Empowering Youth through Legislation and Policy

Big Thought’s north star is that all youth in marginalized communities will be equipped to imagine and create their own best lives and world. While much of our work toward that north star takes place through our direct-to-youth programs, learning systems and Big Thought Institute, Big Thought is also committed to advocating for policies and legislation that empower youth.

“Big Thought’s Advocacy Committee is deeply engaged with local, state and national elected officials to champion legislation that better supports and empowers youth in marginalized communities,” shared Hollie Morgan Neal, Chair of the Advocacy Committee. “We are excited to see so many lawmakers, advocacy organizations and community groups driving critical change for young people right now.”

With the latest Texas legislative session in full swing, Big Thought is engaged in multiple key initiatives.

Deepen the Commitment to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Public Education

Multiple studies have demonstrated that SEL programs benefit youth for months and even years, including increases in academic performance, SEL skills, positive attitudes and positive social behaviors. The positive gains are often paired with decreases in conduct problems, emotional stress and substance abuse. Kindergartners who exhibited strong social and emotional skills later demonstrated higher high school and college graduation rates while also demonstrating less likelihood to be involved with the police or in a detention facility. With these strong positive outcomes, the return on investment for SEL programs is 11 to 1. Our work with SEL Dallas has enabled us to see these positive impacts for youth first-hand.

Big Thought is currently working with Senator Nathan Johnson to advocate for SB 123 which brings more clarity to social and emotional learning in the state education code, including ensuring that all aspects of the CASEL framework for SEL are included. Additionally, we are working with the House Committee on Public Education in support of  HB 445, sponsored by Representative Steve Allison, which would add language on diversity, equity and inclusion to SEL instruction in the state education code. Big Thought was proud to consult on SB123 with Senator Johnson and his team. Byron Sanders, Big Thought President and CEO, has also testified to the House Committee on Public Education in support of these initiatives.

Change Policies for Runaway Youth

According to a report by The National Runaway Switchboard, more than 1.5 million youth experience a runaway episode each year. In Texas, that decision can have a long and lasting impact on youths’ lives, in large part because Texas can charge these youth wit a status offense. Rather than address root issues, Texas’s current recourse for runaway youth leads to further isolation. The factors that may lead youth to run away from home are often outside of their control  — they may be leaving behind an unsafe or abusive environment, difficulties at school or dealing with unmet mental health needs

Big Thought and it’s Advocacy Committee have been working alongside Senator Nathan Johnson and other criminal justice organizations like Texas Appleseed to offer support rather than penalty for youth in crisis. SB 404 (HB 1709) would decriminalize running away as a status offense and prohibit juvenile detention for youth who have run away. Instead, the bill would help redirect youth to emergency shelters and crisis intervention services through the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). SB 404 also prevents status offenders of the remaining offenses from being held in a secure facility, either pre- or post-adjudication. Instead of secure facilities, youth could be detained in juvenile process offices and places of non-secure custody for up to 6 hours, or in non-secure correction facilities for up to 24 hours. Finally, Sen. Johnson’s bill eliminates the use of a violation of a court order to sentence status offenders to post-adjudication secure confinement.

Expand Access to High Quality Out of School Time Programming

Afterschool programming provide a number of benefits for youth and families, including academic achievement, social and emotional learning, food security, public safety and child care support. Despite these well-acknowledged benefits, a recent study called America After 3pm by Afterschool Alliance found that unmet demand for afterschool programs is at an all-time high. A recent study commissioned by Dallas Afterschool identified the ten highest-priority neighborhoods based on a combined weighted score of demographic factors such as afterschool and school performance, neighborhood conditions, gentrification, and access to public transportation. In the majority of the top ten highest-priority neighborhoods, there are not even enough free or low-cost seats to serve even 10% of the student population, leaving a huge gap. In Pleasant Grove, for instance, 380 seats exist to serve 8,500 children under the age of 14, or 4% of the eligible population. Opening OST programs on school campuses directly addresses issues associated with building space, rent, neighborhood proximity, and community trust.

With a new COVID stimulus in place, Big Thought is working with Dallas Afterschool, Texas Partnership for Out of School Time (TXPOST) and other out-of-school time organizations to ensure that critical funding supports for out-of-school time organizations can be maximized to benefit youth.

Working hand in hand with youth, families, community organizations, advocacy organizations and elected officials, we can and we must do more to better equip and empower our youth.


SEL Research Studies

  • Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K. (2011) The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development: 82 (1), 405-432. 
  • Child Development (July 2017). “Promoting Positive Youth Development Through School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Meta-Analysis of Follow-Up Effects” 
  • Damon E. Jones, Mark Greenberg, and Max Crowley. Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health: November 2015, Vol. 105, No. 11, pp. 2283-2290. 
  • Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning. New York: Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education.