Teaching Social and Emotional Skills Boosts Academic Success

TOP in-school at Brittany Woods Middle School

At Brittany Woods Middle School in University City, Missouri, the entire seventh grade participates in Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® (TOP®) as part of their Social Studies curriculum.

Given the emphasis on testing, national standards and the lagging achievement in American education, teachers are often overwhelmed with the academic information they must teach – let alone trying to balance concerns regarding student behavior and well-being. However, research finds that when young people have the basic social and emotional, or “soft” skills to handle everyday life, not only does it enhance their general well-being, but their academic achievement soars, as well.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which young people learn to recognize and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Especially for young people living in poverty, it helps to develop the positive skills they need to overcome difficult circumstances, persevere and thrive.

A report from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning notes that SEL programs – like Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® (TOP®) – can reduce problem behavior in the classroom, allowing more time for constructive teaching and learning; strengthen student/teacher relationships; build students’ self-management skills; reduce student aggression and emotional distress; and increase positive attitudes toward school, classmates, and the self, overall.

Embedding Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® (TOP®) within the school day is just one example of how Wyman is taking an innovative approach to preparing teens to not only be academically qualified, but also socially and emotionally ready to become productive members of society. To date, school systems in over 25 communities across the country have integrated Wyman’s TOP® into the school day to help whole classes of young people benefit from these outcomes.

Read about Wyman’s latest expansion to reach sixth and seventh grade students in the Normandy School District in St. Louis, and why social and emotional learning is important to employers, too.

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic…and Readiness

Pencils are freshly sharpened and pristine notebooks wait to be filled with notes for class and friends. It’s back-to-school time and, during adolescence, teens learn and explore much more than biology and algebra. They simultaneously struggle with exams and identity, juggle emotions and growing activity calendars. Through middle and high school, teenagers must navigate academics, in addition to significant physical, social and emotional growth and change.

These challenges are new, confusing and exciting, but for young people from low-resource environments they can be magnified to unmanageable proportions, creating significant barriers to success.  At Wyman, our role is to provide teens with the supports and opportunities they need to approach life with confidence, and equip them with skills to not only avoid risks, but to successfully navigate their environments and lead healthy, productive lives.

Through partnerships with schools, we offer a critical fourth “R” to the more traditional curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic – “readiness.” By helping young people build skills like good decision-making, communication, goal-setting, self-control and discipline, teens are “ready” to take on academic, as well as life challenges, to develop healthy relationships, and engage positively with their communities.

While we reach young people in need in a variety of places and spaces, we seek partnerships with schools to help teachers and students better connect, to enhance learning opportunities with service in community, to support individual students, to fundamentally improve the school climate and create a more positive and cooperative learning environment for all.

As we continue to reach out to more young people nationwide, we embrace collaboration with the systems and people who already play a significant role in the everyday lives of teens – our schools and teachers. Together, we can ensure our youth successfully transition into adulthood.

Dave Hilliard

President of Wyman since 1975, Dave works with the Board of Trustees to define and achieve the agency vision, mission and strategic goals, which has resulted in establishing the agency as a recognized national expert in teen leadership and development.

Wyman Alumni Support Teens as “Near Peers”

Kitchen BW (2)

After a number of years as a participant in Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® (TOP® ) in the Near South Side Neighborhood in St. Louis, Chuck (on left) joined the Wyman staff as a program facilitator.

Demarco ‘Chuck’ Dickerson graduated from Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® (TOP®) three years ago and since then, has joined the Wyman staff, as a TOP® facilitator. “I [wanted] to give back the knowledge I learned. A lot of them are like my little cousins or brothers who saw me in the program and wanted to do it,” Dickerson said.

These are the types of relationships Wyman strives to achieve by employing “Near Peers.” The Near Peers initiative hires Wyman alumni to work as staff during the summer and school year. Wyman has successfully employed Near Peers for the past four years and continues to see the number of alumni applying remain robust each year. In 2012, 13 alumni were employed with the Teen Outreach and Teen Leadership Programs.

Alumni enhance their resume, professional skills and network while giving teens role models with a common experience and perspective. The relationships that alumni are able to cultivate with the teens are significant. “There wasn’t a [large] male presence when I was there, and I feel like I make it easier for the boys if they want to talk about certain topics like relationships,” Dickerson said.

The candidates are matriculated through the hiring process like any other job – interviews, background screenings and drug testing. Once hired, they participate in rigorous ten-day training and receive an orientation that helps the transition from program participant to staff.  In addition, the Near Peers participate in roundtable discussions with alumni staff and a goal setting session on what they hope to accomplish during this experience.

Research today indicates that many young adults are inadequately prepared to be successful in the workplace. The Near Peer initiative continues the skill building and guidance of Wyman programs in a professional setting. Alumni staff members obtain professional and life skills they need to successfully obtain and retain long-term employment in any field.

“It’s a great program, it helped me out a lot and it’s still helping out younger guys,” Dickerson said.

Wyman would like to extend its gratitude to the Daughters of Charity Foundation for their generous support of the Near Peers program.

Demand a Plan to End Gun Violence and Build a Civil Society

Today – 100 days after the Sandy Hook tragedy – citizens, coalitions, organizations and government officials are participating in a National Day to Demand Action to end gun violence in our country.

While many of these conversations are around how to specifically and literally keep our young people safe from gun violence – a very critical part of the conversation must also be our ability to create opportunities and environments that support and prepare our young people to lead healthy, productive lives. The discernment we need to make rises from a single question: what steps can we take now and into the future to re-establish and sustain a safe and civil society in the United States?

I have spent the past 47 years working with and on behalf of tens of thousands of teens from low-resource environments in St Louis and through our partners across the country.  I personally know of too many youth who have lost their lives in incidences of gun violence. In not one of those cases I could personally chronicle would we find automatic weapons as the instruments of violence nor would we be likely to find severe, untreated mental illness or fixation on violent media as primary causative factors.

Causes of crime are complicated: concentrated, isolating poverty; educational deficits; low expectations; inadequate developmental supports in families, institutions and community. Prominent researchers in criminology, sociology, human development and economics help us understand that behavior has a biological basis and is linked to key developmental experiences. Experience impacts individual character and individual characters impact community.

At Wyman, we believe the vast majority of violence we encounter and deaths we suffer are preventable if we take a public health approach to addressing the complex causes of violence in our society and create a movement around developing the positive potential of our youth.

By helping young people develop fundamental and essential social and emotional skills, and build resilience, positive youth development programs enable teens to grow into healthy, productive, and contributing citizens – and in turn, reduce risky and violent behavior.

Instead of drastic and counterproductive short-term solutions, we advocate for the long view. Let’s offer a sustained, collective community approach of stability, opportunities and better alternatives to equip young people for success.

This is the nation that eradicated polio, sent men and women to explore space and ocean depths and has connected the world with universal access to knowledge and data. We can do this.

Let the tried, but not true, approaches go. As articulated by Karen Pittman of the Forum for Youth Investment, it’s time for broader partnerships, bigger goals, better use of data and bolder actions to produce the young people and communities we want.

Dave Hilliard

President of Wyman since 1975, Dave works with the Board of Trustees to define and achieve the agency vision, mission and strategic goals, which has resulted in establishing the agency as a recognized national expert in teen leadership and development.

Child Trends: Adolescent Mental Health

Child Trends recently released a set of research briefs highlighting mental health issues for young people – including disorders, access to care, and the development of positive mental health and resilience. The latter, addresses a means of prevention, in which young people build the skills and abilities they need to effectively cope with, and bounce back from, difficult challenges.

According to the Child Trends report, “adolescents who participated in evidence-based resilience-building programs, particularly those that also involve parents, showed decreases in problems with anger and aggression, in levels of perceived stress, in susceptibility to peer pressure, and in alcohol and illicit drug use, compared with adolescents who did not participate in such programs.”

By helping young people develop fundamental and essential social and emotional skills, and build resilience, positive youth development programs, like Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program ® (TOP®), enable teens to grow into healthy, productive, and contributing citizens – and in turn, reduce risky and violent behavior.

To learn more about the helping young people develop positive mental health and resilience, read the Child Trends report, here.



Let’s Talk About Healthy Relationships

February is Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month, a national effort  to raise awareness about abuse in teen and 20-something relationships and promote programs that prevent it.

The repercussions of teen dating violence hurt not just the young people victimized, but also their families, friends, schools, and communities. Throughout February, organizations and individuals nationwide are coming together to highlight the need to educate young people about dating violence, teach healthy relationship skills and prevent the devastating cycle of abuse.

For more information about teen dating violence, recognizing the signs or resources for getting help for yourself or a loved one, please visit www.teendvmonth.org. Join the conversation about healthy relationships!

TeenDVmonth, also known as the National Resource Center for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, is sponsored by Break the Cycle and loveisrespect as a collaborative effort to promote February as “teenDVmonth.” 

Community Solutions to Curb Youth Violence

The presence of youth violence in the St. Louis area is difficult to ignore. Headlines regularly point to the senseless violence that tragically takes the lives of young people too soon. We know many teens live in unpredictable and often times dangerous circumstances, and as youth program providers, schools, teachers, role models and mentors, our work is to provide stability, opportunities, and better alternatives so they can rise above what would otherwise bring them down.

Last week, Washington University’sPeace Institute for Public Health hosted an energizing conversation around the role of public health professionals in preventing violence in St. Louis; which included important reminders for all professionals and community members.

Violence is not just a problem for certain neighborhoods.  Anytime a young person is taken by violence – someone who will never even make it to high school graduation – this is a loss for our entire community.

We do know key elements and experiences that support young people on a healthy developmental pathand make them less likely to engage in violence.  These experiences include:

  • access to a physically and emotionally safe environment;
  • structure and clearly defined acceptable behaviors;
  • a sense of belonging and ownership;
  • opportunities for growth and expectations that they can achieve goals; and finally
  • meaningful, supportive relationships.

Young people are best served when their communities – parents and caregivers, neighbors, schools, youth serving organizations, and policy makers – apply these consistently and over time.

While the issue of violence can feel daunting – it is not too complex or too big for us to address as a community, but it does require a community-wide response. It requires us to think through innovative policy solutions as well as practice.

Social and emotional skill development for children and youth was noted as a public health opportunity identified by the Centers for Disease Control. Imagine if we embraced a cross-sector, research-based approach to intentional supports and development to teach young people communication, goal-setting, self-control, discipline and grit, so they can navigate difficult situations and make tough decisions.

If we, as a community, do not change the way we perceive and support youth from at-risk circumstances we are only perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence. Research is quite clear that holding and supporting teens to high expectations is a powerful and necessary contributor to their positive development. So let’s continue to offer stability, opportunities and better alternatives to equip young people for success. Because as long as we say “that’s just the way it is,” nothing will ever change.

Thanks to the Institute for Public Health for hosting the conference.  The voices of Melissa Johnson-Reid, PhD, from The Brown School, Bridget McDermott Flood from the Incarnate Word Foundation, Flint Fowler, PhD, from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, Norman White, PhD, from Saint Louis University, and James Marks, MD, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brought broad and informed perspectives to this important conversation. 

Tips for the New Employee – Job Skills for Teens

Congratulations! You’ve landed your first job as a paid (or possibly unpaid) employee!  You’re one of the few. The proud. The useful. Whether you’re babysitting or filling lunch orders, here are some helpful tips to keep your job and become a highly regarded worker by your employer (think references!)

Lifeguard on duty

1. Be on time. On time doesn’t mean, ‘on time’. On time means 5 minutes before you’re supposed to be there. Employees who are dependable are looked upon favorably by employers and being punctual is one of the best ways to prove you care about your job.

2. Don’t talk/text/browse on your cell phone while working. Steer clear of the temptation to chat by leaving your phone in the car or at home. Your employer is not paying you to socialize with your family/friends. They’re paying you for your work. This is one of the biggest pet peeves employers and customers have about staff.

3. Work as if everyone’s watching. It’s easy to slack off when it seems that no one is paying attention. Your hard work, regardless if people are watching, will set you apart from those around you.

4. Smile. Check your attitude. Enthusiasm about your work cannot only help you get through the day, but improve your relations with customers, co-workers and your boss. It’s simple, but if you look as if you have better things to do, you might just get the opportunity, whether you like it or not.

5. Dress appropriately and be clean. Present yourself well! People appreciate neatness. Especially if you’re serving or making their food.

6. Don’t spend excessive time socializing with co-workers or visitors. People may want to come visit you while you work, but taking time to talk excessively with them or to give them ‘free’ things is not in your job description.

7. Think ahead. Do tasks that you haven’t been told to do yet. As a wise man once said, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

8. Be ready to take criticism. Listen, ask questions and adjust as necessary. It might be hard to take, but criticism can help you improve.

Work is a great way to build up to what you ultimately want to ‘be’. Use each opportunity as a stepping stone for the next. Having a positive job experience can lead to strong references and support for the next position you’d like to hold. As a last rule of thumb, be the worker that you’d want to manage.

Any others we might have missed? Comment below!

The Problem with “Disadvantaged Teens”

The most jarring practices in the field of social services surround the way we describe or talk about the young people we serve. Disadvantaged? Poor? Socioeconomically depressed? Though utilizing sensitive language to describe the factual state of communities from which our teens originate is important, one must take caution when transferring those labels directly to individual teens.

One of Wyman’s own teens said it best, “Just because I’m poor, doesn’t mean I’m lacking. Just because my family does not have much money, doesn’t mean that I’m ‘disadvantaged’. I may be ‘disadvantaged’ monetarily, but I am ‘advantaged’ in so many other ways.” Most teens would agree that though they may live in a tough community, they do not want to be pigeonholed into broad categories for charity.

As those who work with youth, we must accentuate the positive. The framework for this type of strategy is based on the ‘strengths perspective,’ a theoretical approach that emphasizes an individual’s talents, competencies, possibilities and hopes. Key concepts include empowerment, resilience and membership to a viable group or community (Saleeby, 1996). In a strengths-based approach, our choice of wording and concepts are very important. In order to utilize this effectively, one must acknowledge the factual state of a teen’s situation, alongside an individual strength that you see can help them mitigate the difficulty. (i.e., “It must be hard having a parent who works long hours, but your hard work ethic is definitely paying off in school.”)

Similarly, the concept of the ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy is one that can work against our efforts, if not deliberately addressed. On the flipside, one strategy that can work to our advantage is the Pygmalion effect. It refers to the phenomenon where the higher the expectation that is placed upon people causes them to perform better. Rosenthal, the researcher who discovered this effect said it best, “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985). This demonstrates that perhaps it is not only for teens that we should expect high performance, but as practitioners, we are more likely to help them and assist them in reaching those high standards as well.

Though labels like ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘poor’ may be indicative of the factual state of the places where they young people we serve reside, we must take care to not use those labels to describe the people themselves. Forecast realistic success for teens, no matter their circumstances – they will surely meet your realistic expectations.

Practical Tips:

  1. Never talk poorly about your students. As those who work on the frontline with teens, it’s natural to get upset and disappointed with your group, especially if they did not do as you expected. Though participating in gripe-sessions with fellow staff can seem like a stress-reliever for you, it may intrinsically change your expectation for your teens which can then, according to the Pygmalion effect, change your interactions with them in a negative way.
  2. Set the bar high. Establishing realistic and high expectations for your teens and helping them to achieve these standards sets teens up for positive self-esteem and the internal belief that they in fact, can, meet your expectations.
  3. Work with each teen, individually, to understand their abilities and strengths. Send them notes of encouragement that highlight their abilities and your support.

Have any other thoughts or strategies that might help? Feel free to comment below!



Rosenthal, R., and E. Y. Babad. 1985. Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership 43 (1): 36–39.

Saleeby, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social Work, 41, 296-305.

The Pygmalion Effect. (2012). Duquesne University. Retrieved on April 30, 2012 from: http://www.duq.edu/cte/teaching/pygmalion.cfm

Don’t Fix your Teen’s Mistakes

We live in a culture where photos are airbrushed and perfection reigns supreme. Models and celebrities parade around with flawless skin, the most fashionable clothing and pay publicists to provide damage control in not-so-flattering situations. Our culture provides role models that are seemingly perfect—a great detriment to our young people. In actuality, mistakes are a pathway to excellence.

According to Charles Kettering, a great American inventor who contributed to the development of the automobile, “An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he’s in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots.” Unfortunately for teens today, quotes like, “failure is not an option,” is a mentality that is woven into their being. The quote, however, is missing one important clause.

“Failure is not an option—it’s a requirement.”

Teens best understand the breadth of their resourcefulness and resilience through unfavorable conditions. As adults, it is our job to let them fully experience these times to grow, mature and learn qualities such as hardiness and optimism. It is to their detriment when we try to ‘fix’ the situation for them.

erasing mistakesHovering parents (aka “helicopter parents”) will call a teacher when their son/daughter makes a poor grade. Instead of allowing the teen to make that mistake, they argue with the teacher or ask for opportunities to complete extra credit. Not only are these parents protecting their children from failure in the classroom, but they are continuing to shield them in college and careers, as well. NPR recently highlighted helicopter parents that are contacting human resource managers to advocate on their child’s behalf, negotiating benefits and compensation for their adult-aged children! This is the manifestation of this problem – adults who are unprepared for real life.

Though it requires great restraint to watch your teen go through difficulties or potential hardship, your optimistic support can help them understand that these experiences are a part of life. By ‘being there’ for your teen, you send the message that you believe they can handle the situation. Parents that provide a listening ear as support nurture their teen’s independence into adulthood. Simply intervening on their behalf sends the message that they are not able to deal with their mistakes.


Do you cover for your teen’s mistakes? (Examples of such behavior include parents who complete their child’s late homework assignments, allowing them to stay home when they did not finish an assignment and those who cover for their teens when things go awry with friendships, etc.)

Though the motive of such actions comes from deep care and love for your child, these are not the types of reactions that will help them grow and learn from their difficulties.

Instead of providing damage control for your teen, think about ways that you can help them use these experiences to grow.  We are all human. We all make mistakes. The difference between a mistake from which one can grow or become impaired is the process of how one recovers from it. Failure should not be scrutinized under a microscope, but rather by taking 50 steps away from it and examining it in context.

Consider the following questions as a framework to calmly and nonjudgmentally discuss topics of failure with your teen:

  1. Why do you think this happened?
  2. Why did you react the way you did? (Encourage them to use “I” statements such as, “I felt _____, when _________”)
  3. What do you think would have helped?
  4. What support do you need from me?

These are questions that can help foster critical thinking about such mishaps and provide an opportunity for growth and improvement.