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Improving student behavior through SEL

Fights, cursing and incidents of disrespect from students had teachers crying out for help in this Wisconsin district. How leaders addressed it with a data-informed social-emotional learning program.

7 min read


Improving student behavior through SEL



This has been a tumultuous year. When students experience traumatic stress, school officials must be ready to recognize it and help students work through it. This is where social-emotional learning programs come into play. SEL programs are needed in schools now, more than ever to help students deal with the isolation, uncertainty and stress they’ve been experiencing this year during the pandemic, as well as the return to school that is, in many cases, far different than anything they’ve experienced before.  

Over the past few years, our district, the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District in Wisconsin, has implemented a district-wide SEL plan. Our work was systematic and informed by data which positioned us to be able to meet students’ social-emotional needs when the pandemic hit. Here is what we did, and some tips for other districts.

SEL to address behavioral concerns

Our district adopted a social-emotional learning plan three years ago in response to concerns being raised by teachers and administrators about student behavior. Common concerns were that students were not listening, getting into fights, swearing, or being disrespectful. Teachers were asking for help. We knew we needed to find a way to support students in developing SEL skills such as being able to problem-solve when they had disagreements with each other, and to calm themselves down if they got upset or agitated. We knew a good SEL program would do this.

We wanted our SEL initiative to be informed by data. We started by selecting an assessment tool that would screen students and give us a better sense of their SEL strengths and needs. We chose DESSA Comprehensive SEL System from Aperture Education. The assessment is easy to administer and gives us the data we need to determine where our students are so we can move forward with the best strategies to support them.

Curriculum and counselors

The next piece was adopting a curriculum. We received a mental health grant from the state and are implementing Second Step to support SEL instruction. Aperture created a specific DESSA assessment that’s customized to use with the Second Step program.  We also added three additional school psychologists and one counselor in our elementary schools — a difficult decision that required the district to eliminate a world language program in order to afford it. Our district felt this was so important they were willing to make this commitment. Now all seven elementary school buildings are staffed by a full time school psychologist and a full time counselor which has made a huge difference in our ability to support students.

Buy-in and training

With any new initiative, there is always the potential for pushback.  We did a couple big things to get in front of any issues that might arise. First, we advocated adding SEL into our district-level strategic plan. Every building in our system — elementary, middle school and high school — now has a school improvement goal around increasing SEL competence for students. This has helped keep the issue top-of-mind for everyone. 

Next, we did multiple presentations at school board meetings (which community members attended), emphasizing the research and positive impact of building SEL for students and staff. We also sent communications home to all families explaining what the DESSA is and what we were working toward as a district in terms of SEL implementation.  By doing a lot of communication, we were able to get buy-in from the school board, district leaders, and principals. 

To support teachers and address any trepidation about the SEL program, we provided a district-wide training on the DESSA SEL system for all K-12 teachers and student services staff to make sure everyone was comfortable with the plans and to answer any questions they had. 

We realize that just like these past several months have been stressful for our students, they’ve also been stressful for our staff members. This year we are using Aperture’s Educator Social-Emotional Reflection & Training program, a professional development program that helps support and strengthen the SEL skills of educators, and prepares them to effectively teach SEL in the classroom. We think this resource will go a long way in helping to address any potential trepidation our staff might have about teaching and assessing SEL.

SEL for distance learning

Although our district’s plan was to offer full time face-to-face instruction this school year for families who wanted it, we started the year in a remote instructional model due to COVID-19 spread in our community. We recently have moved to a hybrid model for secondary students and full time face-to-face instruction for elementary students across the district. Our district understands that there may be times when schools will have to close again. We’re prepared for this. When schools closed in March, we sent a letter to families with links to SEL resources for each grade level, including DESSA strategies and Second Step links. Parents could click on a concern and it would take them to a link for a lesson or a tool describing how to talk to their child about the concern. Our counselors also continued to provide teachers and parents with resources virtually and our student services team created a Google website with additional supports for families, staff and students. The website includes resources such as a virtual calming room with yoga and mindfulness practices. It also contains safety procedures, adult SEL/self-care strategies and monthly social-emotional resources for teachers to utilize with students in their classrooms district-wide. These monthly resources are updated and communicated to building principals and teachers to help streamline the ability for our teachers to have strategies, activities, and resources in front of them to use with students.

Tips for other districts

We’ve learned a lot during this process. For other districts interested in creating a district-wide plan for SEL, here are some tips.

  • Use an SEL assessment. Find one that is strengths-based and is easy for teachers to administer. Data-driven plans are the most effective and an assessment will help provide that data.
  • Go slow, especially in the first year. Give staff members time to get comfortable with how the SEL program works and with doing the assessments. This helps with a smooth implementation. We did a pilot which was helpful because the teachers who participated helped “sell” the idea to other teachers.
  • Don’t be afraid to try it. An SEL program is just so incredibly helpful in helping staff members help students. But it won’t be perfect right away. Try it and understand you might fail at something, but you’ll also learn from it.
  • Have a high level of support at the building level. Make sure the administrative staff is really confident with your plan.
  • Make sure there is someone who is in a position to respond to any issues that come up. For example, when we had rostering issues, I made sure those were corrected immediately. We didn’t want tech issues to be a problem.

Tending to the social-emotional needs of students is critical this year to help students move forward in their learning. Putting together a well-thought out SEL plan that includes assessing students’ social-emotional needs, getting buy-in from staff and families, and putting the curriculum, structure and staff in place to make it work, will go a long way toward helping everyone be successful.

Ted Gennerman is the director of student services and Emilie Tregellas is a school psychologist for the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The district uses DESSA Comprehensive SEL System from Aperture Education.


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