Incorporating Social-Emotional Learning into Schools

By Richard M. Long

Teachers need clear guidance and effective training to intervene and notify other professionals to help keep students and schools safe

In the Elements of Success, the members of the Learning First Alliance present an integrated, profession-wide view that educating the total child includes social-emotional learning (SEL). The challenge is, how to integrate the SEL into an already full program?

It’s important to note that a wide range of educators support having teachers, parents, principals, and other educators have a role in promoting effective mental health. It is also important that we all understand that this also includes learning how to work effectively in groups, having a sense of self-awareness and self-control. Additionally, the education community knows that teachers and administrators need ongoing training and continued professional learning experiences to help each adult in the building know how they are to respond when they see students who are not reacting well to a given situation.

Fortunately, there are successful models that include important, replicable components. These understand that:

  • Teachers are given clear guidance as to their responsibilities. This means that teachers are not supposed to become the counselor; nor are they to simply stand aside.
  •  Teachers are provided the professional learning experiences to determine what is a significant mental health issue, how to respond in the moment, and who to call for further help. 
  • Teachers must have a channel to communicate what they have observed to other professionals who are to intervene.

In successful schools, teachers have been working closely with the school counselors, social workers, and psychologists.  Some schools have an active Response to Intervention program (sometimes called a ‘multi-tiered system of supports’) (RTI/MTSS) so that teachers are part of a process to help students who have behavior or academic challenges.  An example of this is the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) program, which provides a plan for teachers, and counselors to work collaboratively to help students in need of specific classroom interventions.  While in other schools, there has been an increased awareness of bullying. The result has been that in each of these areas, teachers and administrators are part of a system designed to work cooperatively with other professionals. 

Yet, the intensity of problems seems to be increasing.  Discussions on RTI/MTSS and anti-bullying strategies are being overshadowed by immediate concerns over mass shootings, homicides and attempted homicides, and suicides in schools. 

One of the responses is to conduct threat assessments in a school.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, threat assessment is a prevention strategy that, first, identifies students’ threats to commit a violent act; second, determines the seriousness of the threat, and then develops intervention plans that protect potential victims and address the underlying problem or conflict. NASP writes, “The goals of threat assessment are to keep schools safe and to help potential offenders overcome the underlying sources of their anger, hopelessness, or despair. Effective threat assessment provides school professionals with useful information about a student's risks and personal resources. Among the other potential student risks that can be identified and prevented are suicide, alcohol and drug use, physical abuse, dropping out, and criminal activity.”

However, we know that we really don’t have enough of the critical personnel in the schools today.  For example, the ratio of school counselors to students is 482:1; while the recommended ratio is 250:1, according to the American School Counselor Association. As a result, teachers and building administrators are left to fulfill these duties.  The result is that teachers are now having to predict which students could be a danger to themselves or others, and then be prepared to intervene and protect others in a crisis.  This is not how we should be proceeding.

Communities need to be advocating for:

  1. Time for professional learning to understand warning signs and how to report concerns about specific students or behaviors;
  2. Resources to have the school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists to ensure that effective interventions can be accomplished;
  3. The ability to ensure that every child has at least one or two adults in the building they can trust to report threats and concerns; and
  4. Tools and procedures that link all of these caring adults together as well as connect with the community's mental health system to ensure that students who need more help, can get it.

We are very pleased to see schools that are focusing on the emotional well-being of their students. However, this can't be an add-on or open-ended commitment. While schools can't become community mental health centers, they can be settings that integrate strategies for health and well-being into the day-to-day routines of the school.

But none of this happens by chance.  We recommend using the Elements of Success as a framework to discuss  how your school is going to manage this change.  Successful schools emphasize the need for professionals, guidelines, training, and feedback systems.   

Richard Long is executive director of the Learning First Alliance. This column initially appeared on his Medium blog.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance.




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