Social Emotional Learning, Part 3: Tools for Regulation and Resiliency

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.

Full Article

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:

  1. I am sad.
  2. 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!

Social Emotional Learning, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Instruction

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Full Article

“Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

Children with trauma backgrounds can be more ready to learn when adults take time to cultivate feelings of safety and connection first. Neuroscientist Bruce Perry provides a “3 Rs” approach to intervention: Regulate, Relate, and Reason. The Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety provides specific guidance.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

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.”

State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

A Brief Overview

  • Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process through which children and adults effectively manage emotions, reach toward goals, experience empathy, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
  • In school, all students participate in SEL as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Specific SEL instruction can also be part of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members.
  • A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status.
  • A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

Full Article

A child’s ability to understand, communicate, and manage emotions is critical to learning. So are skills that enable a child to socialize, self-motivate, empathize, and work collaboratively. Schools call this area of education Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL is not just for children. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Students with disabilities may qualify for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in social and/or emotional areas of learning as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Eligibility for SDI is determined through evaluation, and schools use various instruments to assess whether a student has a disability affecting social or emotional skills to an extent that education is significantly impacted. If so, the student’s IEP will support learning in those social/emotional areas, and goal-monitoring will track skill growth.

Students with IEPs are not the only ones who receive SEL instruction, however. Schools may use curricula to promote emotional understanding, social stories, mindfulness programs, communication circles or other strategies as part of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a framework for improving school-wide social, emotional, and cultural climate. Schools that adopt an MTSS framework deliver SEL to all students (Tier 1) and generally offer Tier 2 and Tier 3 programming to targeted groups or individual students.

Parenting Tip: Ask whether your school uses an MTSS framework

Family caregivers can ask school staff and administrators whether the district operates within an MTSS framework.

  • If the answer is no, ask how school climate is addressed and how SEL is integrated into school-wide programming.
  • If the answer is yes, ask what SEL instruction looks like in the general education classroom (Tier 1) and how specialized lessons are provided to students with higher levels of need (Tiers 2-3). Note that a student who does not qualify for an IEP could demonstrate the need for social/emotional instruction beyond what is provided to most students. Family caregivers can ask for detail about how the school’s MTSS system supports any specific student.

State adopts six SEL standards

Washington State adopted formal Social Emotional Learning Standards January 1, 2020. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to all public and non-public educational agencies in the state, provides an SEL website page with resources for educators, families, and community members. Included is a link to the official letter in which State Superintendent Chris Reykdal adopted the standards, and a collection of resources to support SEL implementation and to further understanding about how families and communities can participate.

A primary document is the 24-page Social Emotional Learning Standards, Benchmarks, and Indicators, which defines the six SEL learning standards and various benchmarks under each. An extensive chart offers practical guidance for assessing each standard for students in Early Elementary, Late Elementary, Middle School, and High School/Adult. The SEL learning standards include:

  1. SELF-AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to identify their emotions, personal assets, areas for growth, and potential external resources and supports.
  2. SELF-MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  3. SELF-EFFICACY – Individuals have the ability to motivate themselves, persevere, and see themselves as capable.
  4. SOCIAL AWARENESS – Individuals have the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  5. SOCIAL MANAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to make safe and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions.
  6. SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT – Individuals have the ability to consider others and show a desire to contribute to the well-being of the school and community.

Developmental milestones are charted with a variety of statements that might demonstrate the skill or disposition within an age range.  

  • For example, a late elementary age student might show self-awareness this way: “I can identify and describe physical symptoms and thoughts related to my emotions and feelings (e.g., hot, shoulders tight).”
  • A middle-school student might demonstrate self-efficacy this way: “I can identify specific human and civil rights and freedoms to which everyone is entitled and can understand how to advocate for myself in healthy ways.”

Tip for Parents: Promote SEL at home

Included on the SEL website page is a list of learning activities for families and educators. The eight-page guide includes links to videos, websites, and ready-to-use resources to encourage positive behavior support and helpful communication at home and at school.  Resources are sorted by age and marked to indicate whether they are best suited for family caregivers, teachers, or both.

  • For example, parents of children K-5 might want to click on SEL Games to Play With Your Child to find a resource from Understood.org. One game, Starfish and Tornadoes, helps kids notice how much energy they are feeling inside and when they might need to use their calming skills or ask for help from a trusted adult.
  • A suggestion for grades 5-12 is to Practice Loving-Kindness for Someone you Care About. That exercise from Greater Good in Education provides adaptations for students with disabilities and suggests ways to make the project culturally responsive.

Another document accessible through OSPI’s website is a three-page guide for parents and families, which includes resource linkages to free online training, parenting cue cards with quick answers to typical concerns, and access to other websites with tools and advice specific for various stages of child development. Also included are tips to promote SEL at home by encouraging a child to:

  • Identify and name their emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
  • Identify positive and negative consequences of actions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to follow routines and generate ideas to solve problems.
  • Create a goal and track progress toward achieving that goal.
  • Identify feelings expressed by others.
  • Identify ways that people and groups are similar and different.
  • Demonstrate attentive listening skills without distraction.
  • Identify and take steps to resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.
  • Demonstrate a sense of community responsibility

SEL guidance supports equity and inclusion

  • Principles listed throughout the state SEL guidance include:
  • Equity: Each child receives what he or she needs to develop his or her full potential.
  • Cultural responsiveness: Culture is viewed as a resource for learning, not a barrier.
  • Universal design: Learning differences are planned for and accommodated.
  • Trauma-informed: Knowledge of the effects of trauma is integrated into policy and practice.

State guidance that describes the SEL standards and benchmarks includes this statement: “Social emotional learning (SEL) happens over the course of a day, a lifetime, and in every setting in which students and adults spend their time.… Effectively supporting social emotional development in schools requires collaboration among families and communities. It also involves building adult capacity to support a school climate and culture that recognizes, respects, and supports differences in abilities, experiences, and ethnic and cultural differences, and celebrates diversity.”

A 12-page SEL equity brief focuses specifically on issues of equity as they relate to race, culture, and economic status. “A white, middle-class model of self that values independence dominates schools,” the brief states. “Students of color and students in low-income communities often experience ‘cultural mismatch’ in education settings that expect forms of expression and participation not aligned with their culture.

“Without explicit attention to equity and cultural diversity, prevalent SEL frameworks, models, and curricula may not adequately reflect the diverse worldviews of students and families.”

Parenting Tip: Attend your local school board meeting to influence decisions

The state’s SEL implementation guide is intended for local districts to use in developing their own school- or community-specific plan to meet the needs of all learners. Because Washington is a local control state, each district is responsible for policy development.

Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

HB 2816 promotes positive school climate

A state law that took effect June 11, 2020, further compels work related to SEL. HB 2816, which was inspired and supported by activist parents, requires the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) to develop a model policy “for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

The model policy and procedures for its implementation includes specific elements to “recognize the important role that students’ families play in collaborating with the school and school district in creating, maintaining, and nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.” In addition, districts “must provide information to the parents and guardians of enrolled students regarding students’ rights to a free public education, regardless of immigration status or religious beliefs; and school districts must provide meaningful access to this information for families with limited English proficiency.”

In accordance with HB 2816, the WSSDA website will post the model policy and procedure by March 1, 2021. School districts are responsible to incorporate the guidance by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year: “School districts may periodically review policies and procedures for consistency with updated versions of the model policy for nurturing a positive social and emotional school and classroom climate.”

SEL is linked to research about Adverse Childhood Experiences

A national movement to incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is informed by knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of new evidence-based practices were developed to support childhood resiliency. 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.”

The 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and Senate Bill 6620 in 2016 authorized development of a free online training module in SEL for school staff. The bill states that, “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.” Development of the state SEL Standards furthers that work.

Parenting tip: Work on your own SEL skills

Family caregivers play an important role in fostering SEL by working on their own self-regulation skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides a wide array of resources, including some related to stressors from COVID-19. “We need to pay close attention to our own social emotional needs in order to be the community of adults who best serve our young people,” CASEL advises. “Practice continued self-care strategies, including eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and finding time to take breaks.” CASEL provides a checklist to reframe your thinking, including ideas about “all-or-nothing” or overgeneralization, for example.

PAVE provides a series of short mindfulness videos for all ages and abilities and offers additional mindfulness and parenting ideas in an article, Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

Parents are a child’s primary SEL teachers

Family caregivers can help foster SEL skills by collaborating with the school. OSPI’s guidance includes this statement: “Parents and families are a child’s first teachers of SEL. As children grow, parents and families continue to support the social emotional lives of their children in the home.”

Here are a few questions parents might ask school staff to collaborate on SEL skill development:

  • How are you helping my child learn from mistakes?
  • If behavior is keeping my child from learning, what skill is lacking?
  • What is a best-practice strategy for teaching the skill that my child needs to learn?
  • Do you have a tool for understanding and regulating emotions that we can use at home also?
  • How is my child learning to “name and tame” emotions? (Dan Siegel, neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, suggests that recognizing and naming a feeling gives a person power to regulate the emotion.)
  • What positive reinforcement is being provided when my child demonstrates a new skill? How are those positive reinforcers tracked through data collection?
  • What is the plan to help my child calm down when dysregulation makes problem-solving inaccessible?
  • Would a Functional Behavior Assessment help us understand what my child is trying to communicate through this unexpected behavior?
  • Can we collaborate to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan so that we are using the same cues and language to support expected behavior?
  • What adult at the school is a “champion” for my child? (Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”)

Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home

A Brief Overview

  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a strategy schools use to teach children expected behavior. Read on for PBIS strategies families can use at home.
  • A key PBIS principle is that punishment fails to teach children and youth what they should do instead. Adults can direct a child toward a better choice or interrupt an escalation cycle.
  • The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right. Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done,” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
  • Parents might find success with strategies they can share with school staff eventually.
  • For additional strategies unique to COVID-19, the Office of Superintendent of Public instruction (OSPI) offers a series of 3 webinars for family caregivers. For information and links to the videos, see PAVE’s article: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

Full Article

Schedule changes and seasonal transitions cause emotional upheaval for some families in typical years. Summer 2020 includes unique conditions, with families moving into a summer with fewer-than-usual options to keep children busy after months of learning from home due to the COVID-19 building closures. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer.

Experts in education use a framework for creating a positive environment called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.

Punishment does not teach

PBIS requires an understanding that punishment fails to help a child know what to do instead. Researchers have learned that a child who is being punished enters an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that blocks learning. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation.

Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. For strategies related to mindfulness, see PAVE’s article: Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short videos with mindfulness and breath practices for all ages and abilities: Mindfulness Videos.

Within a PBIS framework, de-escalation strategies might include:

  • Remove what is causing the behavior
  • Get down to eye level
  • Offer empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
  • Provide choices
  • Re-teach expectations
  • Reinforce desired behaviors
  • Communicate care instead of control

Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate

Simple, consistent, predictable language is a critical component. Insights about these strategies and more were shared in a webinar by Change Lab Solutions on April 30, 2019.

Among experts talking about PBIS are staff at the University of Washington’s School of Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center. Staff from the SMART center lead the School Mental Health supplement of the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (NWMHTTC). These agencies, in collaboration with the League of Education Voters, in June 2019 hosted a webinar: How to Implement Mental Health Supports in Schools, focused on the importance of blending school and community supports with PBIS.

A University of Washington (UW) expert who participated in the webinar is Kelcey Schmitz, a former OSPI staff member who has written articles for PAVE about positive behavior supports and state initiatives and has experience helping families and schools implement PBIS.

“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”

Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a successful PBIS home environment.

Support Positive Behavior before there is a problem

PBIS is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.

Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there is a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors.  Parents can look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible, and safe.

Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. In a school setting, Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice, and reinforcement. Tier 3 supports include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to find out why the behavior is occurring, and an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

Any student may access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.

Define, teach, and routinely acknowledge family expectations

  • Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look like and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
    • Speak in a respectful voice.
    • Be responsible for actions.
    • Be safe; keep hands, feet, and objects to self.
  • Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines.  Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible, and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
  • Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right!
  • Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.

Create engaging and predictable routines

  • Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
  • Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together, if possible.  Parents can ask a child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!

Set the stage for positive behavior

  • Teach, pre-teach, and re-teach. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “When we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”
  • Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
  • First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
  • Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like NoDon’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.
  • Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”

While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability, and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.

Here are places to seek additional information:

Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior 

Home and Community Based Positive Behavior Support Facebook Page

Home and Community PBS Website

Parent Center Hub Positive Behavior Supports Resource Collection

Intensive Intervention: An Overview for Parents and Families

The Association for Positive Behavior Support

Getting Behavior in Shape at Home

Family Resources for Challenging Behavior

The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) Resource Library, articles in multiple languages

Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe

A Brief Overview

Full Article

Big feelings are happening. We feel them, and we care for others who are having them. Times of uncertainly cause stress that makes big feelings feel bigger. Emotions might seem to run away with all the energy we had left. It can feel hard to breathe, and it’s easy to lose a sense of control over what happens within the span of a day.

Taking time to pause and organize the days ahead can help, especially if mindfulness and breath practices are built into the schedule.

Here’s a to-do list for every day

  1. Have a plan
  2. Be real with big feelings
  3. Breathe

The rest of this article provides ideas about these three strategies. Please note that resources included are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services.

Organize the day to create predictability

Getting organized with a clear routine is helpful because predictability calms the nervous system, suggests the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL offered a webinar in early April to help parents and educators explore Social Emotional Learning (SEL) during the stay-home order related to COVID-19.

A key presenter was Jennifer Miller, founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, which  provides an article for parents: Setting up for Homework Success. Miller offers a video describing how to establish a morning routine to give each day a predictable jump-start. She advises families to schedule intentional moments for loving connection throughout each day. For example, one of her family’s rituals is a hallway hug first thing out of bed.

To support children in feeling safe, confident and in control, Miller recommends that adults plan-ahead to speak out loud when they notice children taking care of business: “I notice you are getting dressed…brushing teeth…feeding the dog… all by yourself.”

Predictability, contribution and accomplishment are all feelings that calm the brain and can be part of making and maintaining a family schedule. Miller advises that all members of the family work together to design the plan.

The family’s daily schedule can include a wake-up routine, movement, nature time, academics, rest time, meals and shared cooking/cleaning, screen time, art time, chores, reading, bath time, bedtime…. The schedule can have words and/or pictures and should be posted where everyone can refer to it.

Generally, children respond well to having some built-in choices and a variety of brain breaks. Sample family schedules are easy to search for online; families might prefer to design their own format, just for them.

Here are some places to look for ideas:

  • Mother.ly shares a mom’s family schedule that “went viral” during the pandemic.
  • Get-Organized-Mom.com offers printable forms and samples for how to use them.
  • Adding Homeschool to an online search brings up a wide selection of options, some for free and some with a small cost.

Feel big feelings, and let others feel theirs too

Generally, humans are emotional. We feel, and we respond to what we feel. Squished emotions usually don’t go away but loom larger. Here are a few strategies for being with big feelings:

Talk openly: Big feelings can be more manageable when they are spoken and shared. Ask another person, What are you feeling right now? Listen without judgment or analysis. Here’s one way to respond: Wow, that’s a lot to feel. Tell me more. A Sesame Street program called  Here for Each Other offers a 90-second video posted to YouTube to help adults talk to children about Big Feelings. To help families discuss feelings specifically related to COVID-19, PBS.org provides toolkits in English and Spanish.

Name it to tame it: Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist, recommends calling out emotions in order to manage them. Here’s a short video: Name it to tame it. To make brain science practical, Siegel talks about an upstairs brain and a downstairs brain. When the downstairs brain (emotion) controls the show, the upstairs brain (learning/problem-solving) clicks offline. Here are some ideas for what to do if someone is overwhelmed by emotion:

  • Create a safe physical space: Offer a drink of water, a blanket, a stuffed animal.
  • Keep a kind voice, move slowly, and back away/get low if your energy might feel like a threat (if you are a bigger or have more power, for example).
  • Turn down lights or turn on music if that makes sense for the other person.
  • Say something to simply acknowledge the big feelings: “I understand that (this is hard, makes you mad, scares you…).”
  • Allow enough time for the brain finds a way back “upstairs.”
  • When things are calm, work together to describe the big feelings and the experience of being with those feelings. 

Use pictures to identify emotions: Charts to help identify emotions are easy to find. Here’s a link on Pinterest with dozens of examples of printable or hand-made options. Making a chart together can create learning on many levels. A teacher might have a feelings chart to share.

Notice that feelings aren’t who you are: This strategy is from a meditation technique called Integrative Restoration (iRest.org). Notice a feeling as separate from the bigger picture of who you really are. Here’s a statement to sort that out: I have feelings, but I’m not my feelings. What happens when that statement is made? Is it possible to catch feelings in the act of forming or changing? This can be a conversation you have in your own mind or with another person.

Explore feelings through the body: This technique is common in yoga. Ask someone else or yourself: What feelings are happening right now, and where is the body feeling them? Talk about how a feeling seems to “live” in a certain place—or travel around the body. There is no good, bad, right or wrong way to feel. Give yourself or a family member permission to move around and maybe make sound in a way that safely helps the emotion express itself.  GoNoodle.com offers additional strategies for children to explore movement and mindfulness.

Schedule mindfulness: Make sure that big feelings have time to be seen and heard. According to an article for parents from the Child Mind Institute, “Designating time to practice mindful activities as a family will help everyone feel less anxious. It could be a daily family yoga session, or a quiet walk in the woods as a group, taking time to focus on the way the air feels, the sound of the birds and the smell of the trees. Another good family mindfulness idea is asking everyone to mention one good thing they heard or saw that day over dinner.” The Child Mind Institute provides access to live video chats with clinicians, telemedicine and more. The agency provides guidance in English and Spanish and offers parents an opportunity to sign up for a COVID-19 tip of the day.

Breathe with trees and plants

A calming breath works like a life vest when it feels like emotions are rushing us downriver and threatening to take us under. The basic goal is to regulate the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and to make sure that carbon dioxide is being expelled in a balanced way. Here’s one idea for a breath that might boost relaxation:

  • Find a place where you can see a tree or a plant. Notice details about the leaves, needles or branches.
  • Note that trees and plants release oxygen into the air.
  • Breathe in gently and feel like the plant or tree is giving oxygen to you.
  • Breathe out gently and consider that your carbon dioxide is the food the tree or plant needs.
  • Experience a moment of being grateful that nature is breathing with you. Say thank you if it feels good to say it out loud.

PAVE provides a 5-minute video to help you breathe with trees and plants!

Feeling panic? Breathe easy and smooth

When anxiety causes feelings of panic, easy is the magic word for breathing. Some evidence suggests that a stressed-out person might feel more anxious by taking breaths that are too slow or deep. Dizziness, shortness of breath and feelings of suffocation can be signs that the gases exchanged during a breath aren’t balanced well. Here’s one source for information about why even breathing might be more calming than a really big, deep breath: LiveScience.com.

Here’s something to practice regularly to help your body find its calm, easy breath:

  • Notice your breath and just watch it for a little bit.
  • Start counting as you inhale and notice how long that lasts.
  • Start to match the inhale count and the exhale count.
  • Don’t try to slow your breath down, but gently try to make each breath about the same, counting the same time on the inhale and the exhale.
  • Don’t work to fill or empty your lungs all the way. Keep it easy.
  • Try breathing evenly for at least a minute—longer if you enjoy it.

Bonus Ideas: Consider whether there’s a young person in your house who could learn this breath, practice and then teach it to someone else. Another idea is for a child to practice breathing with a stuffed animal. On their tummy, the stuffed animal goes for a ride. Being hugged, the animal can feel the breath too.

PAVE hopes the ideas in this article might help your family members organize themselves around days and weeks at home that might nourish everyone with moments of peace, personal growth and learning. Understanding how to be with big feelings and breathe with ease can take a bit of practice, but the result can build emotional resilience. We hope all can find simple ways to make emotional learning and self-care part of each day to support the well-being of all.

If you need direct support in caring for children with special educational or medical needs, please click Get Help from our home page, wapave.org.

For serious conditions related to mental health and to find a professional provider, contact the Washington Recovery Help Line: 866-789-1511.

The WA State Department of Health provides a Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families Supporting Children and Teens During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published in July 2020. Each age-specific section (toddlers, school-age children, teens) includes information on common emotional responses, helping children heal and grow, and managing feelings and behaviors children may experience.

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities are disciplined twice as often as non-disabled peers. Washington is taking actions to remedy the inequities. Read on for examples of the new state rules and where to go for more information.  
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students are receiving the best-practice services they need and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), in collaboration with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), provides a 46-minute YouTube video about behavior management practices and student rights. Included is information about use of isolation and restraint and OCR data related to compliance reviews nationwide.
  • Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”
  • Concern is nationwide. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2018 issued a state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect.”
  • If the school calls to send a child home, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a formal suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to communicate distress or manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require from typically developing students. Data clearly show that students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently than their non-disabled peers. By learning about state and federal guidelines, parents can advocate to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need to successfully access school and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.

Parents can empower themselves by learning the federal framework for special education protections. Students who receive services or accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are guaranteed access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. Schools follow specific procedures when they discipline students with special needs to avoid violations of FAPE.

For example, a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be excluded from school because of behavior that results from a disability: Read on for further information about Manifestation Determination Hearings. Also, schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments.

Some agencies are researching the impacts of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, on children and their families. Some research shows that trauma and a worsening of mental health are outcomes. Excessive punishments are linked to negative lifelong outcomes, such as reduced graduation rates and more incarcerations. The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (challengingbehavior.org) has a webinar about the impact of suspensions on children in early learning.

Unexpected behavior may indicate that a student has a disability and needs services

Federal laws can protect students who haven’t yet been identified as having disabilities. School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called the Child Find mandate. Suspension, expulsion, isolation or restraint due to unexpected behavior can initiate an evaluation process, and students who qualify for services can retroactively be afforded protections from the IDEA or Section 504.

The Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet on Restraint and Seclusion that succinctly describes some federal guidelines related to disciplinary action and disability:

“A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Washington State has new rules for schools

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all Washington school districts, in July 2018 adopted new state guidelines related to discipline. OSPI provides a Parent Guide to discipline, available in multiple languages, on its website.

Also available is a Menu of Best Practices and Strategies. Restorative justice, behavioral health support and social skills instruction are on the menu for a more proactive, student-centered approach. The state includes requirements for parent notification and family engagement in the new rules, which are being implemented over two years, 2018-2020.

“The state discipline rules were created four decades ago,” says Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our students and schools are vastly different today. The new rules provide more clarity and they allow for student, family, and community input in developing local discipline policies.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different. We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”

Students with disabilities and students of color are disciplined more frequently

OSPI reports that 3.5 percent of all students were suspended or expelled during the 2016–17 school year. Among students receiving special education services, the percentage was 7.1 percent. For African-American students, the percentage was 7.4 percent. For Latino students, the rate was 4.1 percent. Students of color who also have disabilities are impacted at the highest rates. Seattle’s King 5 News on Oct. 25, 2018, broadcast a news report about the disparities in discipline for students with disabilities.

In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1541 to help close opportunity gaps in learning. OSPI spent two years researching the statutes and guidance. In rewriting the rules that were adopted in July 2018, the agency gathered feedback from families, students, educators, and community members through three public comment periods and eight public hearings.

New state policies are designed to discourage disciplinary actions that take a child out of the learning environment and encourage family engagement and positive behavior supports and other evidence-based practices. OSPI’s one-page introductory handout for parents outlines the new guidance.

According to OSPI, the new rules aim to make policies fair statewide. They require districts to include parents and guardians when updating discipline policies. The overarching goal is to keep children in school and learning and avoid severe or exclusionary disciplinary measures. 

In general, Washington’s new state rules:

  • Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies
  • Prohibit schools from excluding students from school for absences or tardiness
  • Further limit use of exclusionary discipline (suspension, expulsion) for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit the use of expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range already cannot be excluded from their classroom placements for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Clarify expectations for how school districts must provide students access to educational services during a suspension or expulsion

When are students entitled to a Manifestation Determination Hearing?

In Washington, a student with an identified disability may be suspended for a short period of time if there are safety concerns or if other interventions are failing to control behaviors that cause a significant disruption. However, if a suspension or an accumulation of in- or out-of-school suspensions within a semester or trimester totals 10 days, the school holds a Manifestation Determination Hearing to determine whether the behavior resulted—or “manifested”—from the disability. This hearing is a distinct process for students with IEPS or Section 504 accommodation plans and is separate from any other general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Removal for more than 10 days is considered a change in placement and could violate the school district’s responsibility to provide the special education student with FAPE.

If a student’s behavior manifested from disability, the school and parents meet to discuss program or placement changes likely to help. A Manifestation Determination hearing can also initiate an evaluation process for students not yet identified as needing special education services or disability-related accommodations. Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, the hearing can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 plans. Keep reading for more detail about the FBA and how it’s used to generate positive behavior interventions and supports.

The IDEA guarantees parent participation in the IEP process, which includes disciplinary hearings and any other formal meetings in which a student’s educational program or placement is reviewed or amended.  

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to a disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. In that case, the school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs during the suspension.

The school district is required to provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

  • Continue to participate in the general education curriculum;
  • Meet the educational standards established within the district; and
  • Complete subject, grade-level, and graduation requirements.

Note: If a student’s conduct involves Special Circumstances – weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury—a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination hearing still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services still are provided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?

The ACLU booklet commits a page to addressing the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU points out that without formal paperwork that describes a disciplinary action and its specific start and end times, a school may not be accountable to specific rules that govern special education: “Any time your student misses class time because of a behavior problem, it may be considered a discipline and should be considered as counting towards the 10 days that would be a ‘change of placement’ under the law and trigger additional protections. If your student is having behavioral problems that do not lead to suspension, you may suggest that the IEP team should consider holding an IEP meeting to reevaluate your student’s behavior supports, or that the 504 team meet to consider changes to the accommodation plan.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

Schools teach skills for expected behavior

Specialized instruction designed to meet a student’s unique needs can include education in social communication, self-regulation, choice-making and other areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that may impact behavior. These strategies are well recognized as best-practice for keeping children engaged in school and avoiding problems that might lead to discipline.

In addition, schools can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is developed to proactively help a child learn expected behaviors and shift away from circumstances that might lead to escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that are disrupting education and determines “antecedents,” which means conditions or events that occur before the targeted behavior. A BIP is intended to support “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills that prevent escalations and keep the student in school and learning.  

A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can work with an IEP or a Section 504 accommodations plan. OSPI offers guidance to schools and families about FBA/BIP process. Another place to find valuable information is through the Parent Center Hub, a website operated by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR).

School discipline is a national topic of concern

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter for public-school staff: “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs.” The letter included data that 10 percent of all children with disabilities, ages 3-21, were subject to a disciplinary removal from school. Children of color with disabilities faced an even higher rate.

The letter encourages all schools to develop robust programs for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and provides specific guidance for IEP teams. “In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team must consider – and, when necessary to provide FAPE, include in the IEP – the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”

The federal guidance includes statements about staff development: “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child. Supports for school personnel may be designed, as appropriate, to better implement effective instructional and behavior management strategies and specific behavioral interventions that are included in the child’s IEP.”

In 2014, the federal government issued guidance to discourage disciplinary actions that discriminate against students with disabilities, particularly students of color. A variety of federal sources have highlighted disparities, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in April 2018 issued the first state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities. The data include a finding that children of color who also have disabilities lost 77 more days of instruction because of disciplinary actions than peers who are Caucasian.

“These data on lost instruction are rarely reported,” the report concludes in its executive summary. “Although many could guess that the racially disparate impact is large, these dramatic disparities were derived from reliable publicly reported federal data, and they should be cause for alarm. Students with disabilities receive much more than classroom instruction when they are in school. For example, they often receive related counseling services, occupational and physical therapy as well as additional small group or one-on-one tutoring. Therefore, they lose much more when they are removed from school.”

Inappropriate discipline may be a denial of FAPE

The full report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies includes this statement in its introduction: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect. To suspend a student because of behavior that is a result of their disability is the equivalent of denying that student access to education.”

However, in December 2018, a federal school safety commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education rescind the 2014 guidance intended to prevent discriminatory practices. OSPI responded by stating that Washington State’s policies and updated guidance would be unaffected. “Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline…and will have no effect on OSPI’s enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline,” OSPI stated.

Washington State student discipline laws apply to all K–12 students. Students with disabilities are subject to both general education and special education rules and statutes. For the most up-to-date information about general education discipline procedures and the rules changes underway, visit OSPI’s Student Discipline page. For more information about special education discipline procedures, visit OSPI’s Special Education Behavior and Discipline page.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

The Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers an online resource page that details state guidance related to isolation and restraint. Included is this statement:

“Schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to try to correct a child’s behavior. Restraint and isolation are only allowed as emergency measures, to be used if necessary to keep a student or others safe from serious harm. They can continue only as long as the emergency continues.”

School districts are required to collect and report data on the use of restraint and isolation. That data is posted on OSPI’s website as part of the School Safety Resource Library. 

If emergency responses and/or severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this. The ERP specifically explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff who are authorized to provide isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint. Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time formal disciplinary or emergency actions are taken.

Equity work in school discipline is ongoing statewide

A graph that shows disparity in discipline is provided on OSPI’s website, which includes training and materials for schools to support improvements. “Like other states, Washington has experienced significant and persistent disparities in the discipline of students based upon race/ethnicity, disability status, language, sex and other factors,” OSPI’s website states. “While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, significant disparities persist. These trends warrant serious attention from school districts, as well as OSPI, to work toward equitable opportunities and outcomes for each and every student.”

 

Ideas and Resources to Support Your Child’s Behavior at School

A Brief Overview

  • Behavior specialists generally agree that difficult behaviors arise from unmet needs. How adults respond is critical if a child is going to learn new ways to communicate.
  • Humans spend about 80 percent of their brain energy trying to belong. This can explain a lot when a child with a disability feels isolated or unwanted and starts to act out.
  • Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a framework that a growing number of schools nationwide are using to improve school climate, which refers to the way a school feels to students and staff.
  • Members of the U.S. Congress discussed PBIS on February 27, 2019, when a committee heard public testimony regarding a bill that would regulate use of isolation and restraint in public schools. Positive behavior interventions are considered “protective” by behavior experts, and there is evidence that isolation and restraint cause trauma.
  • Read on for questions families can consider when they are trying to understand what’s happening with a child and how to intervene for the best outcomes.

Full Article

Families and teachers often struggle to figure out what to do when a child’s behavior at school is getting in the way of learning.  How adults respond to unexpected behavior can impact whether an incident leads down a path of worsening problems or toward improved learning. Parents can help by understanding as much as possible about what the child might be trying to communicate or overcome.

“Difficult behaviors result from unmet needs,” says David Pitonyak, PhD, an educational consultant, author and public speaker who specializes in behavior supports for children with disabilities. Pitonyak speaks nationally and provides a variety of online tools to help families and educators.

One example is a free, online presentation, “All Behavior is Meaning-full.” In it, Pitonyak includes a list of what might be missing when an unmet need leads to a behavior incident:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • A sense of safety and well-being
  • Power
  • Things to look forward to
  • A sense of value and self-worth
  • Relevant skills and knowledge

“Supporting a person requires us to get to know the person as a complicated human being influenced by a complex personal history,” Pitonyak says. “While it is tempting to look for a quick fix, which usually means attacking the person and his or her behavior, suppressing behavior without understanding something about the life the person is living is disrespectful and counterproductive….

“Our challenge is to find out what the person needs so that we can be more supportive.”

A running theme in Pitonyak’s work is that adults need to strengthen their own social and emotional skills in order to effectively help children. He often quotes another specialist in the field, Jean Clark: “A person’s needs are best met by people whose needs are met.” In other words, parents and teachers need to practice self-care and regulate their own behaviors and emotions to provide the best examples to children. Read on for a check-list that adults can use to develop their own skills while they help children.

A brain’s biggest job is to belong

Pitonyak is among specialists who believe that children act out because they feel misunderstood, devalued, lonely or powerless. Other growing themes are the importance of belonging and the human need to contribute meaningfully to a social group. Neuroscientists have found that humans spend about 80 percent of their brain energy trying to belong. This can explain a lot when a child with a disability feels isolated or unwanted and starts to act out.

Parents can use these concepts in a variety of ways to participate in their child’s educational program. Here are examples of questions to ask in any meeting with a school:

  • Who are the adults at school that my child trusts?
  • Does my child have special jobs or responsibilities, so he/she feels important at school?
  • Is someone regularly checking in with my child to see what’s going on?
  • How are positive behavior skills being taught and reinforced?

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a framework that a growing number of schools nationwide are using to improve “school climate,” which refers to the way a school feels to its students and staff.

Schools that embrace PBIS generally create programs to help all students participate in well-being and then offer more targeted social, emotional and behavioral help to students who struggle the most. These different levels of intervention are called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). According to the federal PBIS website, “PBIS improves social, emotional and academic outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities and students from underrepresented groups.”

Information about federal guidelines and programs related to PBIS and MTSS are available online from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). PAVE provides an article about PBIS, with parenting tips by Kelcey Schmitz, a longtime MTSS expert who previously worked for OSPI and now is part of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and the School Mental Health Assessment, Research, & Training (SMART) Center.

PBIS is a protective strategy

The United States Congressional Committee on Education and Labor received training about PBIS on February 27, 2019, when they heard public testimony (YouTube video): Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices. Congress is considering legislation that would create a federal standard on accepted practice, accountability and training for teachers who might use isolation or restraint in an emergency.

National Public Radio reported about isolation and restraint in a June 5, 2019, broadcast that included personal comments from two families in Vancouver, Washington.

The State of Washington allows isolation and restraint by trained school staff if a student’s behavior poses an imminent threat of serious bodily harm. PAVE’s comprehensive article about discipline at school includes more information and resources about isolation and restraint, which is described by state law as an emergency response and not a form of disciplinary action.

Among those who provided public testimony for the U.S. Congress was George Sugai, PhD, professor of special education at the University of Connecticut who was a key developer of the PBIS framework. At the public hearing, Sugai spoke about the reduction in trauma among schools who embrace PBIS. He said teachers report more positive feelings toward their work and that students show more progress toward specific educational goals. “PBIS is a protective strategy,” he said.

The behavior itself holds the clues about what to do next

Sugai, who holds a Master of Arts and a PhD in special education from the University of Washington, spoke about understanding a child’s unmet needs. “We have to understand what children are communicating through their behavior,” he said. “The behavior itself holds the clues about what to do next.”

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees the state’s school districts, has a variety of programs underway to address school climate and improve staff training in Social Emotional Learning, equity in student discipline and development of Compassionate Schools. The state encourages use of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which promotes positive support and skill-building for expected school behavior. The plan is to prevent the need for disciplinary action or emergency response. A BIP is developed with data collected through a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA), which is a best-practice tool for schools to figure out what help a student with challenging behavior might need. OSPI’s website includes examples of the FBA and BIP in its Model Forms.

OSPI’s family and community liaison, Scott Raub, partnered with a special services director from the Puget Sound’s Educational Service District 121 to create a slide presentation about isolation and restraint that is available as a free, downloadable PDF. The document is titled, Stop Using Restraint and Isolation: An Evolution or a REVOLUTION? The presentation includes specific guidance for school staff to use a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) as a strategy for managing behavior. A flow chart shows how early intervention might diffuse a situation to allow a student to remain in a more regulated state and stay in class. The document also provides detail about recent OSPI rulings about isolation and restraint raised through the Citizen’s Complaint process.

In accordance with the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485), “Restraint or isolation of any student is permitted only when reasonably necessary to control spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm. Restraint or isolation must be closely monitored to prevent harm to the student, and must be discontinued as soon as the likelihood of serious harm has dissipated. Each school district shall adopt a policy providing for the least amount of restraint or isolation appropriate to protect the safety of students and staff under such circumstances.”

In the slide presentation, designed for schools and publicly available, OSPI provides detail about what “imminent likelihood of serious harm” can look like and provides direct guidance to staff, including these statements:

  • Emergency Response Protocols are NOT a substitute for BIPs.
  • BIPs must be updated as part of student’s annual IEP [review].
  • The time to end isolation and restraint is as soon as the likelihood of serious harm has dissipated; this is not equivalent to waiting until the student has calmed.

A state workgroup to study Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in October 2016 proposed a set of Standards and Benchmarks to help school staff identify how best to help children who struggle with their behavior, social skills and emotional regulation. The group established six standards with specific benchmarks. A report from that workgroup includes a chart of the standards (Page 3). Families can share this information with schools when trying to identify what’s happening with a child and what interventions might help.

Below is a brief overview of those SEL standards and a few questions parents can bring to the table. In each target area, parents can ask what school staff are doing to help. This check-list also can be a good starting-point for adults who want to work on their own emotional regulation and coping strategies.

1. Self-Awareness

  • Can the student identify and understand emotions?
  • What is the student good at or interested in?
  • How are family, school and community agencies helping as a team?

2.Self-Management

  • Can the student express emotions and manage stress constructively?
  • What problem-solving skills are in place or need to be learned?

3. Self-Efficacy (self-motivated/seeing self as capable)

  • Can the student understand and work toward a goal?
  • Can the student show problem-solving skills?
  • Can the student request what he/she needs?

4. Social Awareness

  • Can the student recognize another person’s emotions?
  • Can the student show respect for others who are different?
  • Can the student accept another cultural perspective?

5. Social Management

  • Does the student have ways to communicate?
  • Can the student take steps to resolve conflicts with other people?
  • Does the student have constructive relationships with a variety of people?

6. Social Engagement

  • Does the student feel responsibility as part of a community?
  • Can the student work with others to achieve a goal?
  • Does the student contribute productively and recognize his/her contribution?

Additional Resources

PAVE provides a series of three articles with more information and resources about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

Many parents struggle in their communications with the school when a child’s specific disability and its impact on behavior is not well understood. A place to research specific disabilities related to mental health, such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) is the Child Mind Institute.

A resource for better understanding how children might behave in response to trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the Children’s Health Foundation.

An agency called GoZen offers an online article about Eight Ways a Child’s Anxiety Shows up at Something Else. Included in the list: difficulty sleeping, anger, defiance, lack of focus, avoidance, negativity, over-planning and “chandeliering,” which refers to a full-blown tantrum that seemingly comes out of nowhere. In addition to its free online articles, GoZen provides fee-based programs on resilience.

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Two Washington students die from suicide each week. In a typical high-school classroom of about 30 students, chances are high that 2-3 students have attempted suicide in the past year. Read on for more detail from the 2018 statewide Healthy Youth Survey.
  • Approximately one in five youth experience a mental illness before age 25. About half of those with diagnosed conditions drop out of school.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for ideas about how to seek help.
  • The Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act, signed into law May 13, 2019, provides for more parent involvement in mental healthcare for youth 13-18.
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a new referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide.
  • A mom in Graham, WA, launched a program to improve education about mental health after her son died by suicide in 2010. The Jordan Binion Project has trained about 500 Washington teachers with an evidence-based curriculum from Teen Mental Health.
  • Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. To qualify, a disabling condition must significantly impact access to learning. An educational evaluation also must show a need for specialized instruction.
  • Parents can share these resources with school staff, who may be seeking more information about how to help youth struggling to maintain their mental health.
  • Help is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Another crisis option is to text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Project provides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.

Full Article

The thousands of young people who send thank-you letters to Deb Binion didn’t always believe their lives were going to work out. One writer had attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times because of her bipolar disorder. Two years after finishing high school, she reported she was doing well and offered thanks for a course in mental health that helped her understand her illness, its impacts on her brain, and how to participate in her treatment. “It made a total difference in my life,” she said in her thank-you letter.

“Until she got the educational piece and understood her illness, nothing was helping,” Binion says. “No one had ever explained to her why she had this illness and what was occurring.”

The program, which Binion started after her son Jordan’s suicide in 2010, has trained about 500 school staff throughout Washington State to help young people understand mental illness and what to do to support themselves and others. Although the numbers are difficult to track, Binion estimates that about 100,000 Washington students receive education through the curriculum each year.

“My mission is to get this information to the kids,” says Binion, who runs the non-profit Jordan Binion Project from her home in Graham, WA. She says a short-term, limited pilot project with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) showed promising results, with 60 teachers throughout Washington informally reporting that about 85 percent of students showed improvement in their “mental health literacy,” a key feature of the program.

Teachers are specially trained to provide the Mental Health Curriculum

The curriculum, available through TeenMentalHealth.org, was developed by a world-renowned adolescent psychiatrist and researcher, Stan Kutcher. He observed that classrooms often struggle to provide an emotionally safe learning environment for students with psychiatric conditions. Some attempts to provide education about mental health have created confusing and triggering circumstances for students impacted by illness and/or trauma, he found.

Kutcher, professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, responded with a model for training school staff in how to teach sensitive topics of mental illness:

  • eating disorders
  • anxiety/depression
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • suicidal thinking

Deb Binion says the program was designed for students in grades 9-10, but middle-school and older students are also learning from it.  She says the program takes about 8-12 hours to teach and that teachers in regular health classes, psychology classes, family and consumer science classes and others have taught the lessons.

Binion suggest that staff receive in-person training to understand how to create a safe learning environment for students. For example, teachers learn to provide individualized help without disclosing a student’s disability or medical condition to the class.

The topics can be confusing or triggering to some learners. Some of the videos might be difficult to watch because they include personal stories of self-harm, hospitalization and people suffering from emotional stress. The program may need individualized modifications for students in special education programs because of intellectual or developmental disabilities.

For information about how to bring a training to your area, individuals can contact Deb Binion through the Jordan Binion Project website or directly through her email: deborah@jordanbinionproject.org.

Washington State recognizes a need for more education and direct support

OSPI, which oversees all school districts in Washington, provides an overview of Kutcher’s work and its connection to the Jordan Binion Project as part of the Mental Health & High School Curriculum Guide. Content in the guide was a collaboration between Kutcher and the Canadian Mental Health Association. At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Kutcher serves as Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Mental Health Training and Policy Development.

Washington State is aware that a lack of mental health services is impacting students. In 2018, OSPI released data that two children enrolled in Washington schools die by suicide weekly.

According to the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, at least one in three youth in all grades report feeling sad or hopeless for enough time to impact their activities. In ten years, those numbers increased by 10-20 percent across all grades. More than 900 schools administered the survey, representing all 39 Washington counties and 228 school districts.

About one in three 10th and 12th graders report feeling nervous, anxious or on edge, with an inability to stop worrying. From 2016 to 2018, the percentage experiencing these feelings increased for all grades. Rates of reported suicide have remained alarmingly high, with about 10 percent of students reporting that they have attempted suicide recently.

This means that in a typical high-school classroom of about 30 students, chances are high that two or three students have attempted suicide in the past year.

Female students and students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual report higher rates of considering, planning, and attempting suicide. For youth who need support related to LGBTQ issues, the Trevor Project provides targeted resources and a helpline: 866-488-7386.

High rates of suicide attempts also are reported among students who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native (18 percent) and students who identify as Hispanic (13 percent). Help for all is available 24/7 from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK. Another crisis option is to text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.

Despite the alarming data and evidence that adult support can impact outcomes, only half of students say they have access to direct adult support when they feel extremely sad or suicidal.

The 2018 Healthy Youth Survey introduced a modified Children’s Hope Scale, which measures students’ ability to initiate and sustain action towards goals. Across grades, only about half of students feel hopeful for their futures. Students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and students of color were less likely to report adult support and were less likely to be highly hopeful for their futures.

State, local, community and school efforts are crucial for supporting youth mental health. With the release of the survey in Spring, 2019, the state issued a guide to information and resources to provide more detail about the survey and to direct families and school staff toward sources for support.

Latest data for 10th graders female students and lesbian, gay or bisexual students report higher rates of considering making a plan for and attempting suicide

An OSPI survey in 2018 found that the number one concern statewide is that students don’t receive enough direct support in mental health, counseling and advising at school. The Washington School-Based Health Alliance (WASBHA) is working with some districts who have varied grants throughout the state to build on-campus health clinics to address a range of student health-care needs, including mental health. The Alliance sponsored an all-day summit May 3, 2019, at the Seattle Flight Museum that was attended by several hundred professionals invested in building collaborations between public health agencies and schools. Throughout the day, professionals discussed how students are much more likely to seek a counselor at school than in the community and that outcomes improve when providers and school staff collaborate and provide individualized help focused on relationship-building.

New state law expands parent involvement in mental-health treatment

Youth older than 13 have the right to consent or not consent to any medical treatment in Washington State. Parents and lawmakers throughout 2018-2019 engaged in conversations about how that creates barriers to care for may teens who don’t fully grasp their mental condition or how to recover.

In response, lawmakers wrote and passed the Adolescent Behavioral Health Care Access Act (HB 1874), signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee May 13, 2019. The new law allows behavioral health professionals to provide parents or guardians with certain treatment information if they determine the release of that information is appropriate and not harmful to the adolescent. The bill also permits parents and guardians to request outpatient treatment for their adolescent, expanding the current parent-initiated treatment process so that adolescents can get treatment before they reach the point of hospitalization.

“Parents across the state are desperate to be allowed to help their children struggling with mental health issues or a substance use disorder,” says Rep. Noel Frame from the Seattle area. “At the same time, we need to protect the rights and privacy of these youth. This bill strikes a balance by ensuring adolescents can continue to access treatment on their own, while giving concerned parents an avenue to help their children and be involved with their treatment.”

Parents also have a new option for helping their children and youth by contacting Seattle Children’s Hospital, which in 2019 launched a new referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is for families statewide. In addition to helping to connect families with services, the hospital will be positioned to identify gaps in the system through its engagement with families.

One in five youth are at risk

The Teen Mental Health website cites an international statistic that 1 in 5 youth experience a mental illness before age 25. Many of those illnesses lead to life challenges that require help, the agency concludes, and this makes adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, prevention, early identification, and intervention. The agency provides a School-Based Pathway Through Care that promotes linkages between schools and healthcare agencies, parent involvement and strong educational programs that reduce stigma through knowledge and timely treatment access.

One way that Washington State has responded to the crisis is through promotion of trainings in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) and other initiatives, Washington has grown a network of about 100 trainers for Youth Mental Health First Aid and about 4,000 first aid providers. These trained individuals can listen actively in order to offer immediate caring and can also refer youth to providers. OSPI reports that Project AWARE has led to 3,964 referrals for youth to connect with community- or school-based mental health services.  

Washington has a program for treatment response for youth experiencing psychosis. The New Journeys Program is designed for youth 15-25 who are early in their diagnoses, but there is some flexibility in who might be eligible to participate. Families can contact the program for additional information about how to apply.

Information about psychosis, early warning signs and places to seek help are available through the website of the Washington Health Care Authority (HCA). The website contains a link to information about the Wraparound with Intensive Services program (WISe), which provides community case management for children and youth experiencing a high-level of impact from a mental illness.

Special Education is one pathway toward more help

Students access some aspects of mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, the category is referred to as Emotional Behavior Disability (EBD). The IEP might list any set of these words or the initials EBD or ED.

A student might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under this category, regardless of academic ability. A comprehensive educational evaluation can determine whether a student’s mental condition causes a significant disruption to the student’s ability to access school and learning and whether the student needs specialized instruction. Generally, that specialized instruction is provided through a category of education known as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL can be provided in multiple tiers that might include schoolwide education, small group training and individualized programming. OSPI provides recommendations from a 2016 Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks Workgroup.

A student with a mental health condition also might qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which can capture needs related to anxiety, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or another specific diagnosis. Students with a mental health condition that co-occurs with another disability might qualify under another category, and Social Emotional Learning might be an aspect of a more comprehensive program. PAVE’s articles about the IDEA and the IEP provide further information about IEP process, the 14 categories of qualifying disabilities and access to special education services. A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might qualify for a Section 504 plan.

If a student, because of a disability, is not accessing school and learning, then the school district holds the responsibility for appropriately evaluating that student and determining the level of support needed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Questions about FAPE might arise if a student with a mental health condition is not accessing school because of “school refusal,” which sometimes leads to truancy, or because a student is being disciplined a lot. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process; PAVE provides an article about school discipline.

Help NOW can mean a lifetime of better opportunities

The Center for Parent Information and Resources (ParentCenterHub.org) has a variety of resources related to mental health awareness, including a link to a video that details results from a national study. The study showed that students who qualified for special education programming because of Emotional Disturbance experienced the highest drop-out rates when they went into higher education, work and vocational programs. Meaningful relationships with adults who cared about them in school provided a significant protective factor. Students were more likely to succeed in life-after-high-school plans if specific caring adults provided a soft hand-off into whatever came next after graduation.

Here are a few additional resources:

 Here are some articles specifically about Bipolar Disorder in Youth:

Accommodations for Students with Bipolar Disorder and Related Disabilities

Educating the Child with Bipolar

Bipolar & Seasons: Fall Brings More Than Just a Change in Colors