested that appropriately designed programs could produce favourable outcomes.
Despite the favourable review by Durlak et al. (2010), a Campbell systematic review of out-of-school programs found limited effects on academic or behavioural outcomes (Zief, Lauver, & Maynard, 2006). The lack of consistent effects led Ciocanel, Power, Eriksen, and Gillings (2017) to conduct another evaluation of organized youth programs. They attempted to identify all randomized trials in both the published and unpublished literature and to use established criteria for program quality. With these criteria, they identified 24 programs, 20 of which were conducted in the U.S. The average ages ranged from 10 to 16 at baseline.
Ciocanel et al. (2017) examined three classes of outcomes: academic including grades in school, self-perceptions of efficacy and esteem, and prosocial and problem behaviour. There were small effects on academic achievement with an effect size of r = .22. There were also effects on self-perceptions with a size of r = .19. No effects on social or problem behaviour were observed. The authors also noted heterogeneity in effects that seemed to be stronger for lower risk youth.
The authors of this evaluation were less enthusiastic about the current state of out-of-school programs. However, the programs that were included in the review seemed to focus on problem behaviour and school performance, without much attention to the 5C’s or contribution.
Youth–adult partnerships. This strand of research has focused on the role of adults in partnering with young people as a means of advancing PYD (Ramey & Rose-Krasnor, 2012; Sullivan & Larson, 2010; Zeldin, 2000), and has examined the effects that youth have on adults as they attempt to enter into cooperation with adults in the community. It also recognizes the negative stereotypes that adults hold of youth that hinder their willingness to include young people’s voice in their programs. Reviews of characteristics of out-of-school activities that appear to make them successful use interviews with both youth and adults. These studies generally find that youth programs are most successful “when youth felt respected, were able to contribute, and played meaningful roles that drew on their strengths” (Sullivan & Larson, 2010; p. 101).
In summary, there is considerable room for refinement of out-of-school programs. Although the Durlak et al. (2010) review identified successful programs, the content of those programs remains obscure other than that they employed SAFE strategies (see also Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2016, for similar concerns). Agans et al. (2014) study did not involve random assignment, so it is not clear whether the youth who participated in more programs were just more capable of exhibiting PYD. The same can be said about the findings of Scales et al. (2000). On the other hand, even if out-of-school programs largely reflect selection effects, it is reassuring to know that they are associated with more favourable PYD outcomes given their widespread availability in many locales. The challenge is to identify the program characteristics that can lead to stronger outcomes relevant to the PYD agenda, such as personal assets or the 5Cs.
Development of civic virtues is clearly relevant to the PYD agenda, since it is designed to encourage participation in community decision-making. As noted above, it is often cited as an objective of character education (Berkowitz, Althof, & Jones, 2008; Narvez & Bock, 2014). However, interest in civics as an educational objective predates the emergence of the PYD approach to healthy development. Studies of the effects of civic education go back to at least 1967 in the studies of Hess and Torney (1967). One stream of this research concerns the basic function of civics education, namely the acquisition of knowledge about one’s government and regulations regarding participation in it, including voting (e.g., Niemi & Junn, 1998). Indeed, considerable evidence supports the importance of civics knowledge as a marker of active citizenship, such as voting (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). It would be expected that exposure to civics classes in schools would lead to greater knowledge about it and hence to civic outcomes such as voting. But the correlation between taking civics classes and knowledge is small (Niemi & Junn, 1998). And the relation between civics knowledge and actual political participation in young people is also tenuous (Pasek, Feldman, Romer, & Hall Jamieson, 2008; Reichert, 2016).
Since the ground-breaking work of Hess and Torney (1967) and because of its obvious relevance to the socialization of good citizens, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) has conducted four international studies of civic education since 1971. These studies have focused on children in the eighth grade (ages 14–15) from multiple countries. The surveys have also included teachers and administrators. The strongest conclusion from these studies that “consistently emerged across countries, contexts, times and groups…was that an open, participatory and respectful discussion climate is associated with civic knowledge and engagement” (Knowles, Torney-Purta, & Barber, 2018, p. 13). Students who report such civics classes endorse items indicating that they are encouraged to freely express their opinions and make up their own minds about political issues. There has also been evidence that effects of class climate are stronger for students from less advantaged backgrounds (Campbell, 2007).
Attention has also been directed to characteristics of teachers who are more likely to produce favourable outcomes. A variety of teaching techniques have been associated with these outcomes, with no single one being any stronger than another as long as a climate of respectful discussion was maintained. Nevertheless, teachers tend to be more confident discussing some topics than others. For example, in the U.S., teachers reported feeling unease discussing controversial topics (Alviar-Martin et al., 2008). Another study found that “teachers who personally felt strongly about environmental and human rights issues were more likely to endorse an open classroom climate than were teachers who felt strongly about the importance of conforming to the law” (Knowles et al., 2018, p. 15). Those who were more comfortable raising controversial issues had students with greater civic knowledge.
An important outcome of civics education that has emerged in recent years is a sense of internal efficacy (Knowles & McCafferty-Wright, 2015; Manganelli, Lucidi, & Alivernini, 2015; Pasek et al., 2008; Reichert, 2016). Two types of internal efficacy have been identified: civic efficacy and political efficacy. Civic efficacy concerns the more general perceived ability to discuss and debate about issues of concern to the community; while political efficacy is more focused on the ability to participate in and potentially have a voice in politics through voting and discussion. Both have been associated with civic education that encourages learning about political issues in the media and developing an understanding of the arguments for and against particular positions. In one IEA study across 13 European countries (Knowles & McCafferty-Wright, 2015), the relation between both types of efficacy and perceptions of open classes was quite strong. Further, both types of efficacy as well as civic knowledge were found to mediate the relation between open classes and the reported importance of participation in civic and political life, a result that characterized all 13 countries. Similar relations have been found in other studies (Pasek et al., 2008; Reichert, 2016), with evidence that the relation holds at both the classroom and individual level (Manganelli et al., 2015).
A somewhat pessimistic evaluation of civics education was reached by Manning and Edwards (2014). They identified nine studies that compared a civics curriculum for youth against a control condition with a focus on a behavioural outcome, such as voting or signing a petition. However, no studies using random assignment were identified. They concluded that the evidence in favour of direct effects of the programs on voting was either lacking or of uncertain statistical significance. They did find evidence of effects on other forms of political expression, such as signing petitions and contacting a government official. In some cases, the effects on voting were mediated by such variables as political efficacy (e.g., Pasek et al., 2008), which the authors discounted. In total, their review showed that the research testing the direct effects of civics education failed to use the best types of research design and that this inevitably limited the conclusions that could be drawn. Unfortunately, they did not assess the degree to which the programs employed the features of open discussion that have been identified as critical to the success of civics education. Thus, their pessimism seems unwarranted given the evidence of positive effects in most of the studies reviewed.
Evidence has also accumulated in the IEA studies regarding participation in school activities, such as student councils and other activities that encourage student voice in the school’s administration (Mager & Nowak, 2012). Although some effects were stronger than others, all forms of participation appeared to improve the school’s climate as evidenced by greater attachment to and enjoyment of school.
It is often lamented that civics education has received short-shrift in the U.S. (Shapiro & Brown, 2018). Nevertheless, it is encouraging that voting and political participation have recently increased among American young people (Clement & Mellnik, 2019). It is also noteworthy that adolescents have been at the forefront of some social movements, such as greater regulation of guns and more concerted effort to combat climate change. If these trends continue, it would suggest that young people are becoming more civically and politically engaged than in the past despite the weak status of civic education in the schools.
As noted in the review of approaches to character education, perhaps the most common strategy to develop a moral sense in education is the use of community service and its curricular embodiment of service learning. Although this approach differs from the traditional form of civics education, which focuses on knowledge about the workings of government and, when successful, open discussion about political issues, civics education and service learning are often contrasted as strategies for developing what might be called civic virtues (e.g., Hart, Donnelly, Youniss, & Atkins, 2007).
Service learning is said to have its roots in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1961) which advocated for the importance of the school curriculum in the development of socially concerned citizens. He also advocated for a “learning by doing” curriculum, which is consistent with an Aristotelian approach to ethical development. By engaging in service projects, youth are expected to develop an appreciation of the social and economic problems in their communities and the ways in which they can contribute to their solution (Hart et al., 2014). In addition, by actively reflecting on their experience, students are thought to gain greater understanding and appreciation of their experience.
Some forms of community service have been studied even when they are not linked to a formal curriculum. These activities merely involve participation in a service activity in the community. In a random sample of 18,000 U.S. students in eighth grade in 1988 at baseline, Hart et al. (2007) examined the relation between both voluntary and required service activity during school years and engagement in various civic outcomes eight years after graduation. At a follow-up with over 6,000 respondents, a little over a fifth of the former students had volunteered in their community in the past 12 months. Larger proportions (46–62%) had voted in a recent election. With controls for a variety of personal and demographic factors, the results indicated strong associations between having engaged in either voluntary or required service during high school and voting at follow-up.
Hart et al. (2007) study also found that although civic knowledge as assessed at 12th grade was related to the number of social science classes taken, it was only related to voting at follow-up. Hart et al. (2007) summarized their findings “that providing opportunities for community service and extracurricular activities are particularly good choices for policy makers interested in grooming adolescents for citizenship” (p. 216).
Other studies have identified some of the factors that may mediate the effects of service learning. In one review of service learning, students in the programs were observed to be more adept at taking different perspectives in moral reasoning (Conrad & Hedin, 1982). Another study by Scales, Blyth, Berkas, and Kielsmeier (2000) with over one thousand middle school students found that participation in service-learning programs led to greater efficacy beliefs about their ability to help others and stronger concern for others’ welfare compared to students not in such programs. These effects were stronger the longer the exposure to the programs and when the programs involved reflection exercises that reviewed the service experience.
Conway et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 78 studies comparing service learning to control conditions. The studies focused on the entire range of education, from elementary to college students. The analysis found effects on citizenship as well as personal and social outcomes. The largest effects were found for academic outcomes (d = .43), such as grades. The smallest effects were associated with citizenship outcomes (d = .17), such as frequency of volunteering for service. The effect was somewhat stronger when the program included time for reflection (d = .22). The effects of service-learning were observed at all levels of education. Another meta-analysis of service-learning programs with 62 studies found effects in the same range (Celio et al., 2011).
Not unlike other PYD programs, there is limited evidence about the components of service learning that produce the most effect on civic outcomes. Many have argued that reflection is critical, but this has not been established to date. The large study by Hart et al. (2007) suggests that even voluntary community service without a direct connection to course requirements can lead to greater civic and political outcomes. Furthermore, the content of reflection activities that might be effective has not been clearly isolated. Some involve writing journals while others just encourage discussion. The type of service activity has also not been clearly identified. Youniss and colleagues (Metz et al., 2003) have suggested that service involving direct contact with people in need should be more impactful than less direct contact. Further research will be needed to identify the best practices in this area of PYD education (Hart et al., 2014).