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!

Behavior and Discipline in Special Education: What to do if the School Calls Because of a Behavior Incident

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require. Sometimes the school calls parents, recommending the student go home. Parents need to know that students have specific rights when they are sent home because of behavior: An official suspension triggers access to disability protections.

For example, schools are responsible to provide behavioral support, sometimes called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), to students with identified behavior disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. Schools also are responsible to evaluate students who may be acting out because of an unidentified disability. Another protection for students with disabilities is a specific due process called Manifestation Determination. A Manifestation Determination Hearing is required if a student with disabilities is excluded from school for 10 or more days because of behavior.

This video provides information about disability protections and what to do if the school is calling to have a student taken home. PAVE has a comprehensive article with additional information: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

A key federal resource about disability rights related to school discipline was released Jan. 9, 2020: The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), in collaboration with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), provides the 46-minute YouTube video: Students with Disabilities and the Use of Restraint and Seclusion in K-12 Public Schools.

Suspension Know your Rights

A Dear Colleague Letter

The US Department of Education (DOE), in an effort to keep families and educators
informed, has produced a number of Dear Colleague Letters on topics of concern. Among these are two addressing issues around discipline, suspension/expulsion, and the use of School Resource Officers (SRO’s). These are critical topics of concern considering the many long-term negative consequences associated with suspension and expulsion, as well as discipline of students with disabilities. At the same time the Federal Government is producing these letters, Washington State legislature has introduced a Bill that would prohibit the use of suspension and expulsion for kindergarteners through 2nd grade. The Bill has a way to go before it can be signed into law, but the Dear Colleague Letters have already started making an impact on how discipline issues are addressed. So, what do these two Dear Colleague Letters say? Let’s look at them individually.

Dear Colleague Discipline and the use of School Resource Officers (SRO) letter:

The letter starts with a strong reminder from Former Secretary King that states, in part:

“…. school resource officers (SROs)—can help provide a positive and safe learning environment and build trust between students and law enforcement officials in some situations.” He goes on further to state, “I am concerned about the potential for violations of students’ civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools, all of which can lead to the unnecessary and harmful introduction of children and young adults into a school-to-prison pipeline”

This strong beginning helps lend to the clear recommendations made by Secretary King that, “School districts that choose to use SROs should incorporate them responsibly into school learning environments and ensure that they have no role in administering school discipline. State and local leaders should consider setting policy and passing legislation designed to help SROs minimize citations and arrests of students and use diversion programs and other alternatives to arrest, detainment, or the use of force. With appropriate training, support, and community engagement, SROs can bolster a school’s capacity to ensure safety and promote learning among all students.  Indeed, students and their families have the right to expect that all school-based personnel coming into contact with students are professionals trained to exercise appropriate judgment and to do so in a nondiscriminatory fashion.”

He goes on further to provide an exceptional tool to help in supporting the SRO and other staff assisting students. The tool, created by the U.S. Departments of Education (DOE) and Justice (DOJ)—the Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) Rubrics—has been developed to assist States and districts in improving SRO-related policy and practice. This new resource can help education and law enforcement agencies that use SROs to review and, if necessary, revise SRO-related policies in alignment with common-sense action steps that can lead to improved school safety and better outcomes for students while safeguarding their civil rights. The SECURe Rubrics have been developed with the notion that partnerships between school districts, law enforcement agencies, and juvenile justice entities should be formalized through locally developed memoranda of understanding. Additionally, the SECURe Rubrics can support school safety and other SRO-related policies and practices that are informed by educators, families, students, and community and civil rights stakeholders; are updated regularly; and explicitly articulate that SROs should ensure safety and security but should not administer discipline in schools. At the same time the Department of Education has put out the SECURe Rubric the Department of Justice is releasing a letter for law enforcement leaders to highlight the resources developed by DOJ and DOE. For more information about this resource and to get a copy of the letter go to http://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools. It is an exceptional tool and one that as families and educators we may want to share with local law enforcement partners.

The other letter addresses the growing concern regarding the use of Corporal Punishment. This letter has been sent to Governors, State Education Secretaries, and other school administrators. This letter points out that the mission of promoting positive development of the nation’s youth requires a school to ensure that no harm occurs to the children and young people entrusted into its care. The Dear Colleague Letter goes on to state that a practice in some schools — the use of corporal punishment[  1  ] —is harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities. The letter urges the Governors and education leaders to take on the power they possess to change the use of corporal punishment.

The letter states clearly:

“The use of corporal punishment is ineffective as a strategy to address inappropriate behavior. When used in an attempt to compel behavioral change, corporal punishment often has significantly poor results; for example, physical punishment may make a child more aggressive, defiant, and oppositional. Moreover, it can be detrimental to a child’s health and well-being and may have lifelong repercussions.  Research shows, for example, that children who experience physical punishment are more likely to develop mental health issues, including alcohol and drug abuse or dependence, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and other personality disorders. The excessive use of corporal punishment has been shown to be associated with antisocial behavior in children and later when they reach adulthood”.

Beyond its alarming health implications, corporal punishment in school is also associated with negative academic outcomes. Research shows, for example, that corporal punishment can impact children’s cognitive functioning, potentially affecting verbal capacity, brain development, [  1  ] and the ability to solve problems effectively. Additionally, studies also indicate that students as young as those in preschool who experience corporal punishment tend to perform at lower levels, when compared to peers who have not been subjected to such practices, on measures of both academic achievement and social competence.

In the letter, Secretary King states, “While some may argue that corporal punishment is a tradition in some school communities, past practice alone cannot be a sufficient rationalization for continuing to engage in actions that have been proven to have short- and long-term harmful effects. There is a growing consensus that we simply cannot condone state-sanctioned violence against children in school.”

In his letter, Secretary King identifies that “a long list of education, medical, civil rights, disabilities, and child advocacy groups, including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others, have also been calling for a ban on this practice and citing the harmful long-term effects on children and the need to keep physical violence out of the educational environment. Corporal punishment has also been banned in Head Start Programs, Department of Defense-run schools, U.S. prisons and U.S. military training facilities, and most juvenile detention facilities.” He ends the letter by pointing out that twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment. Washington is one of those 28 states that have state law governing the use of Corporal Punishment. However, even with this information on the books, the State still finds a greater number of children of color and those with disabilities being punished far more severely than their peers who do not have disabilities or who are among the population majority.

All in all, the more knowledge we have, the greater the ability to assure that the needs of all students are protected. Learn more about how corporal punishment is handled in your district and share that knowledge with others. Together you can help build a strong alliance against the use of a system that has proven to be both ineffective and dangerous.