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SEL and student success, Part 2: What teachers can do

Student behavior issues are increasing. Our SmartSummit explored what teachers can do to help students succeed -- now and in the future.

10 min read


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SmartBrief’s recent Back-to-School 2022 SmartSummit covered social-emotional wellness and student success. We explored this topic because we’ve been seeing an uptick in violence and behavioral issues in our schools, as shown by the National Center for Education Statistics’ startling figures for conduct-related classroom disruptions, disrespect toward teachers and staff, rowdiness outside the classroom and detrimental effects on behavior development. We wondered what educators can do about these issues to help students succeed in school.

Education Director Kanoe Namahoe talked with Rosemary Anderson, a licensed mental health practitioner who has worked in numerous settings including schools, courts and nonprofits. She’s passionate about integrating trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning practices into our daily lives as a way to reduce stress. 

This is Part 2 of our three-part coverage of the webinar. We’ve edited this Q&A for length and clarity. (Read Part 1 on student red flags and Part 3 on parent interactions, and view our other education articles or subscribe to our free newsletters.)

What teachers can do to help

SmartBrief: I think one of the areas we hear about the most from educators, from teachers, is classroom management, addressing behavioral issues, students who are acting out. Let’s talk about some ways that teachers and principals can address those kinds of things.

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Anderson: One of the things that I think is a great is the Response to Intervention model, the RTI model, in which you’re able to really look at a tiered approach to the students in your classroom. You can, in a preventive way, really analyze: What are the needs of the majority of my students in the class? What do I want to share with them in terms of their social-emotional wellness, their preparedness to be accessible for learning? 

And then when I look at it, how do I triage and understand the needs of what I call it the yellow-zone students — the students that require additional support? Are those students who are lacking motivation, who have potential but yet you see are not meeting the requirements?

Maybe they have lack of resources, [Abraham] Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” Their ability to meet their social-emotional competencies is probably moderately higher than students that we would call red-zone students.

Red-zone students are at risk of more particular additional services, outside services, support — and those are students that by the beginning of the school year, we need to be more proactive in working in helping support them, do check-in check-out, which is a system of being able to provide some one-on-one support from a mentoring standpoint, not a deficit model. 

One of the things that’s very important is to make sure that we frame things in a positive way so that students do not get in the mindset where, “Wow, when I do these negative things, I get reinforced.” We want to reward students for doing positive things.

Early invention tips

SmartBrief: How can we get ahead of that? What does early intervention look like? 

Anderson: What that looks like is our students reporting to our grade level. Our principals and administrators researching and really proactively engaging parents, families and students: “What is your academic plan? And how do we support you? What are the things that as a team we can put in place to support you?” 

As an example: A particular student who is generally in class may be disruptive. Progress monitoring shows the student is more disruptive in the morning — so something’s happening in the morning that makes it more disruptive. As a team, you ask, “What are some strategies we can put in place proactively to help reduce disruption? Well, we’re gonna meet for check-in, check-out early in the morning. We’re gonna do things to reward and incentivize when they’re able to actually be successful, versus waiting for something that could happen.

Instead of a reactionary approach to behavior management and support, it’s a more proactive approach. We might even sit down with the family and talk about how can we support them and tell how we are supporting their child at school — which some parents don’t even expect and appreciate.

What’s happening in K-12 now trickles up to college

SmartBrief: I admit, that’s a new mindset for me. I was I was raised in a generation where you went to school you and did what you were supposed to. I’ve talked to teachers who would say, “No, I’m not gonna have a student help me with this curriculum and this instruction. They don’t know enough to know what’s right or good for them.”

Anderson: In the rigid way, we’re not allowing for social-emotional development. We’re not allowing for strong communication skills. We’re not allowing for abstract thinking. We’re not allowing for making mistakes and coming back at it and trying it again. 

What we’re finding is that their students are getting into college and are late developmentally in learning the skills that are necessary to be abstract thinkers. They’re not getting the skills, probably, until their junior or senior years of college. Were in many cases just based on the way our world was situated. 

I’m finding that college graduates, at 21, now have an aha moment around their own social-emotional development, competencies, communication skills — around their ability to take all of this academic content that they learn and then actually use that in the world. [But because there’s been a disconnect,] they’re struggling between year one and maybe four in the work world.

That’s why I’m so passionate about wellness and the skills. We have to start teaching them earlier. And we have to start integrating them into our curriculum so our students will be ready for the work world and for careers and for their lives.

SmartBrief: Our audience includes a biology professor who wants to know if you have any tools that she can use to help her first-semester freshman with social-emotional wellness and academic success, to adjust and help them to get acclimated. What can teachers do in cases like this?

Anderson: That goes back to what we’re talking about earlier: We’re seeing freshmen come to college not ready socially, emotionally and being thrust into the classroom.

One of the things I would definitely urge you to do is to look at the CASEL stages of social-emotional development. The website has a plethora of information and resources for you to take a look at in terms of didactic activities, even networks that you can do, especially the getting-to-know phase and integration phase. It will help you really ask some key questions of your students around their social-emotional development in relation to STEM. 

We want young people to appreciate the fact that they can learn science, right? We want them to be ready to receive that information cognitively. And one of the things we know from brain science and from stress is that if we have students that have heightened amygdalas, they’re not able to really move content from short-term to long-term memory. So it’s very important that we maybe do a little bit of mindfulness techniques throughout the class so they can calm themselves, self-soothe, so they can actually receive information. 

So many times our students are framing their thinking negatively, thinking that they can’t learn the content. But we have to start off by giving them a positive frame about themselves and what they can learn.

SmartBrief: Another audience member has seen a huge uptick in school avoidance over the past year. These students have received little attention because everyone is so overwhelmed with the issues of the present students. How do you suggest teachers deal with that?

Anderson: I’m working with a student who basically dropped out second quarter due to bordeom, and it was directly related to stress regarding their high-achievement coursework. 

But as we unpacked it over several months, it turned out the teacher connection really was at the bottom of it. The student said the teacher conveyed that she was not worthy or able or capable to be within the high-performing classroom. That wasn’t the teacher’s intention, I’m sure. 

But that feeling of disengagement, whether verbal or nonverbal, makes students not ask for help. So teachers have to raise their self-awareness and know that people may be receiving us in a different way [than we thought]. Try to take a step back and do some self-reflecting.2

What educators can do — tracking and training

SmartBrief: Another audience question: Do you have a favorite or successful way to track intervention response? An RTI data-tracking method? What can teachers do to get this data?

Anderson: I don’t have any favorites. But if you go to a search engine and just put in “data tracking, progress monitoring,” they will come up, lots of them, even on Pinterest. 

I think that data trackers you use should be specific to particularly what you’re tracking, whether tracking behavioral changes or academics.

SmartBrief: One more audience question; I’m sorry we couldn’t get to them all: What are some examples of successful models of engaging educators in a similar process in order to support their own social-emotional wellness so they can continue to show up for their students?

Anderson: Many school districts are looking at trainings related to social-emotional learning for their teacher populations. CASEL has been doing this work for many years. 

But I think that we are on the precipice of understanding — whether we are looking at K-12 education, higher education or our employment or residential communities — the idea of social-emotional health. How we bring these skills into these spaces has become, like, super important, because what we’re finding is that it goes back to this idea of not ignoring change, but understanding that bad things can happen, and we all can have a shared experience. 

Yet we can embrace change and recognize that change can bring about a great reframe, new things, new improvements, new ways of looking at things. Our social-emotional health is a way that we can do that. Even the need for mental health as it stands now is bridging that gap and putting it at the forefront. That’s something that we haven’t done, and I think we are definitely going to see more models. We will see more advanced models of social-emotional training for teachers that will allow them to transfer what they’re learning to their students.

Read parts 1 and 3 for complete coverage of the SmartSummit on Social-Emotional Wellness and Student Success. In Part 1, the discussion centers around recognizing students’ SEL red flags. In Part 3, Anderson shares her views on interactions with parents and creating a sense of community.

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn


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