A Brief Overview
- Children who are taught self-regulation are more resilient and learn better in academics and more. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques that are aspects of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
- “Kids do well if they can,” says Ross W. Greene, a child psychologist and author. In a short YouTube video, Greene says, “The biggest favor you can do a challenging kid is to finally, at long last, be the person who figures out what’s getting in his way.”
- PAVE provides additional articles about Social Emotional Learning.
- Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI also provides free online SEL training, links to information about SEL state learning standards, and more on the Social and Emotional Learning page of its website: k12.wa.us.
When children act out at school, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but research indicates that suspending and expelling students is ineffective for improving behavior and can cause harm (NIH.gov).
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools marks a shift toward education that promotes self-regulation, resiliency, problem-solving skills, and more. “Kids do well if they can,” says Ross W. Greene, who explains his statement in a short YouTube video. Greene is a clinical child psychologist and author of the books The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost & Found, and Raising Human Beings.
By accepting the logic that kids do well if they can, adults shift away from believing that kids behave only if they “want to” and allows for problem-solving, Greene says: “The biggest favor you can do a challenging kid is to finally, at long last, be the person who figures out what’s getting in the way [of doing well].”
Behavior is communication: “Get curious, not furious”
Adults can consider behavior as a form of communication and seek to understand the function of the behavior. One educator refers to this approach as “Getting Curious (Not Furious) With Students.” In the article, posted to Edutopia.org June 29, 2016, Rebecca Alber says, “When teachers get curious instead of furious, they don’t take the student’s behavior personally, and they don’t act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them.”
Alber lists the primary benefits to schools when they promote SEL and trauma-informed approaches to discipline:
- Improved student academic achievement
- Less student absences, detentions, and suspensions
- Reduction of stress for staff and students and less bullying and harassment
- Improved teacher sense of job satisfaction and safety
Tip: Request a Functional Behavior Assessment
A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) may be necessary in circumstances where behavior consistently impedes learning. Schools can use FBA data to build an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP may support an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or could be a stand-alone plan for any student.
When using positive behavior support strategies, adults can avoid judging behavior with labels such as bad, non-compliant, defiant, uncooperative, etc. Researchers have found that those labels often refer to adult perception and frustration about what is happening more than they explain what a child may be trying to express.
Family caregivers might read through a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a behavior plan, disciplinary referrals, or other notes from the school to notice what type of language is being used to describe what’s happening. Requesting a meeting to discuss an FBA and/or strategy for SEL skill-building is an option.
Raw moments are opportunities to teach from the heart
Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares Trauma-Informed Solutions for parents, schools, and other professionals.
“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control],” Forbes writes, “that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”
In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes: “These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”
Regulation starts in the brain
SEL supports are informed by brain science. OSPI provides a free downloadable handbook, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success. Included in Chapter One is a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage meltdowns. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.
Writing for Edutopia, Rebecca Alber recommends that teachers learn to understand and recognize impacts of trauma and to understand that apparent refusal to comply might actually be a trauma-based response.
“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking,” Alber says, “it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”
Use Your Words
Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:
- I am sad.
- I feel sad.
The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”
Encourage rather than simply praise
Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job,” which can trigger an emotional response but may not reinforce learning, a teacher or parent might say instead:
- “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
- “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
- “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”
The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:
A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.
This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:
“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”
A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now
Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. If you prefer, you can watch a short video from PAVE that demonstrates this technique: Stop and Settle with Five-Fingers Breath.
You will be breathing evenly as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.
- Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
- Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
- As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
- Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
- Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
- Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
- When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
- Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.
Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with other family members!