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What role does SEL play in whole child teaching?

School counselor discusses how whole child teaching builds a strong foundation for success.

5 min read



School counselor discusses how whole child teaching builds a strong foundation for success.

The success of a school, district or educational program is often measured by how well students score on academic tests or whether they graduate on time. But as a school counselor, my experience says that these big-picture measures of success don’t tell the whole story.

Every day there are countless non-academic lessons occurring in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and counseling offices, which contribute to those “big picture” outcomes. I’m talking about those social and emotional lessons that provide the skills for students to get along with their peers, make responsible decisions and form bonds with their teachers. Teaching these skills alongside academics is referred to as teaching the “whole child” and helps build the foundation for students to be successful in academics, and in life.

As a school counselor, I use this philosophy every day. I work part-time with at-risk students in a public pre-K through five school in northern Kentucky. It serves a mix of low-income and middle-income students, many of whom are learning English as a second language. I see about 25 students regularly in individual settings and another 20 students in small groups to help enhance their skills to cope with the stressors and emotional upheavals in their lives. I also work part-time with local parochial schools providing classroom guidance programs. These programs also incorporate social-emotional curriculum into their school academics. When working with students, my approach involves:

  • Assessing need
  • Creating individualized treatment plans with clear goals
  • Identifying specific strategies to help students reach these goals

To do this, I start with an eight-item social-emotional learning assessment. The online questionnaire allows me to screen referred students for social-emotional learning competencies. The child’s teacher also fills out a questionnaire, and we use the data from the two assessments to determine how to begin helping that child. For example, if a child scores low, indicating troublesome areas, we administer a longer assessment to determine more specifically where the student needs the most help. Then we download specific intervention strategies and use an SEL curriculum to address those particular issues.

Having assessment data gives me a way to determine what is contributing to a student’s pattern of unproductive behavior. It also lets me see how well the strategies I am using are working. If a second screening shows no change in students’ SEL competencies, I know I need to implement different strategies.

Once I begin seeing a child regularly, we set up a treatment plan consisting of two to three clear goals that the child wants to achieve within a set time period. These are basic behavioral goals such as decreasing behavior “clip-downs” in class, increasing friendly interactions with peers, or using respectful language in teacher/peer conversations.

Many of my students have ongoing issues with overwhelming emotions, based on both home and school environments. However, they do not usually have the best coping strategies when the stressful situation develops. Every student has different issues and different ways of learning. We work together to figure out what intervention strategies work best.

Teachers make use of these strategies in the classroom as well. Our teachers have colorful charts that help students model good behavior. If students practice good behavior such as helping a classmate or consistently following directions, they “clip-up” or move their name higher on the chart. If a student moves up far enough, they “clip off” the chart and earn a reward. Alternatively, when students misbehave they have to move their name down the chart. If a student consistently “clips down” it results in parental notification or other consequences.

As a counselor, I think these visual tools are very helpful. For example, at the beginning of the year a student was referred because of his emotional meltdowns. As we worked on his treatment plan, one goal was to “clip off” the behavior chart. We implemented SEL strategies to help him identify and regulate his own behavior so he could cope with his emotions and “clip off” of the chart.

By using these whole child approaches – the assessments, treatment plans and SEL strategies – I have seen increases in SEL skills in at least two-thirds of the students I’ve been working with on a regular basis. People who don’t work with students on a regular basis may not understand how much of a limitation a lack of SEL skills can be. Academics are important, but it’s also important to understand a student’s counterproductive behavior and figure out how to change it. Doing so can change the trajectory of students’ school progress, and perhaps, their life.

Caisa Pope is a school counselor at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Covington. She works with elementary students in Northern Kentucky and uses Apperson’s Evo Social & Emotional assessment to measure students’ SEL skills.


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