Podcast Episode 7: Social-Emotional Learning

Justin Aglio and Emma Hance of the Readiness Institute at Penn State talk about the importance of social-emotional learning and understanding mental health as part of being future and community ready. Then, teens involved in the Readiness Institute Summer Program reflect on their own experiences with mental health practices and being ready to learn in different settings.

Transcript for Podcast Episode 7: Social-Emotional Learning

Owen: We spent time researching mental health through a program called the Mental Health First Aid Program and FTA, where we learned about how mental health is treated in schools, how this can be improved, and how we as students can improve things.

Bhumika: The school that I come from, we don’t really talk about mental health a lot. So it was nice to listen to all the different types of mental health illnesses there could be, how to handle them, since I have many peers that have had experiences with mental health issues.

Anderson: If you’re not in a present moment, you can’t really focus on what you’re doing or learning. So making sure you’re well mentally is always an important thing.

Larry Berger: This is Larry Berger at the studios of SLB Radio Productions in Pittsburgh with Justin Alio and Emma Hance of The Readiness Institute at Penn State. We’re going to be talking in a few moments about emotional health and social and emotional learning, but before we do that, I’m going to turn to Justin just to go over the principles of the Readiness Institute and why it exists.

Justin Aglio: Thank you, Larry. The Readiness Institute at Penn State, our goal is to enable education, industry and community partners to coordinate, collaborate and create experiences for learners to achieve community and future readiness.

Larry Berger: Now, we’re going to turn to social and emotional learning and emotional health. They’ve always been an important aspect for everybody, especially for youth as they develop. But now more than ever, these are essential components, essential skills, if you are going to be community ready and ready for the world as you prepare to enter it as an adult. And Emma, I’d like you to explain more about this aspect of being future ready.

Emma Hance: Social, emotional learning and mental health is actually something that is very near and dear to our hearts at the RI, and something that’s really cool here is that more of a focus on this is something that was actually requested by our students from 2021. We were getting into it and they wanted to learn more so that they could better help themselves and others. Social emotional learning is the process through which we acquire and apply the knowledge and skills to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, show empathy for others, maintain supportive relationships, and so something that we did this year, which was a new addition to the program, was we incorporated something called Youth Mental Health First Aid. Our students were actually some of the first teens in the country to become certified in youth mental health first aid. And throughout the program, students learned about common mental health challenges for youth and how to develop a five-step action plan to help other young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. The real focus here was students wanted to essentially build out their toolkit of ways to help themselves and to help others to make sure that they’re supporting everyone in their community.

Larry Berger: Did students feel more confident and ready to engage with others, whether it be through teamwork and decision making and other aspects once they had this grounding in social and emotional health?

Emma Hance: Yeah, and it was really interesting because it was something that was a little tricky to get into. When you are talking about mental health and mental health struggles, we have a real stigma around those conversations in this country. Some of the students were more reluctant to get into those conversations, and as soon as others really started to open up and be vulnerable, the relationships that they built and the trust that they built in each other was absolutely incredible and strengthened their commitment to not only to the program, but to one another. It’s really incredible to see the relationships that the students build with one another. The program itself is six weeks, and yet they get so, so close and really know that they have a place where they can show up as their full, authentic selves and be supported.

Larry Berger: That’s so critical to be ready to interact with the world and the community and to be ready for the future. Justin, would you like to add anything about the topic of social and emotional learning and emotional health?

Justin Aglio: We asked our students every year, “what’s the one skill that you want to learn?” and always at the top of the list is social emotional learning. To learn more about myself, who I am, who do I want to become, but also learn about others, how they think, how they can interact with them, and how they can support them. And we always challenge our students to open up to talk to each other about this, and we open up about ourselves, and we actually have a lot of professionals that come in and talk about their social emotional learning and how important it is to thrive in careers and colleges and university life after they understand who they are as a person. So that’s the first question we actually asked our students, “who am I?” “Who am I as a person?” not what do you want to become, but who am I? And I couldn’t remember a story where we had students the first week this summertime to paint one word that identifies who they are on a rock. They went outside, picked up their own rock, they came in, they painted on the rock, and one student wrote introvert. And at the last day of our summer program, he said, “I want to go outside and break this rock because I’m no longer an introvert, I’m an extrovert.” It’s okay to learn about who you are, but it’s also okay to change who you are, because that’s life. And you go through life and you find out who you are and you adapt to it and you grow. And so teaching social emotional learning is so critical, but not just teaching it, talking about it is probably more important.

Larry Berger: That was Justin Aglio of the Readiness Institute at Penn State and just before him, you heard his colleague Emma Hance. Now, let’s hear from teens talking about social emotional learning and emotional health based on their experiences with the Readiness Institute at Penn State.

I am Marco. Taking the youth mental health first aid course was definitely helpful. And being the “therapist friend” to a lot of people, it was really important that I have those skills necessary to help them in the best way and also to keep myself in good mental health through those experiences.

My name is ava, the mental health first aider stuff, I think my main takeaway from that is not sharing experiences, which was very surprising to me. And I feel like whenever my friends come to me with issues they’re having, I’m always like, oh, this time the same thing happened to me, so I feel you. But in that training, I realized that that can kind of be taking away from their own feelings.

I’m Kyron. To me, mental health is like just making sure everyone’s just in the right mental state. If you see something off about that person, feel like you should ask them how they’re feeling and stuff, not just push it to the side, because if you keep doing that, you never know what can happen.

My name is Aneesh. I personally did have my own mental health struggles at some point, but eventually I walked my way through it myself. But now that I have this experience as well as my own experiences it’ll be so much easier to help others get out of the same hole I did.

My name is Kaylee. We learned how to be a non-judgmental listener and provide help for people. We are not a therapist or anything like that, but we can direct people and just mention, hey, I think maybe you should see somebody, or hey, if you need somebody to talk to, I’m here to listen.

My name is Tavia. We took this mental health first aid course, and I got my mental health youth certificate. One of my friends was going through something like really important and kind of hard for her like three days after I got that certificate. And I was talking to her and I was realizing I was like, if I didn’t get that certificate, some of the things I wouldn’t have known not to say or what to say. And I think that information was extremely important. I really am grateful for having that program and that certificate because I got to use that in real life.

Larry Berger: Justin Aglio and Emma Hance, thank you so much for being with us today for the Readiness Institute at Penn State Podcast. Emma, how can people learn more about program activities?

Emma Hance: To learn more about the Readiness Institute at Penn State, check out our website at readinessinstitute.psu.edu. and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter @riatpennstate.