Voyageur Outward Bound School blog

Witness to a Transformation: A Social and Emotional Learning Journey

Categories: Our Blog,Outward Bound

It is a sunny, yet cold, Minnesota winter day and we stand anticipating our student’s arrival. This is our first meeting of many. We wonder, “Who are the students?” “How will they receive us?” “Do they know what lies ahead?”

Their first adventure is snowshoeing. When they arrive we ask them to “circle up.” Our first circle is filled with nervous laughter, inaudible & distracting mumbling, and “saving face,” which makes getting through introductions a challenge unto itself. In the first few minutes, it’s clear who the leaders are, who the scapegoats are and who stands innocently in between.

In particular Jamie (not her real name) stands out. Jamie is in eighth grade and not meeting her potential. Jamie is quiet, a lover of the outdoors, intelligent, clumsy, impulsive, distracted, and attracts negative attention. Jamie thinks this attention equals acceptance. The rest of the group is ready to pounce! They enjoy the opportunity to unite at the expense of Jamie. You might consider them bullies. The group doesn’t understand Jamie is a student with an individualized education plan and see her behaviors and comments weird.

Fast forward six months. After several in-school and out-of-school programs, the group is orienteering today. They are learning to make decisions as they attempt to navigate the landscape of central Minnesota using a map and compass. But today, something is different. It’s a challenging day and one with a marked change. This day the group starts to hold each other accountable by calling out their commitments to each other as they come together to accomplish their unified goals. By now they’ve learned a bit about each other, like how each person can contribute, and rely on each individual’s strengths to help them achieve their collective goals. Jamie is quietly contributing, pointing out times when the group is acting according to its values and when it is not. She’s a bit of the moral compass and attracting a different kind of attention. Unbeknownst to the group, Jamie’s becoming a leader within.

At the beginning of the next school year, Jamie’s Outward Bound instructor notices a something different about her and to asks her about it. “Jamie, something’s changed for you on this expedition. You seem more focused. You’ve really got things together. What’s different?” “I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to change. I decided I wanted to be a positive leader,” she shares. Her instructor took note of her quiet and very positive leadership. Her influence is clear. She’s standing as a leader among this group of leaders. She is not the scapegoat. No more negative attention, no more bullying.

It’s now graduation day. The day the students stand in their final circle to acknowledge what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. With family, faculty and friends standing by, the students share:

  • “This has helped me be more motivated in school. To look forward and not to stop,”
  • “Outward Bound helps me try harder and be more of a leader.”
  • “Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you
    thought you couldn’t.”
  • “Outward Bound helped me gain confidence.”
  • “I learned success doesn’t come alone and that teamwork sets the winning tone.”

While Jamie’s social and emotional gains are certainly significant, the groups’ are also remarkable. The group went from bullying a student who thought negative attention meant acceptance to noticing and needing Jamie’s strengths. They discovered Jamie, too, is a leader. They went from pushing her out of the circle to standing alongside her at graduation. They stood as one with pride.

This journey exemplifies social and emotional learning (SEL). Empathy, emotion management, responsibility, problem solving, teamwork, and initiative are skills these young people now role model for other students. Instead of being sent to the office for behavioral reasons, they now mentor younger students, helping others grow in these same areas.

Now high school sophomores, they apply these skills more engaged, as servant leaders with their grade point average on the rise. Outward Bound’s experiential SEL process is a powerful one, one that transformed Jamie from scapegoat to leader and her team from bullies to peers.


To learn more about best practices in social and emotional learning programs, please visit

To learn more about enrolling your child on a Voyageur Outward Bound School course visit and to learn more about our group focused programs in the Twin Cities please visit


Author: Poppy Potter

Poppy Potter is the Director of Operations at VOBS’s Twin Cities Center where she helps form partnerships between schools and youth serving agencies. She’s spent more than 25 years working with youth and adults in the experiential education field, whether an outdoor setting or in the traditional classroom. She holds a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and acquired her Special Education teaching license in 2007.