Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman in a red dress with a black headband and a white woman with black hair smiling against a blurred gray background. Above their photos is red text reading "Nurturing Social and Emotional Literacy in Youth."

Nurturing Social and Emotional Literacy in Youth with Debra Giunta – Episode #20

What supports would have helped ease your transition to adulthood? Growing up is hard, and young people are repeatedly faced with circumstances they are expected to understand despite their lack of life experience. Then, in these tedious and confusing scenarios, the choices they make follow them throughout their early academic years. Debra Giunta is the founder of Prismatic, a youth career development program with a soft-skills twist. She is always seeking ways to close the gap between what we expect of our youth and the supports in place to get them there. Her insights into the most effective ways to set students up for success are transforming the lives of kids.

Episode Show Notes

Debra and Alida explore tools that can improve the experience of growing up:

  • Addressing the ongoing controversy around social and emotional learning
  • Tempering the tendency to expect our youth to be both children and adults 
  • Allowing both accountability and fluidity in teen behavior
  • Uncovering the questions young people are really asking 

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with Debra Giunta: 

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


DEBRA: We expect them to be children when we need them to be children, and we expect them to be fully formed adults when we need them to be fully formed adults I want to move us towards the middle.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
​​Two books currently on my shelf right now, Positive Discipline and Tiny Humans: Big Emotions. Two very different approaches to bringing up young people. And as a new parent myself, I am constantly grappling with what does it take to care for a child in a way that ultimately allows for them to be balanced, resilient, and feel a sense of care for themselves and others? That’s really at the heart of my conversation with today’s guest, Debra Giunta. She is the social entrepreneur behind the nonprofit Prismatic, which focuses on alternative career paths for kids. She is also a social emotional learning leader, and she spent years cultivating curriculum that is co-created with the youth she’s trying to support. Listen to this episode to understand what kids need from us, especially in imagining their futures and pursuing their dreams.
ALIDA: Hi, Deb. I am so excited to have you on the podcast. How would you describe yourself as a care worker?
DEBRA: I’m good. I think this is the most structured and time sensitive of the conversations we’ve ever had, so I’m excited to dive in.
ALIDA: We’ve talked a lot in both season one and now in season two about Care Work is really trying to help people meet their needs, and the majority of people that I’ve talked to really focus on adults and what it means to care for adults. Or if they talk about kids, it’s always in the context of being a primary caregiver, as opposed to what it means to design education development programs that help kids take care of themselves and others, and knowing just your deep experience in social emotional learning and how you’ve built a career around it. I just really wanted to get your perspectives. How would you describe yourself as a care worker?
DEBRA: What’s been interesting about my career is I started out with this focus on youth, and I know we’ll talk a little bit more about this, but like, I did have a really tough time emotionally growing up, and I really wanted to create a program that I would have needed, and that’s been a lot of my driving force. But what’s been interesting about going through my career path is that I went from creating programs for youth to then becoming an employer. And what I have found over and over again is that, the things that we needed as young people are also the things that we need as adults. It gets packaged differently, it gets worded in a much different way when we’re adults, because as adults, we learn how to talk about these things in a way that we think is socially acceptable. But it’s a lot of the same stuff. And it’s been interesting to think about how that care work, while it was initially inspired by working with young people, has started to really find its legs in all these other areas of my life. To be honest with you, like, I think it’s easier for us to think about children as having needs. I’m learning so much about how much adults need as well.
ALIDA: Why do you think it’s so hard for adults to think about their own needs or to talk about their needs?
DEBRA: I think it’s because so much about our. Well, this goes back to, I think, the importance of our work in social emotional learning is that so much of how we’re raised as children is about eventually getting to a point where we don’t have needs anymore. And that’s the end goal. It’s about, you get your needs met, and then, the thing we reward in childhood and in education often is self sufficiency. So I think by the time we get to adulthood, we’re often shocked at how many needs we have. And then I think we’ve told ourselves that’s not acceptable anymore. So I think what we have is people who either feel like they push back against that by advocating for a lot of personal needs, or feeling like they’re not allowed to have any needs.
ALIDA: It’s so interesting to hear you say this, because one of the things that was coming up for me is, this idea that’s been socialized into us of not having needs, shows up in our language. It occurs to me that one of the things that you would say about someone that you might want to break up with or not be in a relationship with anymore is, well, they’re just too needy. And being needy is considered a negative thing. It means that you can’t take care of yourself. You ask too much, you are too much. And then at the same time, we have this sort of Instagram TikTok culture around. If I don’t get all of my needs met right now, I leave, I’m out. And there doesn’t seem to be really a lot of balance here, which is one of the reasons I think social emotional learning from an early age is really important for that calibration. At the same time, I want to do some digging in SEL, because, as you know, we now have SEL turned into a political situation where in school board meetings, we have politicians and parents saying, I don’t want SEL corrupting my children. So can you talk to me about what it is and why it’s controversial?
DEBRA: Yeah, it does shock me that it’s become controversial. I think the reason is because SELl spaces are spaces where students can explore their identity, and because there’s so much around trans youth that’s under attack right now, it’s being conflated with, this is a space that is encouraging or indoctrinating young people. And really what it is is a space to allow students to explore who they are. I think really high quality social emotional learning, in my opinion, and I think there’s different ways of looking at this, but in my opinion, it’s about helping people understand how to heal and thrive through relationship. And we cannot have good relationship with others if we do not have good relationship with ourselves. And so when you look at SEL, like just the core tenets of SEL, it’s so focused on both of those halves. It’s about, who are you to yourself? What are your relationships to yourself? How do you build a self-awareness and regulation for yourself so that you can build that relationship with other people and model the types of things that you need to be getting in relationships. We can’t just go in a corner and heal ourselves. We can’t go in a corner and become mentally and emotionally well or thriving or whatever it is that our chosen word is. We do it through a relationship. We do it through practicing. And we can’t get there if we don’t have both those halves.
So I think a lot of times, to your point, about the difference between neediness as a bad thing and neediness as almost like a point of self advocacy is, neither of those things are really about combining those two elements that I think really good social emotional learning is about, is about being in relationship. And being in relationship is about standing in who you are, knowing your identity, knowing yourself, but then also being able to do that relational dance with people, being able to give that give and take, and be able to advocate for yourself. I mean, that’s the real work of self advocacy. It’s not standing alone somewhere talking about how you have a need. It’s about looking at someone who you love and care about and saying, I have a boundary. And the reason that’s so hard is because you also care about their boundaries. And that’s where it really gets tricky, right? Like, it’s almost a cop out, I think, to stand away from anyone. And I think social media can sometimes reinforce this because you’re so, you are so separate, even though you have the illusion of being connected. The real work, I think that we’re trying to help young people with, and I think that us as adults, have a lot of work to do in, is how do I care about you and me at the same time?
ALIDA: I would love to just get to know teen Deb a little bit. What was it like for you growing up as an emotionally intelligent person in a world that wasn’t really focused on emotional awareness or self awareness?
DEBRA: I really was quite different. So growing up, up until the age of 14, I was very engaged. I was on all these after school clubs. I was sort of a kid version of who I am right now. Like just a nerd about projects, just like wanting to start new stuff all the time, really excited, had a ton of ideas. You know, I started my own charity outreach program when I was in 7th grade, and I was super bullied about it. I was like, pretty socially ostracized. By the time I went to high school, I had decided that I was going to do everything that I possibly could to be socially accepted.
And so I did do a lot of things that got me socially accepted and also got me into a lot of trouble and also challenged me to really turn off a lot of who I was. And when I was a freshman in high school, I was severely depressed, I was medicated, I had to take time off of school. When I came back, I was failing a lot of my classes, and there was really no support for this. And by the time I was done with my sophomore year of high school, with my ADHD diagnosis, this school just rolled out the red carpet for this diagnosis. I had untimed tests, I was allowed to eat in class, I was allowed to take breaks. I was allowed to call my mom, sit in the office, go to the nurse, anything that I needed to support me was 100% on the table. And I’m not saying that that’s bad, but it’s an interesting comparison in my mind that the mental health needs of myself were not prioritized, but getting an ADHD diagnosis was viewed as a real issue. I was able to validate that not only myself, but also all the adults in my life said, this is a real thing. We appreciate this as a real problem, and we’re going to address it, and we’re going to you know, work together with you to find those strategies.
Young people need that about their mental health as well. And it’s not because the teachers don’t care or the admin doesn’t care. It’s because the system does not know what to do with that particular problem. The system had a process for ADHD that was a diagnosis, that there was protocol, there were policies in place that governed how to deal with a student with ADHD, and there were legal protections for me in that environment. And I still see in a lot of the schools we work with, SEL is much, much more accepted now. We talk a lot more about mental health, but most of the time, schools cannot afford even half of the support systems. I mean, most schools that we work with in Chicago don’t even have a full time social worker. They have social workers that are on a contract basis going in and out of different schools. There’s not a lot of that support there. So even though the awareness is there, the systems are not set up, and the legal protections are not in place for young people that truly need that mental health support.
ALIDA: What you’re advocating for is, there might be broader, systemic issues, but if we’re talking about the kid in front of us, we have to see them as their own person. And so that brings me back to this idea of what adults get wrong about kids when it comes to their emotional lives. And I’d like to get a sense from you, based on working with so many different kinds of kids, what you see in that area.
DEBRA: We expect kids to be almost like everything. We expect them to be children when we need them to be children, and we expect them to be fully formed adults when we need them to be fully formed adults. And I think that’s like, maybe the theme of this whole conversation is like, I want to move us towards the middle, because I think there’s so many extremes. So a lot of things that I see when I work in schools is I see a lot of adults who put an identity on a student, based on their behavior. And they’ll say, well, that’s how they’re acting. They earned that. And they need to know that the way that you act is how people will see you. You teach people how to treat you, that kind of mentality. And all I can think is like, no, they’re not who they’re going to be yet. There’s a lot of research to show that their brains are still developing. So much of their behavior is influenced by other people. They are still figuring out who they’re going to be. And we as human beings are so communal, so we are so influenced by who we’re around. You put that same student in a different environment, they very likely will behave quite differently.
But so often, adults will say they’re bad, they talk too much, they don’t take anything seriously. You know, they just put these labels on kids, and that makes it impossible for that kid to wake up one day and decide to be different. And going back to my own high school experience, that was very much the case. It was like, once I was bad, it was very hard to like, change how the adults in my life looked at me because I had made these other choices. But I was still exploring who I was. And I might argue that adults are doing this, too, but our brains are more fully formed, so there is a little bit more permanence to who we are as adults. When we’re kids, we are truly navigating all of these things. We can be someone different tomorrow than we were today. But when I say that, it sounds like I’m saying we should not hold children accountable for their behavior. I’m not saying that. There is a middle ground. There’s a tension I think we have to hold with young people regardless of age, but especially with teenagers, where we are both holding them accountable today for their behavior and letting them know the impact of their behavior and really allowing them to change tomorrow, and seeing them as somebody different the next day. And that means opening your eyes to the small things that they might be doing that might not fit into the mold, but are really positive things.
So for one student, you know, they might not be paying attention in class the entire time, but if you pay attention, they might have helped a student with their homework. They might have like, picked something up that you know, was litter in the hallway or something. When we reinforce those positive, kind behaviors, even if they don’t fit into the mold of the academic classroom, it helps kids to see themselves differently, too. So if they only see negativity reflected at them, that is all they will see in themselves. So we have to allow the identity of young people to be a lot more broad and nuanced than whoever they’re showing up as in a classroom.
Classroom environments are not set up for most people to be successful. I think there’s many kids that are triggered by the academic classroom that might have trauma responses in an academic classroom, that are not, that’s not going to be the place that their intelligence shows up. So to give them an identity and a title based on this one very unique and not very universal experience, I mean, they’re never going to be in a classroom again after school. There’s so many other environments they’re going to be in where these qualities about them can really show up and thrive. So we have to look for those things I think as people who care for young people.
ALIDA: The classroom environment did not work for me. And there are some specific pieces here that I think are related to what you’re talking about, relative to the individualized or customized experience. So I was extremely bullied in school, and until fifth grade, I changed schools every single year because there was no recourse for the situation. And my parents, who had both experienced bullying in some way, basically said, well, the only option is to leave, so we’ll try again. So I was constantly changing schools. And then when my parents got divorced, I was homeschooled and there were some challenges to it, but there were things about homeschooling that worked so well for me that I skipped grades. You know, when I took my home school test to place me in the next grade, I passed up to twelfth grade. And I don’t think that would have been true if I hadn’t been homeschooled. But I had a very customized, tailored education. And so I am a big advocate for individualized education. So, I think that, is really to say that I’m very interested in what it looks like to meet the individual needs of a child without saying that everything is about you all the time. I don’t think that’s easy to do, and I think that’s what you’re getting at as well.
And I would also say this is a very long winded transition to how you came to design dance, and Prismatic, because ultimately I was academically successful because I was a reader and a writer, and those were the things I loved doing most, and those were the things that I would do whether I was in school or not. I was always doing those things. And what you had as a young person was dance, which ended up becoming your first business. So I’d love to hear more about that.
DEBRA: Yeah, can I comment on what you also just said. I’m glad that you shared that. I think in all of our friendship, I’ve never known that you had such a unique education experience. I just always associate you with being so like, good at academics. I think that really reinforces exactly this concept, though, that even people who are very good in school are still not being served by the school system. And I think like, most teachers honestly would agree, If you talk to teachers, most of them are like, we’re doing the best we can with a system that is broken. Like, most teachers wish that they had more time to provide more individualized education for students. So I’m careful to say that because I think it’s very common, just start to throw everything out together. It’s like the system can be broken, but there’s a lot of really passionate, fantastic educators within that system that are trying very hard to do what they can, with very, very little.
So Design Dance, yes, dance was the thing that I had growing up, for sure. But I will say that my dance education was very focused on competition and perfectionism. And so part of what inspired me to start Design Dance was I wanted to do something that was a lot more. One thing that frustrated me about dance as an art form was that it seemed like the only art form where you weren’t allowed to create your own work until you were at least in college, where every other art form, like my brother, was very into. He was a painter and he drew and he was a musician. And all these other art forms you were allowed to create, like the other adults in the space, would let you create your own thing, even if you were just learning. In dance, I was regularly told, like, you don’t have enough experience, you don’t have enough knowledge to create your own thing.
So there’s like, a couple of fun stories of me getting up on stage after rehearsing a piece for like, a solo piece for a whole year and just getting up and doing my own choreography and really upsetting the adult dance educators. But I really felt passionately that like, we should be able to express ourselves through this. So I wanted to create a program that was initially the vision of Design Dance, was to create a program where students learned, even without any knowledge of dance, learned to tell their own stories through movement, and that as they learned the technique, the technique was there to help them tell the story that they wanted to tell and just give them tools for it. Because for me, that was very much what it was like, movement was something that came so naturally to me. All I wanted to do was move even now, even if I’m not dancing, I’m like moving all the time. I don’t know, something inside my body that has to constantly be moving. And I started looking into more and more how movement can be this really powerful tool to help people process their emotions, to help them feel like they have a voice. In a world where maybe they don’t feel like they have much of a voice. Without asking people to say things, which sometimes can be really hard, expressing yourself non verbally can be a really powerful way to get that out. So Design Dance continued to evolve and evolve and evolve. As I was learning about the world, I started it very young. I was 24, didn’t really know what I was doing. But as I was growing up and I was thinking about my own youth and upbringing, and I was learning about it so much from working with youth, the program kept evolving to incorporate more and more of these mental and emotional components that I didn’t realize I was doing at first. So now the company has grown quite a bit. We have 65 school partners that we serve, and we have about 6000 kids that take our program throughout a given school year.
ALIDA: So you started out with dance, which was very much the passion and what you knew. And in the process of building Design Dance, you started to develop a passion in a whole other area which was actually creating and running a business, being an entrepreneur. And that has showed up in your nonprofit Prismatic, where you also have an SEL focus. But the pathway that you’re offering is not necessarily one through movement, but through entrepreneurship. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DEBRA: Yeah, I think Prismatic definitely started by accident. I wasn’t looking to start another organization, but it happened because of the work I was already doing with students. So as I was working with a lot of our teens, when we started Prismatic, I was about ten years into running Design Dance. And when I would come in to teach a class or I would come in to observe, students would feel very connected. Not because I was a dancer, but they were really excited about the fact that I had started the business. And I would always have kids in like sophomore, junior year. They were starting to think about what they wanted to do after high school, and they would make me stay after class and ask a million questions about, how did I start this? And how did I know? And oftentimes they would ask things like, were your parents mad at you? Did your mom get mad that you did this? And they were really curious. They weren’t asking me like, how do you build a financial projection or something they were asking me now, things about running a business, but about, how do you have the confidence to do this? How did you know that you could do it? And they were really fascinated by the fact that I had done it without any education in it. So did you go to business school? And then when I’d say no, how did you learn that? And they were so fascinated with like, this self made component.
So, initially, I started an offshoot of Design Dance that was just supposed to be part of design dance that was just a curriculum around, how do you take your idea? And I based it in the arts initially, where it was like, let’s say you have an arts idea. How do you turn that into something that could make money? But as we were digging into that curriculum, I started seeing in real time that the questions that students had to ask, again, they were not about project management, they weren’t about getting an idea out there. It was so much about them, um, not really being sure who they were, and they were asking these deeper questions about, well, my friends think I’m like this, but I don’t think I’m like that. I think I’m like this. And everybody’s you know, a lot of identity questions, like, I’m this, but my friends think this, or my parents think this, and I don’t want to be this person, or they have these social issues they’re really passionate about, and they want to make a difference, but they don’t know how to do that.
So eventually, it evolved into what has become what Prismatic is now, which is an SEL based career development program, which is really different than a lot of the programs I was seeing. So a lot of the schools we work in, they have these great college readiness programs that are focused on academic success. They’re focused on getting kids prepared to be on their own, to be at college. Awesome programs. But there was something missing, because these kids were, you know, even the really academically successful kids. They were terrified of their future. They’re terrified of. They don’t know who they are. They don’t want to pick the wrong major. They don’t really feel like they could do, they don’t have the confidence to feel like they can really do something. So the program is built on the supplemental aspects of advancing your career after high school.
So we go through three elements. We go through your mission. What do you really care about? What do you see when you look around you that you wish was different, and what do you think you’re uniquely positioned to do? The second thing we talk about is your interests. And when we talk about interests. We go way beyond the classroom. So it’s not just what are you good at in school, but what could you lose track of time doing? Maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s playing video games, maybe it’s talking to your friends. Whatever that is, we capture it. And then the third piece of it is, what are you good at? This is where we go back to some of the stuff you were saying, Alida, where you know, some kids who are not doing very well in school will say they’re not really good at anything, and we really try and get them out of that. We tell stories, we have deep conversations about the things that they are doing that they might not notice because it hasn’t been rewarded yet, that are really powerful, that are really natural strengths. And it’s really about helping them to develop this awareness of themselves that they can use over and over again. Some of them do want to be entrepreneurs, but some of them want more traditional careers, and that’s okay, too. But we know that they’re going to need to be able to reevaluate what’s working for them and what’s not over and over again throughout their adult life. And we want them to feel empowered with the skills to do that.
ALIDA: So, I’m going to move us to my final question here, which is, you’ve talked a lot about what you are doing in terms of not only Design Dance, but Prismatic to help kids, and especially teens, take care of themselves and meet their own needs, be in communities where they help others meet their needs, and to really be in this process of finding who they are. And you also mentioned that who we are, changes, evolves over time, isn’t necessarily permanent, even as adults. How do you engage in these practices yourself?
DEBRA: I honestly think that Prismatic is like a piece of my heart and my brain put into a curriculum. Like, these three things are things that I engage in all the time. So when I find myself lost or feeling out of alignment, it’s usually because one of those three things is not in my life enough. I’m either not aligned with my mission and my values, or I’m not aligned with my strengths, doing work that I’m really good at, or I’m not aligned with my interests. I’m feeling bored, I’m feeling disengaged. And when I can assess those three things, it really does make a huge difference in my life. So at my core, self awareness is my biggest driver, is like, I really try and build a lot of journaling practices, reflection practices, that help me connect back into those things when I feel lost. I have recently started engaging in some other things that are like a little bit more formal self care practices. I’ve started to get really into somatic therapy, which is very new for me, even though I grew up as a dancer and aligned with that. I’ve started an acupuncture practice as well, which is also helping with nervous system regulation. So those are two areas that are a little bit more formal that I think without being able to be regulated in my body, it’s very hard to build the other self awareness and care practices.
ALIDA: Well, Debra, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. Where can we find you?
DEBRA: Yeah, so I’m most active on LinkedIn, folks and find me there. Debra Giunta and I would encourage people, if they’re interested in learning more about the Brainchild Collective and the work we do with Design Dance, and Prismatic can visit us, ah, at
ALIDA: Thank you so much.
DEBRA: Thanks, Alida.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.


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