Schools have a core mission to develop students who have the all-around skills and knowledge to succeed in life. Regardless of the name we give these skills―grit, growth mindset, or social-emotional skills―these are the abilities that form the foundation for learning to take place.  The question for schools, then, is “how can we teach students to learn and apply these fundamental skills that are needed for learning and life?”

A recent survey of school administrators showed that 66% of schools are searching for social and emotional learning programs to help manage discipline issues. In another report, a staggering two out of every three teachers described being unable to teach due to student behavioral issues. These statistics illustrate a real, urgent challenge.

We frequently meet with educators who share stories saying it’s getting harder and harder to teach academics because they are always managing student behaviors. Teachers tell us they feel like classroom counselors instead of educators. Our students are showing us that they are lacking the foundational skills that make it possible for them to learn academics. It is clear that we are in need of SEL programs that explicitly teach these important skills.


The next wave of SEL

The next wave of social-emotional learning programs must be focused on both the fundamentals and student skill development, rather than the broader open discussions and activities that dominate most current SEL programs. In short: too much talking and not enough skill building. Many SEL programs operate on the assumption that our students have already learned the basic skills needed to be able to learn and use concepts like empathy, good decision-making and collaboration, but teacher reports and the behavior of our students make clear that this isn’t the case. We need to start at a more foundational level.

We frequently ask educators if they would begin a math program in the 5th chapter, or if they would begin a reading program asking their students to read a chapter book? We get laughs and a resounding call of “of course not!”  So why are we teaching critical social and emotional skills in this way?

We’ve run many whole-class SEL programs with teachers over the years. What we’ve seen is that students are typically able to follow the lessons and can engage in discussions about friendship, empathy and even listening skills. But what we’ve found over time is that there is little carryover. The students who have a hard time following directions, or working collaboratively with their peers, or even being empathetic to a fellow classmate still have those same difficulties post-lesson.

Many years ago, we had a student who had a really difficult time staying in his seat during almost any academic task and, as a result, he completed little work. Yet this same student was the most positively engaged and outspoken member of the group during a lesson on “following classroom directions” and, with great skill, he could articulate the importance of having rules. He just couldn’t apply those same needs to his actual behavior.  This student needed to understand the critical link between his emotions and his behaviors. He felt anxious and overwhelmed most of the time when faced with academic tasks. Those emotions were driving the behavior we saw. We needed to teach him what he felt, why he felt it, and what he could do to more appropriately manage those emotions. Once that happened, he was more receptive to completing his work. He was better able to articulate when he needed help, and he took help from the adults in the room.

Let’s approach the teaching of social and emotional skills in the same way we approach academic skills. Math teachers know that their students need to build the foundational skills that lead to learning to add, subtract, and later, multiply and divide. With this foundation, they are then to apply those skills to higher level concepts. We view teaching SEL in the same way.

To support strong development of social and emotional skills, we need to start with the basics and teach them in a logical and sequential manner so kids can not only learn them but be able to use them.


Building from the foundation

We believe chapter one in an SEL program should teach the foundational skills that help students understand their own emotions. In practice, this means ensuring students are able to, in order, identify, understand and manage their own emotions. This means that we need to explicitly teach students the names of different emotions, we need to help them identify when they experience these emotions, and then help them to be able to make choices about how to express those emotions, in a productive fashion, in the moment.

Next, we help students understand their emotion in the context of an event or situation, which provides a meaningful way to understand why they feel the way they do. We then help students connect the emotion to its corresponding behaviors. Once students understand the concept that their emotions drive their behaviors, we can help them to learn strategies and mindfulness techniques to manage the emotions they feel. These new strategies will help them to manage their behaviors.

Central to these skills is the idea that the students are in charge of themselves and their behavior. This is powerful and positive.

When students have mastered the management of emotions, they are the drivers of their own goal-directed and purposeful behavior. Their foundation is solid and they are ready to build a lifetime of learning academically and socially/emotionally.


Supporting all teachers in implementing SEL that works

Almost half of all teachers share that they don’t feel prepared to teach an SEL curriculum due to a lack of professional development.  It is critical for teachers to learn the fundamental philosophy behind any program, and then receive ongoing support to be able to implement it. But what we also know is that teachers have a limited amount of time during their school day to do anything other than teaching, and that taking a one-time seminar or training and translating it into meaningful action is a challenge. Online and on-demand webinars and communities that provide ongoing support are how we believe teachers need and will be able to use SEL professional development.

On-demand PD is right for the 21st century―think Netflix for education―and helps teachers manage their own time and their own learning. A school-based component is also important and is well-suited to PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) where teachers and school-based personnel can talk about implementation and best practices, rather than attempting to use the time for skills-based training.

Recall, two-thirds of school administrators are looking for SEL programs to help with student discipline issues and the same percentage of teachers say that behavior interferes with their ability to teach. It’s clear what we have right now isn’t working. As part of our mission to reach and teach every child, isn’t it our responsibility to try something new?

Schools and individual educators will be able to judge if SEL programs are working because we’ll be able to see the results in our own classrooms. Instead of students displaying unmanaged emotions―or off-target behaviors―we will see them use the strategies we have taught them to manage their emotions.  Teachers can use any whole class behavior modification chart or program they are already using to measure and show the positive changes in student behaviors. When we teach students how to manage their emotions, they take charge of their own behavior, in both attitude and action. They are then available for all types of learning, and most importantly have the tools needed to manage themselves, work with others and accept our teaching. This is real change, this is lasting change, and this is change that will help all of our students to learn in the present and thrive in the future.


About the authors

Educational psychologist Lori Jackson and special educator Steve Peck each have more than 15 years of experience working with students and their families in diverse school settings. Together, they are co-founders of The Connections Model, a social-emotional learning and education technology company whose KidConnect app and curriculum help students develop emotional regulation, the necessary foundation for all learning. Follow them on Twitter @TheConnectModel

KidConnect Classroom was recently featured as Learning Counsel’s App of the Week. Learn more here.