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

A Brief Overview:

  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. The SEL Online Education Modules are designed for educators, administrators, school staff, others professionals, and parents.
  • Moments of trouble can provide insight about unmet needs. Meeting those moments with compassion helps children learn better in all areas.
  • High social-emotional scores correspond to better attendance, higher graduation rates, fewer suspensions, and improved academic scores.
  • Family caregivers can learn the vocabulary and key principles of SEL and compassionate schools to collaborate with schools.  A list of terms is included at the end of this article.

Full Article

Educators and communities have a new vocabulary for discussing what schools and families might do 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). The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a training program for school staff focused on Social-Emotional Learning. The SEL Online Education Modules are designed for educators, administrators, school staff, others professionals, and parents.

Development of the learning modules 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.

Principles for Compassionate Schools

The training modules are an extension of the Compassionate Schools Initiative within Student Engagement and Support at OSPI, which provides resources to schools aspiring to consider a trauma responsive infrastructure. OSPI’s website lists 10 principles for a compassionate school:

  1. Focus on culture and climate in the school and community.
  2. Train and support all staff regarding trauma and learning.
  3. Encourage and sustain open and regular communication for all.
  4. Develop a strengths-based approach in working with students and peers.
  5. Ensure discipline policies are both compassionate and effective (Restorative Practices).
  6. Weave compassionate strategies into school improvement planning.
  7. Provide tiered support for all students based on what they need.
  8. Create flexible accommodations for diverse learners.
  9. Provide access, voice, and ownership for staff, students, and community.
  10. Use data to:
    1. Identify vulnerable students, and
    2. Determine outcomes and strategies for continuous quality improvement.

The Heart of Learning and Teaching

Also available from OSPI is a link to download a free e-book called “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.” The handbook, first published in 2009, was written and compiled by OSPI and Western Washington University staff 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, in 2017 stated that some schools were providing best practice trainings and resources while others remained in the early stages of SEL programming. “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.”

SEL improves learning and keeps kids in class

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 and skill building over punishment, many schools find that children learn better in all areas—including academics—and are less likely to be removed from class because of behaviors.

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.”

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL instruction improves graduation rates and academic scores while reducing rates of exclusionary discipline. The CASEL website includes data from a pilot study begun in 2012 in Washoe County School District, Reno, Nevada. According to CASEL’s report, graduation rates are up 20 points and students with higher social emotional scores perform better than students with lower scores. They are:

  • More than twice as likely to stay in school
  • Less likely to be referred for an in-school suspension (3 percent: 8.8 percent)
  • More likely to score well on math assessments (45 percent: 23 percent)
  • More likely to score well on English Language Arts assessments (61 percent: 40 percent)
  • More likely to graduate (89 percent: 73 percent

Poor SEL skills cause problems that start young

Without SEL skills, children clearly struggle. The Child Mind Institute cautions that problems start early and students in special education are at high risk:

  • Expulsions in prekindergarten are 89 percent higher when classrooms do not have regular access to a psychiatrist or psychologist, while only 23 percent of pre-K programs nationwide have on-site psychiatrists/psychologists or scheduled visits.
  • Being at risk for mental health problems in first grade leads to a 5 percent drop in academic performance in just two years.
  • More than 77,000 children in special education receive suspensions or expulsions for more than 10 cumulative days in a year—including children with autism, anxiety, and learning disorders. See PAVE’s article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.
  • Children suspended or expelled for more than 10 days include 5.7 percent of children with emotional disturbance and 2.6 percent of students with other health impairments (OHI), an IEP disability category that includes such conditions as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • In one study, the suspension/expulsion rate for students with emotional disturbance as the IEP eligibility category was 64 percent.

Learn the language of SEL to promote Compassionate Schools

Families are a valuable part of the conversation as school staff learn and apply SEL/Compassionate approaches. Family caregivers can help school staff learn key vocabulary. Here are some terms to being with, from OSPI’s Heart of Learning guidebook:

  • 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 consider are restorative discipline, positive behavior supports, collaborative repair, misbehavior versus stress behavior, emotional vocabulary, replacement skills, reframing and social competence.

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.”