The goal of Wyman’s Research and Learning Department is to evaluate impact, continuously improve our work, capture and share learning, and collaborate to design and deliver innovations within our direct services and through our local and national network of partners. Research and Learning also works within Wyman to design, implement, and facilitate quality improvement processes and procedures.
Research and Learning strategies include:
- Measuring outcomes and using the results for quality improvement;
- Designing, developing, and evaluating innovations; and
- Accelerating learning through local and national knowledge exchanges about positive youth development and best practices.
Approach and Theory of Change
Wyman programs are rooted in Wyman’s Framework for Thriving Youth, a carefully crafted theoretical foundation for Wyman’s programming which captures the essential elements of a transformative youth development approach and the ultimate outcomes that we strive for all youth to achieve: educational success, healthy behaviors and relationships, and life and leadership skills.
Our Framework emphasizes building skills, developing a positive sense of self, and making connections to others as key levers to achieving these outcomes. Surrounding this work are caring, responsive, and knowledgeable adults who build relationships with young people to create engaging and empowering environments where youth are supported to achieve positive growth. Our Framework for Thriving Youth is grounded in youth development research and serves as the compass for all of Wyman’s programming.
Program logic models map out each program’s specific components and strategy for change within the context of this larger Framework, and guide our outcomes measurement approach.
Teen Outreach Program Logic Model
Wyman Leaders Program Logic Model
Teen Connection Project Logic Model
Our Framework and programs are foundationally centered on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), which the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines 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 decisions.” Research shows that programs focused on SEL are fundamental to a young person’s success in academics, community, and ultimately, the workforce. Acquisition of key SEL skills is linked in critical elements of the developmental trajectory, such as academic achievement and avoidance of risky behaviors, and is associated with positive outcomes into adulthood (Taylor, et. al, 2017; Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). As a result of these long-term outcomes, programs focused on SEL have been found to deliver a return of $11 for every $1 invested (Belfield, et.al, 2015).
- Deepening the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) Focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): A Case Study of Curriculum and Training Revision and Early Impact
- Implementing the Teen Outreach Program with Special Populations
- Preparing Youth to Thrive: Methodology and Findings from the SEL Challenge
- TOP Curriculum CASEL Poster
- TOP Survey Revision CASEL Poster
- TOP SRA Role of High Quality Adult Facilitation Poster
Through 2020 and into 2021, our nation has dealt with the "triple pandemic" of COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and a heightened focus on the realities of systemic racism. During these challenging times, Wyman continues to deliver on our mission to serve teens, who need our support more than ever. We know these events have taken an especially devastating toll on the mental health and well-being of our nation’s youth (e.g., Flanagan et al., 2021), and that recovery and healing will be a slow process, with progress and setbacks along the way.
While the last 18 months have been extremely difficult, these unprecedented times have also provided us with a window of opportunity to more deeply understand youth needs and experiences, reflect on what we’ve learned, and determine how we will apply those lessons to better meet the needs of young people moving forward.
In part one of this two-part series, we will explore how Wyman has adapted our approach to research and learning to honor the experiences and circumstances our young people and program staff are navigating. We will share what we have learned so far about Wyman’s programming, teens, and staff during the triple pandemic.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” -- Maya Angelou
How did Wyman approach evaluation during the pandemic?
In the past, we have relied mainly on surveys of participants in our programs to give us the data needed to assess both youth outcomes and program experience. Beginning in 2020, we sought to more fully honor the experiences of our young people and practitioners as they navigated such difficult times. To do so, we focused on elevating youth and practitioner voices to improve our understanding of their experiences in Wyman’s direct service work. We have begun to modify and enhance our approaches to evaluation by using focus groups and individual interviews with young people, program staff, and school implementation partners. We also added more open-ended survey questions to allow youth the opportunity to express themselves through writing.
What have we learned so far?
Consistent with results of national surveys (e.g., Margolis et al., 2020), youth served by Wyman reported experiencing many negative emotions, particularly in the Spring of 2020 when schools closed, and instruction shifted to the virtual space. These included fear, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger, grief and loss, fatigue, powerlessness, worry, defeat, and frustration.
As program delivery pivoted to the virtual space, Wyman staff experienced their own set of difficult emotions. They felt overwhelmed by the implications of shifting to virtual programming, including the need to use unfamiliar technology platforms. They also expressed sadness at the loss of seeing and interacting with youth in-person.
A year later, in the Spring of 2021, we checked in again with our youth and staff through focus groups and interviews. Many youth had returned to in-person school, and Wyman staff were providing both in-person and online versions of programs. We found that those initial negative feelings had lifted somewhat – Wyman youth expressed feeling more positive overall, though they are still dealing with emotional ups and downs. Many youth highlighted the return to in-person school as the reason they felt better. It was a return to some normalcy, and they were uplifted by seeing classmates and friends in-person again.
After a year of delivering services to youth within the context of the triple pandemic, Wyman staff expressed feeling more prepared and less overwhelmed, though still missing the ability to interact with youth in the same way they did pre-COVID.
While the last 18 months have taken an immense toll, staff also reflected on surprising “silver linings” from their experiences so far, such as:
- Opportunities to get to know youth and colleagues in new ways through virtual platforms, for example, by meeting their family members and pets.
- Learning new technology tools that they might not have otherwise tried.
- Taking pride in the “small wins” each day, like feeling accomplished when youth would turn on their cameras or actively participate in other ways.
- Realizing that programs can still be meaningful when delivered online — connections to others were made, social and emotional skills were developed, and meaningful service to the community was still possible.
- Sticking with a familiar routine, even if the content is delivered in a new way, is critical, particularly when there is uncertainty in the broader environment.
- Noticing that some youth may actually prefer connecting via video or through a chat rather than in-person, verbal exchanges — a subset of youth seemed to thrive in the virtual environment.
- Confirming the importance of relationships and consistency in supporting youth through difficult emotions and events.
- Being reminded that, when adults are fully present for them, youth respond.
- Learning that during difficult times, staff can be creative, adaptive, and resilient.
How might we think about our work differently moving forward? Check out part two, Learning and Responding to Youth Needs: Wyman’s Commitment to Doing the Next Right Thing, to explore how we can apply the learnings of the last 18 months and think differently about our work in the future.
Blog post content is based on a panel presentation delivered by Sarah Nace, Director of Programs, and Grace Bramman, Associate Director of Evaluation & Grants, at Wyman’s 2021 National Network Coordinator Learning Exchange.
In the first part of this series, Learning and Responding to Youth Needs: Wyman’s Commitment to Doing the Next Right Thing, we discuss how the last 18 months have been extremely difficult for Wyman teens and staff alike. We continued delivering on our mission to serve teens in the St. Louis area as the nation dealt with the “triple pandemic” - COVID-19, increased unemployment rates and economic uncertainty, and a heightened focus on the realities of systemic racism. We know these events have taken a devastating toll on the mental health and well-being of our nation’s youth (e.g., Flanagan et al., 2021), and that recovery and healing will be a slow process, with progress and setbacks along the way.
These challenges have also provided Wyman with a window of opportunity to reassess and more deeply understand youth needs and experiences. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and to determine how we will apply those lessons to better meet the needs of young people moving forward.
In the second part of this series, we will explore how we can apply the learnings of the last 18 months and think differently about our work in the future.
How might we think about our work differently moving forward?
We are still processing our pandemic learnings while we also continue to gather data from youth and staff on their experiences. As schools have returned to in-person instruction, with ever-shifting COVID-related restrictions and protocols, program staff continue to be nimble: in real-time they adjust, assess, and learn about the best ways to serve youth.
Overall, a great deal of what we’ve learned so far reaffirms the importance of Wyman’s foundational approach to serving youth through building strong relationships with them, providing meaningful and engaging program experiences, and supporting their social and emotional learning. The importance that Wyman’s approach places on caring, responsive, and knowledgeable adults building relationships with young people to create engaging and empowering environments has continued to be an effective cornerstone of our work. We know these relationships are critical for buffering the impact of stress, and paving the way toward young people’s positive growth in their social and emotional skills, sense of self, and connections with others (Framework_for_ThrivingYouth_21320 (wymancenter.org)).
This leads us to re-commit to what is “tried, true, and tested” about our approach, AND calls us to evolve and make updates to our strategies where needed to ensure we are providing the most relevant support to the youth we serve. Updating program strategies may mean not continuing a particular activity that doesn’t seem to resonate with youth, like when staff made the decision to discontinue use of “asynchronous” program activities in the virtual space (activities designed for youth to complete at home on their own time) that did not generate much enthusiasm or engagement.
It also means leaning in to approaches that do receive favorable youth response, such as:
- Continued integration of technology tools like Kahoot, a game-based learning platform.
- Intentional use of humor as a strategy for connecting with youth, particularly in a virtual setting where youth engagement can be more challenging.
- Regularly hosting informal gatherings (“Lunch Bunch”) to create additional time to be present for youth and host a safe space for them to talk about how they are feeling and handling current circumstances.
Lastly, it means that we will continue to assess the strategies we use in our work with young people to ensure intentional focus on the skills and competencies that are most relevant to our youth during the current context.
We acknowledge that we are at the beginning of our journey to more fully incorporate the perspectives of our youth and our staff into our research and learning approaches, and we are committed to continuing this journey toward honoring the individual experiences of those who are closest to the work. Wyman’s programs don’t exist in a vacuum — it is critical to consider and incorporate context when making sense of data and describing impact. We are also at the beginning of the journey to fully process and utilize what we’ve learned so far in the strategies we employ with the young people we serve.
As we continue this journey, it’s important that we all take time to celebrate our successes in the face of adversity and find strength to keep moving forward. The challenges of these difficult times have reaffirmed that there are many changes we would like to see in our world to bring about a safer and more just society. While we can’t change everything, we can change some things, and there is power in doing that next right thing. We remain committed to doing just that.
Blog post content is based on a panel presentation delivered by Sarah Nace, Director of Programs, and Grace Bramman, Associate Director of Evaluation & Grants, at Wyman’s 2021 National Network Coordinator Learning Exchange.
by Nicki Thomson, Senior Director of Research and Learning, and Grace Bramman, Associate Director of Evaluation and Grants
Social connections are foundational to supporting adolescent social-emotional learning and educational success—this foundation is as important to education as ABC’s and 123’s. Years of research tells us that supportive relationships are linked to social-emotional skill development, and in turn, social and emotional skills are key predictors of educational success. Adolescence is a particularly critical period for relationship development, as teens are biologically and developmentally “wired” to seek and manage peer relationships. The quality of these relationships can have far-reaching consequences, including physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and consequently, educational outcomes. Adolescence is also a window of opportunity for change.
The need for social connection has only been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth are struggling now more than ever with loneliness, mental health issues, and loss of connection to peers and school – impacting their ability to be successful both in and out of the classroom. And this will only increase the short and long-term risks of isolation unless there are concerted efforts to mitigate that risk. Social isolation and lack of social connections in adolescence can impede social- emotional development, which not only affects current educational success and well-being, but also health and well-being into adulthood.
Youth development leaders are learning and innovating to address adolescent social connection needs within the school environment and beyond. An example of an innovation developed by Wyman, a non-profit, youth development organization in St. Louis, Missouri, specifically addresses the need for social connections in adolescence. Wyman’s Teen Connection Project (TCP) was designed to create an experience of connection that fosters healthy relationships and social- emotional learning skills. It is delivered to small groups of high school aged teens (maximum of 15 per group) and facilitated by two trained adults over a 12-14 week program cycle. Program meetings are held on a weekly basis during which the 12 lessons from the TCP Curriculum are delivered sequentially.
The program was designed and tested in a randomized controlled trial through a collaboration between Wyman and Dr. Joe Allen of the University of Virginia. Study results made it clear that the program could successfully address the critical need for social connection in adolescence: teens who received TCP, compared to those who did not, showed improved quality of peer relationships, greater use of social coping (turning to others for support), lower levels of depressive symptoms and higher levels of academic engagement (Allen et al., 2020). TCP was recently added as a SELect program in the 2021 Edition of the CASEL Guide to Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs (https://pg.casel.org/teen-connection-project).
Exploration of qualitative study data (Nagel, 2020) provided insights into how those social connections are created within the program--high quality facilitation that is characterized by responsiveness to the unique needs of the teens in their groups, such as:
- Engaging in spontaneous discussion about teens’ interests,
- Building individual bonds between facilitators and teens,
- Talking about shared experiences with being a member of a marginalized group on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or another salient, shared identity,
- Using humor—building on positive comments, enhancing stories, playfully teasing, etc. and,
- Using proactive and explicit redirection (often with humor) when problematic behaviors or disruptive group dynamics arise.
After the study’s completion, Wyman expanded the TCP’s reach through a pilot with 5 organizations located in 5 different states. Evaluation results from the pilot further underscored how transformative the program can be for teens. In addition to positive results on expected outcomes, youth expressed a great deal of positivity about their program experiences. When asked what the best part of participating in TCP was, teens wrote:
That I was able to make new connections as well as learn new things.
Sharing and laughing together as a group. We bonded and connected a little more.
I was able to open up in this group and get to know others I normally wouldn’t speak to in the halls or class.
It has helped me connect to my classmates and learn about them being themselves, rather than just stereotyped as just another student.
Being able to express my feelings to the teachers and being able to connect more with my group mates. Learning how to believe more in myself and learning how to speak up without the fear of being judged.
The pandemic created program delivery challenges for educational and program settings alike—but the importance of ensuring that youth receive the supports and opportunities they need and deserve is all the more necessary. Both Wyman and the University of Virginia (implementing a college-version of TCP, called Hoos Connected) have continued to provide the program virtually, with some adjustments for the virtual space. Data-gathering continues and will help inform learning about the best strategies for delivering high quality programming virtually. We know that any opportunity for youth to help buffer the negative impacts of social isolation can make a powerful, positive difference in their lives.
As educators, we are called to support holistic student success – including their social-emotional health – which only serves to reinforce key academic outcomes. It is critical that we expand the conversation around student success to encompass social- emotional learning and the positive peer and adult relationships that facilitate these fundamental competencies. Doing so not only supports student achievement but opens up doors for innovative and potentially life-changing services to reach adolescents at a developmentally crucial period of life in the place where they spend the most time: school. So, what does this look like?
- Expanding and strengthening partnerships between schools and youth-serving non-profits, who specialize in attending to social- emotional needs. The added capacity to school systems can relieve some stress from counselors and social workers and the availability of services or programming in schools can remove some of the barriers students face in accessing community resources.
- Targeted assessment and attentive listening to the needs of young people in schools. Non-profits have a lot to offer in expertise and programming, but they need to exercise intentionality in seeking out partnerships, responding to expressed needs of the schools they partner with, and collaborating to discern appropriate solutions and implementation approaches.
- Investment at all levels – federal, state, and local – in programs for students that support healthy social connections and meeting pressing social-emotional needs. This includes prioritization not only of delivery of effective programs for students, but training and capacity building for adults to better address these needs, and ultimately, build structures into the architecture of the school system to consistently elevate and reinforce healthy relationships and social-emotional health for youth.
Launching these priorities into action will have mutual benefit to youth, school systems, and the broader community. Students who have a foundation of supportive connections and social-emotional skills achieve academic goals and milestones and ultimately become adults who experience long-term health and happiness. While this would already hold true in “normal” times, as we move into recovery from the pandemic, this shift in focus is even more essential. We must consider connections and social-emotional health as a vital and permanent piece of youth success. Our collective experience with COVID isolation has brought these needs to the forefront, but they have always been here – not just as an indispensable mechanism of education, but of the human condition.
At any given time, more than 8,000 young people in Tennessee, often coming from very difficult circumstances, will enter the custody of the state. A significant number of these youth will find themselves in residential care facilities, essentially being ‘parented’ by the state.
“The challenge is, how does the state care for those young people, and get them into adulthood as solid, healthy citizens?” says Jane Fleishman, Learning Collaborative Director with Oasis Center in Nashville, a group working with the state to implement Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program (TOP) for adolescents in state custody.
“In these facilities, there are already staff addressing mental health needs, but teens also have normal developmental needs that must be met. TOP ensures those developmental milestones and needs aren’t being neglected. It helps to normalize their lives, allowing them to do things they would do if they weren’t in a facility.”
The service-learning aspect of TOP plays an important role in connecting teens to a broader community. “We’re asking them to be part of a solution to something they care about, and that is very developmentally appropriate – it gives them a grown-up role, which they want,” Fleishman says.
She remembers a group of teen boys in a rural area of the state whose service-learning work was through a local animal shelter. One of the boys had been through significant trauma, and the staff found it hard to reach him. “With the animals, though, he turned into a different person, showing a side we would not have otherwise seen,” Fleishman says. “He became a leader in the group, and worked especially with the more aggressive dogs.” One day he shared with TOP staff, “Some of these dogs are difficult, but I don’t think they’re bad, I think people just don’t understand them. This dog just needs someone to love him.” The staff say it was so positive for him to contribute to another creature in a similar situation, and provided them another way to get to know him differently and understand him.
For teens in these settings, many choices have been taken away; they have been removed – for family or behavioral reasons – from their schools, homes, and communities. “Giving them choice back is so empowering,” Fleishman says. “Voice and choice, a sense of their own personal power – these are so important for any teenager, but especially these teens.”
Staff at these residential care facilities, where work can be extremely difficult and turnover tends to be high, have seen benefits from the ongoing training they receive as part of facilitating TOP. “It changes the way they relate to youth, leading to more listening, not being as quick to sanction or discipline, and asking more questions,” Fleishman says. “Staff say they learn more about the young people because they’re doing things – interacting with each other, playing games, taking part in an active curriculum, doing service learning, and more. And that also helps teens develop trust with the adults.”
One TOP facilitator, Tijuana Thompson Claiborne, says TOP is an effective program for teens she works with because “the curriculum gives valuable and rigorous information the youth can retain that’s being taught on their level.”
TOP staff shared the story of one teen who, when leaving the facility, told them through tears that his involvement in TOP helped him see himself in a new way, inspiring him to work harder at school and go from not doing well to being on the honor role. “I now see myself as worthwhile person who can do things, and I can do well in school.”
To learn more about the Oasis Center and how they are implementing TOP, click here to read their TOP Learning Collaborative Practice Brief. Learn more about how TOP is serving more than 23,000 teens here in St. Louis, and all across the country through partners in Wyman’s National Network: https://wymancenter.org/TOP/
“I barely interact with people and I’m always cooped up inside the house.”
“For me [a challenge] is just being social again. Like when I didn’t see nobody, it was like, now I don’t feel like talking to anybody anymore. So…, when somebody talks to me,…I don’t want to talk back.”
“My heart drops thinking about COVID because I know I won’t be able to experience the college experience I would have had if COVID wasn’t there.”
Like youth development agencies across the country, Wyman teams quickly pivoted youth program delivery from in-person to virtual as the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. As we adjusted our efforts and worked to meet youth needs, we knew that hearing directly from teens about their experiences and the impact of the pandemic was essential.
Through focus groups and surveys, nearly 300 teens shared their experiences, with approximately two-thirds of surveyed youth reporting the most substantial impacts on their feelings of connection to others, their feelings of connection to school, and their hopefulness about the future. Teens shared that COVID-19 was increasing levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness, and they repeatedly described a craving for continued connection to Wyman programs and, in particular, to their Wyman peers.
The experiences described by Wyman teens mirror findings highlighted from several recent national youth surveys about the pandemic’s impact on youth well-being. From national data, it is clear that, as a result of the pandemic, many of our nation’s young people are facing an educational and mental health crisis—they are disconnected from peers and school, they feel depressed, and they are worried about their health, well-being and futures. And, the teens’ responses reinforce a uniquely human truth about effective youth programs – they are built on a foundation of caring and consistent relationships and connections.
The Power of Connections
While we are living in unprecedented times, the power of connections and healthy relationships is not unprecedented. Connection to others is so foundational to healthy development and overall well-being, we may not fully appreciate its power, and may often take it for granted. This time of crisis reminds us of the critical nature of connection and the potential harm that can be done when it is absent. External evidence and our own experience informs us that:
- Social isolation and lack of social connections can drastically affect well-being and health. A recent study shows long-term positive impacts of connection on well-being : higher levels of connectedness as a teen were related to as much as a 66% lower risk in areas of mental health, violence, sexual risks, and substance use in adulthood. Study authors recommend positive youth development activities as a key way to promote connections, and to reduce the risks for chronic stress, and the onset of chronic health conditions.
- Youth programs focused on connections lead to positive outcomes. Wyman’s Teen Connection Project (TCP), for example, is designed specifically to enhance the quality of peer relationships. A rigorous study of TCP conducted by Dr. Joe Allen and colleagues (2020) showed that participating youth reported significantly increased quality of peer relationships, compared to youth who were not in the program. At a 4-month follow-up, TCP participants also displayed higher levels of academic engagement and social coping, and lower levels of depressive symptoms.
- Relationships with caring and trusted adults make a difference for youth. Youth who perceive their adult program facilitators as supportive, accepting and caring are more likely to show decreased academic risk behavior (e.g., failing grades, suspensions) and improvements in social and emotional learning at the end of the program. These findings from over 3,000 youth who participated in Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program nationwide add to the existing literature suggesting that strong, supportive adult-youth relationships provide a foundation for promoting positive youth outcomes.
A Call to Action
Both now, and when the pandemic has passed and we return to in-person interactions, our nation’s youth deserve the supports and opportunities to develop connections and healthy relationships with one another and with adults. Now and in the future, we can most effectively support youth by:
- Prioritizing relationships and utilizing staff practices proven to support youth. Even in virtual learning spaces, relationship cultivation, support, and development can occur through intentional relationship-building experiences. Preparing Youth to Thrive: Promising Practices for Social and Emotional Learning identifies specific staff practices as key to successfully supporting youth’s social and emotional development. Examples include providing structure for check-ins to actively listen to and receive feedback from youth, and coaching youth in real time as they experience challenges. Training the adults who work directly with youth to recognize and utilize proven practices enhances relationships, and provides teens with stronger social and emotional supports.
- Delivering programs or activities specifically designed to nurture and develop healthy connections. A series of well-sequenced activities, for example, are used in Wyman’s Teen Connection Project to gradually support the development of deeper, more trusting relationships. Youth responses to programs such as TCP remind us of the value they bring.
- Supporting the adults, too. Supporting the emotional well-being of staff can help minimize burnout. Staff members are also living through this challenging crisis – supporting themselves and their loved ones in addition to youth. Targeted trainings can enhance staff feelings of preparedness to deliver virtual programming and to support youth through the challenges the pandemic presents. Staff who are supported to grow professionally can be more energized and present for the relationship work with young people.
Once we move past the pandemic and return to more typical ways of interacting with one another, we may begin to take the importance of connections for granted again. As youth serving professionals, we are called to recognize that healthy connections truly are the foundation of growth and healing, and a path to helping our youth find hope about their futures.
“I was able to open up in this group and get to know others I normally wouldn’t speak to in the halls or class.”
“I was able to learn more about my peers and we all got a little closer; I was also able to be myself.”
Wyman is a proud partner of the Susan Crown Exchange's SEL Challenge. This article was written as a guest blog for the Susan Crown Exchange (https://scefdn.org/) and can be found on their website, Guest Blog from Wyman Center: A Focus on Connections – Now, and Beyond the Pandemic.