When I was growing up, I struggled in school. I eventually came to the realization that my school prioritized academics over cultivating meaningful relationships and supporting students’ social and emotional development. These early experiences led me to have an interest in what educators can do to improve kids’ social relationships and help them develop the social and emotional competence to handle the factors that cause kids to struggle inside and outside of school.
Focusing on More Than Just Academics
A lopsided focus on academics can be traced by a brief review of the history of public schools in the United States. Early on in the history of American schooling, schools were primarily focused on socialization and transmitting moral, civic, and character traits to their students and citizens. After World War II, a period of rapid industrialization called for skilled workers suitable for labor. As a result, schools experienced a significant shift towards producing workers who are able to fill and meet the demands of specific jobs. The educational values established during that period helped create our current focus on high-stakes academic testing. This puts pressure on schools to focus squarely on academics, with increased potential of neglecting students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development and well-being. Many school systems create high-pressure, unhealthy environments for teachers and students to produce high test scores as an indicator of a quality school. While a focus on measuring outcomes can lead to improvements if handled with supportive accountability mechanisms, the pressure packed environment can take a toll on staff and student well-being, and potentially lead to harmful practices for students who struggle academically and behaviorally in school, such as exclusionary discipline and placement in restrictive settings.
Schools that produce high test scores don’t necessarily produce students with the emotional competence, self-sufficiency, or resilience to handle challenges in or out of the classroom. We know that social and emotional skills are some of the strongest indicators that a student will go on to live a happy, healthy, and rewarding life—not test scores. A focus on testing may produce people who are successful on paper but may not be equipped with important self-regulatory skills in areas of social and emotional functioning that enable a student to eventually use their academic knowledge and skills to be successful in life.
Through my research I gain a more refined understanding on the different kind of needs kids bring to the educational table. I have learned that a student’s ability to maintain high levels of motivation and demonstrate growth in core areas such as reading, writing, and math are dependent on a host of non-academic factors like what is going on socially in their lives, their ability to build and maintain healthy relationships with their peers, and competence to manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when confronted with challenges.
The Importance of Social and Emotional Supports
Research shows that academic motivation is more a byproduct of who is teaching than what is being taught. When students have a strong sense of belonging and trust with their teacher, they are more motivated, more willing to take academic risks, and more responsive to adult feedback. A focus on these types of social and emotional factors is a great way for schools to build a foundation that enables students to profit from their learning experiences.
It’s easy to comprehend the importance of relationships when they go wrong. Imagine that a student has seriously misbehaved in the classroom. Often, schools handle such misbehavior through removal from the classroom or, if the behavior was serious enough, suspension. This can make the situation worse; we often find that the root cause for misbehavior is a lack of a student’s sense of trust and belonging in the classroom. Typical disciplinary tactics compounds and almost validates the conception that the teacher does not want them, because the teacher has removed them from the classroom. Being able to prevent problem behavior through proactive strategies is the first step. Even when effective proactive strategies are in place, students may engage in behavior that detracts from their or other students’ learning. It is also important for educators to understand how to effectively respond to problem behavior in a way that maintains the relationship with the student yet corrects the behavior. Further, if an educator has a negative interactions with the student, it becomes critical for educators to be able to effectively restore the relationship through skillful conversation. These are all the types of practices that equip educators with the necessary skills to support student social, emotional, and behavioral success in the classroom while also maintaining a rigorous focus on academics.
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
I like to think of about supporting students from a multi-tiered perspective in which educators recognize that not all students have the same levels of need. A multi-tiered system of support is like a computer operating system: it helps organize the supports (like the software on a computer) in such a way the school understands how to enable students to access what they need socially, emotionally, and academically. A multi-tiered support system enables educators to make timely, data-driven decisions to proactively identify students who have need for additional support and monitor the response to the supports they are receiving.
On the bottom of a multi-tiered support system is the universal level of support that every student receives. The higher quality supports mean that greater numbers of students are likely to receive what they need socially, emotionally, and academically, resulting in fewer problems ever emerging in the first place that warrant more intensive levels of support.
Though the system helps prevent problems, a multi-tiered model recognizes that there will be certain students with higher levels of needs. Those universal supports are helpful for these students as well, as it provides the foundation that enables more intensive interventions to work.
Tips for Teachers
Here are a few guiding principles that you can use in your classroom to foster better relationships with your students and better support their social and emotional development.
- Establish, maintain, and restore teacher-student relationships. Our research has found that the majority of teachers agree that relationships with students are vitally important, but few have common language or concrete practices in place to develop those relationships. We have developed an approach that has common language and practices to support teachers to be more intentional and effective at building relationships with all students called Establish, Maintain, Restore. The practices that fall under the three relationship phases (establish, maintain, and restore) help teachers maintain a focus on quality relationships with each student and help repair any harm to relationships when negative interactions occur.
- Create a positive structure and predictable environment. Developing an environment that is predictable, has the right amount of structure, and where everyone feels safe and a strong sense of belonging is a critical ingredient for school culture and climate. This approach works best when all staff in the building establish clear, positively stated behavioral expectations, model those expectations in their own behavior, and spend more time recognizing and acknowledging students for exhibiting the behavioral expectations rather than reprimanding and correcting problem behavior. This is at the heart of what is called school-wide positive behavior intervention and supports (SWPBIS; pbis.org).
- Teach students skills to regulate self. This ingredient is broadly referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL). Just like a school would adopt a curriculum to teach math, reading, or writing, schools can adopt a curriculum that emphasizes teaching students’ self-regulatory skills that increase their social and emotional competence. SEL helps broaden the scope of teaching and learning by helping promote the resilience and self-sufficiency of students, with the end goal of setting up each student for successful lives as workers, parents, and citizens.
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