Social Emotional Learning, Part 1: The Importance of Compassionate Schools

Highway Signpost "Compassion - Straight Ahead"

A Brief Overview:

  • OSPI has introduced a five-segment training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. This program is designed to help school staff understand their roles in promoting students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.
  • This program encourages staff to use trouble moments as opportunities to understand unmet needs – meeting these moments with compassion helps children learn better in all areas.
  • There are many benefits to students having high social-emotional scores – stay in school, less in-school suspension, and better math & reading scores.
  • You can bring this information into meetings with school staff and use it to help design creative behavior supports within your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Full Article

Educators and communities are starting a new conversation about what schools need to teach when children are stressed out and struggling. Self-awareness, emotional management, goal-setting, responsible decision making and relationship skills are taking their place alongside academic subjects.

These life skills are part of a growing area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). In September, Washington’s Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) introduces a five-segment training program for school staff. The Social-Emotional Learning Module was authorized by Senate Bill 6620 during the 2016 legislative session: “In order to foster a school climate that promotes safety and security, school district staff should receive proper training in developing students’ social and emotional skills,” the bill states.

The modules are intended for all school staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—to understand their roles in promoting students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.

The new training module is an outgrowth of OSPI’s Compassionate Schools Initiative, which provides training, guidance, referral, and technical assistance to schools wishing to adopt a Compassionate Schools approach. Available online are a power point presentation and a free e-book called “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success” (link below). The handbook, first published in 2009, was developed through a collaboration with university and public educators working with state officials in response to a growing body of knowledge about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the effects of childhood trauma on learning.

Ron Hertel, Program Supervisor for Social and Emotional Learning/Compassionate Schools at OSPI, says that some schools are doing a remarkable job of providing new trainings and resources but that other schools are still in the early stages of SEL programming. He is hopeful that the new training modules will further those efforts. “Social emotional learning is the foundation for both life and learning, whether or not a student is impacted by trauma,” Hertel says. “By providing specific guidance on the relevance of SEL skills as well as exploring implementation strategies, we hope to provide a firm platform schools can use to support social emotional development for all students.”

Social Emotional Learning is a nationwide movement. The National Research Council issued this statement in 2012: “There is broad agreement that today’s schools must offer more than academic instruction to prepare students for life and work.”

An important component of SEL is the recognition that problem behaviors offer critical clues about a child’s unmet needs or undeveloped social and emotional skills. These behaviors can be especially pronounced in children with developmental delays, emotional disturbances or other disabilities that qualify them for special education.

By using troubling moments as teachable moments and prioritizing compassion over punishment, many schools are finding that children learn better in all areas—including academics. New evidence clearly shows that when children learn to problem-solve their way out of trouble with socially competent strategies and self-regulation techniques, classrooms operate more effectively and everybody benefits.

For its 2016 Mental Health Report, the Child Mind Institute analyzed data from more than 200 studies. At schools with specific social emotional learning programs, students were 22 percent more likely to demonstrate social emotional competence. In those schools, measures of emotional distress were lower and grades were higher.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), graduation rates get better, too. According to CASEL, students with higher social emotional scores:

  • Are more than twice as likely to stay in school.
  • Have fewer in-school suspensions (3 percent versus 8.8 percent)
  • Get higher marks in math and reading assessments

Without these skills, children are struggling. Included in the Child Mind Institute’s report are a variety of statistical data that show students in special education are at the greatest risk. For example, states with above-average rates of children with attention deficit and specific learning disabilities report school suspension rates that are twice the national average.

“All children face rising rates of suspension, especially minority children,” the report states. “But the ‘zero tolerance’ focus on mandatory punishment for certain behaviors targets children with impulse or emotion regulation control problems often caused by mental health disorders.”

These same challenges are linked to higher drop-out rates and eventually to higher rates of incarceration and disengagement from work and community. The dropout rate for all students is seven percent, while the rate for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is more than 20 percent. For students whose qualifying disability is Emotional Disturbance, the rate climbs to almost 40 percent. That number is especially concerning because data indicate that high-school dropouts are 63 times more likely to go to jail than college graduates.

Even so, childhood behaviors don’t have to predict a lifetime of distress and disengagement. One study reviewed in the Child Mind Institute’s report shows that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent, minor disruptions, such as tardiness or disrespect. Clearly, efforts to teach social skills and emotional regulation can have a critical impact.

Families are a valuable part of the conversation as school staff learn and apply these new approaches. You can bring this information into meetings with school staff and use it to help design creative behavior supports within your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). OSPI’s Heart of Learning guidebook offers some key definitions to bring to the table:

  • Compassion: a feeling of deep empathy and respect and a strong desire to actively help someone stricken by misfortune.
  • Trauma: a state of distress caused by the inability to respond in a healthy way to acute or chronic stress.
  • Resiliency: the ability to withstand and rebound from adversity.
  • Compassionate School: a place where staff and students are aware of the challenges that others face and respond with supports that remove barriers to learning.
  • School-Community Partnership: a relationship that supports a shared goal of providing resources through responsibility and collaboration.

Other principles to research and consider include: restorative discipline, positive behavior supports, collaborative repair, misbehavior versus stress behavior, emotional vocabulary, replacement skills, reframing and social competence.

The Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI) offers tips about teaching “skill fluency” when problem behaviors highlight a child’s untrained attempt to cope or problem-solve: “When children do not know how to identify emotions, handle disappointment or anger, or develop healthy relationships, a teacher’s best response is to teach.”

In its conclusions, OSPI’s Heart of Learning e-book includes this statement: “The education reform movement in the United States has made great strides in transforming curricula and other aspects of the educational system. Social, emotional and behavioral health is the necessary next step for building better schools to nurture healthy brains and happy children.”

Stay tuned for more articles from PAVE. For more information, these links will connect you to a variety of resources:

2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
TACSEI: Challenging Behavior
The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassionate Schools
CASEL
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
Beyond Consequences
Building Social Skills in the Early Years and Beyond