Naming What Matters: A Call to Action

September 10, 2015

“We didn’t have a formal curricula.  We started by listening and went from there.” 

Widad Abed
Widad Abed

This was the sentence that started a wonderful dinner conversation with Widad Abed, Principal of Boushall Middle School, a public school in Richmond, Virginia. We were talking about the role that afterschool programs can play in children’s lives and Abed shared the story of an afterschool program she and a team of university researchers created for students with disabilities who were acting out in school.

The program, Changing Attitudes to Promote Success (CAPS), was funded by a grant from Virginia Commonwealth University and ran during the 1999-2000 school year at Elkhardt Middle School. The lessons from this pilot have made Abed an avid champion for afterschool programs that complement rather than continue school-day practices.

What happens when you get it right in afterschool but don’t have the tools to align your work with the “official” practices? 

Starting with the Students

Abed’s small team of teachers started by getting to know the students and, once relationships were established, asking them why they were frustrated.  Some felt limited by their abilities and burdened with the comparisons to mainstream students.  Some had difficulties at home that tempered their ability to be engaged in school.  Others felt that no one, at home or at school, really took the time to talk to them or help them identify things that they could do well. 

Little by little, the team began to introduce more organized ways for the students to share and discuss their feelings, practice expressing their emotions, and explore their communities to identify opportunities to engage, contribute and be recognized.  Students’ behavior disruptions declined and their confidence grew, along with their skills. 

Abed beamed as she described the program to me. It was more than an afterschool learning supplement or a break from academics; it was itself a learning gateway. These students had been given tools they could use to navigate their environments – home, school and community. 

Then, I asked her these four questions:

1. Were the students able to name the skills and abilities they had practiced with you?

2. Were the teachers given an opportunity to deconstruct and document the practices that
contributed to the growth?

 3. Did the program get credit from the school and families for supporting this growth?

4. Were the skills reinforced
in those settings
(school, family, community)?

Abed answered “no” to each of these questions. Contrary to what you might think, however, her smile widened with each answer. These questions helped her explain why the program was undervalued, even by those who participated in it. 

With this pilot, Abed and her team created an “unofficial” program that led with what research tells us are effective developmental practices – those designed to ensure that young people feel safe and supported so they can be fully engaged and successful. They succeeded in addressing an officially defined gap in students’ skills (behavior management) that was pulling them into an officially constructed trap (school disciplinary actions and suspensions) that educators recognize can be counter-productive.  

What they lacked, however, were the tools to figure out how to bring these developmental practices into alignment with the official ones.  The result: lessons from an effective program were lost when the program closed its doors.

The Importance of Being Intentional

Abed’s story is replicated in communities across the country. Well-meaning and well-informed teams develop afterschool (and in-school) approaches that are student-centered and high-quality but fail in one critical area: they do not name, and thus cannot measure, the range of skills and abilities they are cultivating— or the staff practices needed to support this development.

By failing to name what matters, we continue undervalue abilities and practices that are fundamentally necessary for schools and other youth-serving systems to do their primary job of getting young people ready for life.  We miss out on a chance to build a new body of evidence.

We also miss a critical opportunity to empower young people to take a lead role in their own development, perhaps for the first time in their learning. Abed began by asking students about their needs and their ideas for solutions. The next logical step would be to invite them to collaborate in explicitly naming and tracking the solutions –  deeply engaging these young people in building their own readiness for all aspects of their lives.

Readiness AbilitiesThrough The Readiness Project, the Forum for Youth Investment is committed to creating tools to help communities and leaders identify and track what’s needed to ensure that all young people are ready for life’s responsibilities at every stage. We have analyzed diverse evidence from system and sector experts, science and society to develop:

  • The Readiness Abilities, a map of the key abilities, skillsets and mindsets that all young people  need no matter who they are or what opportunities or struggles they face, and
  • The Readiness Practices, a set of practice and policy conditions that are necessary for young people to develop the Readiness Abilities while they learn the content and skills required by the places and programs they're in.

Over the next year, we will work with community leaders, including front-line practitioners and youth, to help them use these tools to identify and address priority gaps and traps by taking concrete steps to identify critical “developmental” practices in play in the places where young people spend their time and work to make them more “official.”

Readiness should be a basic right for every young person in this country. If we equip passionate innovators like Widad Abed with the tools they need to take their work a step further, we’ll all be closer to making this a reality.



Karen Pittmana sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, is the cofounder, president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, which runs The Readiness Project.


readiness is a right


This article is part of the Readiness is a Right blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 


Karen Pittman