Kernels of Practice: Growing Bite-Sized Elements into Effective Programming

By Brittany Smith,
Every Hour Counts Program Intern and Graduate Student pursuing a Masters of Public Health at Columbia University

Take a deep breath and feel your belly grow bigger. Slowly exhale and feel your belly get smaller. Try this again. Do you feel any better?

Belly breathing, a technique designed to help kids develop their emotion regulation skills, is easily taught in a short period of time. It’s also effective for children encompassing a wide range of ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Kids can use belly breathing to calm themselves down when frustrated with a tricky math problem, a complex sculpture project, or difficult social interaction. In this instance, belly breathing is an example of a kernel, a bite-sized version of “active ingredients” found in larger, more complex programs already shown to be effective.

Kernels center on one specific behavior that kids can utilize in a variety of settings. A report from Stephanie Jones and her team at the EASEL Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, focuses on kernels and their useful applications in developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Entitled Kernels of Practice for SEL: Low-Cost, Low-Burden Strategies, it serves as part of a larger initiative by the Harvard Graduate School of Education to understand how schools can use SEL building blocks to develop curriculum. In this particular report, data are driven from 25 SEL programs and analyzed using content analysis. Programs were qualitatively coded, vetted to eliminate non-kernel strategies, and then organized by focus.

SEL programming is key for helping kids develop their empathy, self-regulation, motivation, and more. It can even buffer the effects of exposure to stress and trauma, resulting in stronger social-emotional skills. But, all too often, barriers such as few resources, limited integration, and challenges with sustainability can impede providers’ attempts to incorporate SEL into programs.

Kernels serve as solutions to such obstacles. Because they are low-cost, easily taught, and focus on one specific behavior at a time, they can be used in a variety of settings and within diverse populations. In addition, unlike more traditional programs that situate activities in a discrete time block, the report notes that kernels are “easy-to-use and applicable across school contexts (e.g., hallways, recess, etc.) as well as in home, afterschool, and early learning settings.” What’s more, they are “easy to adapt based on individual, cultural, and other contextual needs, making them well suited for use in a broad range of contexts and populations.”

Wallace Foundation

The authors offer this image of a seed to better illustrate how kernels work. The germ part of the seed, or core of the kernel, is the specific technique used for one particular behavior. It can be tailored to each program’s particular needs and planted in different kinds of soil. Providers can utilize a variety of kernels to form a garden of specific tools that kids can easily access to calm themselves down, motivate themselves to be more engaged, or express admiration for their peers.

For educators looking to use kernels for their programs, the EASEL Lab is working on developing guides detailing different kernels and how to implement them. The authors plan to provide guides based on setting (school, home, and out-of-school time programs), ages of the students, and related SEL focus.

Instructors will also have information on how to scaffold this learning over time, providing new, developmentally appropriate insight on kernels that kids have already mastered.

Concerned about the difficulties of incorporating SEL into your programs? Don’t be. Take a deep breath in, feel your belly expand, and remember that you can always use kernels to help your students develop the same critical skills that they would find in more complex programs.

Reflections on the FUSE 3.0 Institute: Cultivating Curiosity and SEL through Informal and Formal Collaboration

by Sabrina Gomez


“As you were walking, what are some things you notice about the conference room, its arrangements, its contents, what physical structure or behaviors would be necessary for insects to survive here?,” asked Olga Feingold, Program Director, Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston. Olga was leading FUSE 3.0 Winter Institute participants in Nashville.

The Institute brought together forty leaders in youth development, education, and informal science from six cities who came together to share their thinking on using social-emotional learning (SEL) skill-building to strengthen STEM learning in- and out-of-school. Lead organizations included ExpandED Schools in New York City, the Providence After School Alliance, Boston After School & Beyond, the Nashville After Zone Alliance, Prime Time Palm Beach County, and Collective for Youth in Omaha. The group was joined by Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next, and leaders in the field of science and social emotional learning; Senior Research Scientist Dr. Sue Allen, who heads a national, Noyce-funded project that provides online professional development for afterschool providers; Dr. Cary Sneider, Associate Professor at Portland State University, leader of the engineering group on the NGSS writing team, and science consultant to STEM Next; and Dr. Nick Yoder, Senior Technical Assistance Consultant, American Institutes for Research.

Olga’s activity is routinely employed by Thompson Island informal educators, and is aimed at having students think purposefully about how structures and behaviors increase survival of the population. The activity sparked enthusiasm around the room as we explored how activities rooted in the Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices could be brought to life in an interactive, fun way led by informal educators.

The presentation also allowed us to step into the educators’ shoes to experience how they might assess the extent to which students are engaging deeply with the practices. We used observation, critical thinking, communication, and team work skills to make claims about the function of an adaptation by recording observed evidence and then presenting our individual organisms to the larger group, which fostered further idea-sharing among peers. We quickly realized that we were also relying on the same SEL to answer Ms. Feingold’s series of questions.

Olga’s presentation embodied the spirit of inquiry, assessment, and the intersection of youth development principles, STEM, and SEL that fueled January’s two-day Institute. Underlying this spirit was also a practical exploration of how teams could use formative assessments rooted in Next Generation Science Standards’ practices of scientists and engineers to create a solid foundation for this work.

Accordingly, Dr. Allen and Dr. Sneider co-led a discussion around how teams could incorporate formative assessments in out-of-school time in order to increase opportunities for youth to practice and strengthen their understanding of the science and engineering practices. To support this work, Dr. Yoder, who also leads the focal area on safe and supportive classrooms, and social and emotional learning (SEL) for the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, facilitated a discussion about strategies for creating educator professional development experiences that connect STEM and SEL skills. Together, Institute teams learned from other cities’ professional development types and series they facilitate with staff. Ann Durham and Brittany Sandbergen, from the Providence After Zone Alliance, shared their work around designing and leading professional development experiences for formal and informal educators involved in FUSE 3.0.  

Combined, Institute’s discussions and activities highlighted the key theme of FUSE 3.0: Expanded learning time can be a time for youth to engage with Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices, and for educators to assess their growth in those Practices while still holding true to youth development principles that help cultivate curiosity.

Boston, Providence, New York City and Omaha are also part of the STEM Ecosystems Initiative, supported by STEM Next and the STEM Funders Network. The ecosystems work—intentionally connecting STEM learning experiences for kids across a full range of settings in- and out-of-school, at home, in community-based settings, online and in the workforce—aligns with the FUSE 3.0 strategy.

Literacy in the Zone – A Partnership for Sustainability Between Nashville After Zone Alliance and Nashville Public Library

Guest post by Rachel Roseberry

“A critical and sometimes overlooked resource is the public library, which is well-positioned to facilitate collaboration, build partnerships, address gaps, and support a lifetime of improved education outcomes.” – Urban Libraries Council, Winter 2015

Former Mayor Karl Dean created the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) in 2009 to increase the high-school graduation rate by leveraging after school programs’ capacity for student engagement, a capacity that has been linked to increased school-day attendance, improved behavior, and grades. NAZA is an expanded learning system whose programs provide free, high-quality after school opportunities for middle school students throughout Metro Nashville Public Schools. Its services are organized by geographic zone, in order to ensure students can safely access afterschool resources within their own communities.  With Mayor Dean’s departure due to term limits looming in 2014, NAZA began looking for a permanent home.

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More Summer Learning on the Way

Guest post by Tiffany Gueye

What happens when two national nonprofits team up to expand learning time? The Power Scholars Academy™ is created, and a pathway to scale summer learning opportunities emerges.

This June, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) and YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) are working together to deliver BELL’s summer learning model through eight YMCA associations and their partner schools in Montgomery, AL; Denver, CO; Hartford, CT; Washington, DC; Clearwater and Orlando, FL; St. Paul, MN; and San Antonio, TX.

Students in a BELL program rehearse a dance performance. Photo courtesy of TASC.

Students in a BELL program at P.S. 15 in Queens, NY, rehearse a dance performance. Photo (c) John Abbott Photography.

Here’s how it works: BELL is training Power Scholars Academy leadership teams in each community. We are providing academic curriculum, supporting program operations through technical assistance, overseeing quality assurance, and evaluating outcomes. YMCAs are enrolling students, recruiting, hiring and training staff, managing program operations, delivering enrichment activities, and facilitating school partnerships. Partner schools are providing use of classrooms and other facilities, as well as transportation, breakfast and lunch for scholars, supporting teacher recruitment, identifying enrollment criteria for students, and providing additional in-kind support. BELL and the Y are each raising philanthropic support from donors such as The Wallace Foundation so that the Power Scholars Academy can be delivered free-of-cost to families, and to enable BELL and the Y to thoughtfully plan and prepare for program expansion.

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Helping Kids Grow Up Healthy: More than Diet and Exercise

National Public Health Week is coming to a close, but summer is on its way and with it come heightened risks to kids’ health (especially for kids from low-income families); during the summer, lack of activity combined with limited access to nutritious foods leaves many students at an increased risk for unhealthy weight gain.

Licensed under creative commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that kids get 60 minutes of vigorous to moderate-intensity physical activity per day in order to stay healthy, but it is estimated that fewer than half of US youth meet this recommendation. TASC’s study of students in their NYC ExpandED programs revealed this estimate to be perhaps too optimistic, finding that fewer than 20% of their students reached the 9,100 daily steps considered necessary to constitute an hour of vigorous activity.

Expanded learning and summer programs can and are increasingly called upon to help students reach benchmarks of healthy living by incorporating better nutrition and more physical activity into their days. But there are other factors in play: a recent study showed that social and emotional variables such as perceived social class, depressive symptoms, and low self-esteem—all of which disproportionately affect low-income youth—contribute to higher risks of obesity in children.

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Research Round-Up: Exciting Outcomes

The latest research from Deborah Lowe Vandell and her colleagues at UC Irvine suggests that consistent participation in high-quality after-school programming by elementary school students (K-5) vastly narrows the achievement gap between students from low-income and high-income families by the fifth grade (see infographic). Vandell’s study did not describe the content of the afterschool programs in her study, but several other recent studies have shown that similar outcomes may result from a variety of program models:

Research round-up Feb. 2014 image

  • A YMCA study published earlier this year found that students who participated actively in their High School Youth Initiative program—a summer and after-school program focused on technology skills, leadership, and homework help—had higher grades and test scores in math and language arts, as well as improved overall GPAs and higher attendance as they progressed in school. Participating youth came from low-income families and diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • A study of youth development in minority boys who participated in the Sport Hartford Boys (SHB) program indicated that involvement in the program positively influenced the participants emotionally and socially, as gauged by their development in the “6 C’s”— competence, character, caring, confidence, connection, and contribution. The “6 C’s” are a set of characteristics identified by developmental scientists as indicators of positive youth development and future success.
  • A case-study series of four California schools found that implementing “student-centered” practices, such as connecting learning to real-world experiences and assigning student-directed research projects, dramatically improved the college readiness of low-income and minority students as compared to their peers in traditional schools in the same districts and across the state.

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New Resource for STEM providers: Click2SciencePD

One of the modules on Click2SciencePDAn exciting new resource to help out-of-school STEM providers is now available online. is a brand-new site devoted to providing free professional development resources to trainers, coaches, site directors and frontline staff/volunteers working in out-of-school time programs serving children and youth. The materials are focused on developing 20 “Essential Skills” identified by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension and the Noyce Foundation as necessary to implement science effectively in out-of-school time settings.

Evaluations of the national Frontiers in Urban Science Exploration (FUSE) initiative, led by Every Hour Counts, have shown that professional development is a critical element for supporting strong informal STEM education programs. Investing in training for frontline staff not only contributes to a program’s overall professionalism, it also increases staff and volunteer confidence and results in the implementation of high-quality activities. In fact, after participating in professional development activities, out-of-school time STEM staff in FUSE programs who lacked background or experience in STEM content were able to “catch up” to their more experienced counterparts, implementing high-quality programming and demonstrating strong facilitation strategies.

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A Spending Bill for All Seasons: What the Omnibus Means for Expanded Learning in the Coming Year

Early childhood education, afterschool, and workforce development programs may be enjoying a little breathing room as they return to work this week. Last week Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that improves funding levels for these and other education programs, which saw their budgets significantly reduced in 2013 as a result of across-the-board spending cuts known as “sequestration.”

The bill restores some funding to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, the only federal funding stream dedicated to after-school and summer learning programs. The 2014 appropriation for the program is $1.149 billion, up $57.8 million from 2013 levels.

The omnibus spending bill also funds a number of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education programs that may affect expanded learning programs. Some notable policy provisions include:

•    Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is funded at $14.384 billion, an increase of $625 million from 2013 but below the 2012 level of $14.5 billion. Title I funds support schools with a high concentration of students from low-income families; funds can be used to support after-school and summer programs. States that were granted waivers are required to identify and focus on their lowest-performing, or “priority,” schools, implementing meaningful interventions aligned with the Department of Education-identified turnaround principles, which include redesigning the school day, week, or year to include additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration.

•    School Improvement Grants, which target achievement in the nation’s lowest-performing schools, are funded at $505.7 million—the same as the 2013 level, but lower than the 2012 level. The bill permits funds to be used to implement a “research-proven, whole school reform model” and allows state educational agencies, with the approval of the Secretary of Education, to establish a state-determined school improvement strategy for use under the SIG program. Both the Transformation Model and the Turnaround Model require the use of extended learning time. In addition, the bill allows states to make five-year awards, rather than the existing three-year awards.

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Closing the Enrichment Gap: The Power of Data

What does a genuine 21st-century education system look like? Well, for starters, it closes academic achievement gaps, gaps in health and wellness, and enrichment gaps among all young people.

    Emmanuele Rosario, 6th grade, and Daniel Wu, 8th grade, demonstrate an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle that they built in the SeaPerch afterschool program.

Two Orlando middle-schoolers demonstrate an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle that they built in the SeaPerch afterschool program.

Sounds like a tall order, but for Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Paul Reville, nothing short of it will suffice to provide every student with the tools to succeed—to show that “‘all’ means all” when we talk about educating every one of our nation’s youth.

Reville, who formerly served as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, was the opening speaker at last week’s National Conference on Summer Learning in Orlando, FL (Nov. 11-13), and in his speech he hit on themes that not only resonated for the expanded-learning providers in the audience, but also captured some of the current zeitgeist in education reform. He made an eloquent case for individualized and differentiated learning, calling it a “logical fallacy” to argue that the same thing (i.e., content, instruction) for the same amount of time will work to bring every kid to the same level, when each kid starts out from a different place. And he encouraged those present to stop calling social-emotional skills “soft skills” and instead legitimize them alongside academic development with identifiable and measurable metrics.

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New Tools from Every Hour Counts: How to Communicate the Value of Expanded-Learning Systems and Intermediaries

Have you ever sat down with your schools superintendent or local funder, or even that person sitting next to you on the plane, and struggled to describe exactly what an “after-school system” is? Or “intermediary?” Or “expanded-learning?” We have, too, and frankly, we realized it was time for a change – a bold change. A rethinking of how we communicate the value of what we do, in clear and compelling language. Through a comprehensive messaging planning process, we learned a few lessons for talking about our work:

•    Focus on outcomes and impact, rather than process.
•    Use language that makes sense to external audiences.
•    Tell key audiences what’s in it for them.

Thumbnail_Every Hour Counts MessagesWhat are the big changes we made? For one, we changed our name to Every Hour Counts, formerly the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems. Why the change? Across the nation, our partners and peer organizations are employing an impressive range of strategies to provide all students with additional learning opportunities. We needed a new name that captured the power of expanded learning. Plus, Every Hour Counts is sticky, aspirational, speaks to high-quality programs, and conveys urgency. Our mission remains the same: expanding learning so every student can thrive.

Instead of adopting more lay terms, we decided to embrace the words “system” and “intermediary,” but to do a better job defining them and highlighting the benefits of building systems and supporting intermediaries.

We’re bringing complex ideas in system-building, such as quality improvement and school and community partnerships, to life through storytelling.

We compiled results – academic, social, and emotional – with robust data to show how expanded-learning systems drive youth impact.

All these messaging tools are available freely on our website, and we hope you use them. Adopt the language in your own communications, use it in blogs, and share the tools with others. As Andrea Sussman of KSA-Plus Communications pointed out to participants in our recent webinar on messaging, “You have way more in common with one another than you have with the people you want to convince. You are trying to win hearts and change minds. And you do that by banding together and using the power of your collective voice.”

The more voices there are in the field speaking the same language, the farther we’ll all go to make every hour count.

To learn more, watch to our recent webinar, “Steal this Message: Explaining the Value of Expanded-Learning Systems and Intermediaries.”

Let us know what you think and please stay in touch.