Encouraging Social and Emotional Well-Being in All Children
Read Time: 13 minutes
"Emma" wasn’t doing well academically. Her teachers said she was engaged in the lessons but retained nothing. A home visit by the elementary school social worker revealed that her parents left for work before she got up, and Emma was supposed to eat breakfast at school. But during a full-day observation, it was noted that she ate nothing in the morning and nothing at lunch.
Most classrooms have a child somewhat like Emma. It might be a student who does well on tests and assignments but often leaves excessive eraser marks because he is prone to perfectionism. Or there might be one who is late to school because of recurring stomachaches and often plays alone because she doesn’t feel that other children like her.
These are the students who, like Emma, get their school-work done and don’t create problems for others. But caring and observant adults at home or school might have a nagging feeling about needing to do something more.
Compassionate grown-ups seeing one of these children with just a few problems may hope that the youngster will “grow out of it” with a little love and extra attention. But for children like these, waiting, watching, and hoping is not the ideal option. These concerns may remain the same or even get worse as students move to middle school. Other options are more likely to promote effective coping strategies now and in the future.
Systematic Support for All
About one-third of youth will experience a mental health concern sometime in their life, according to Kathleen Ries Merikangas, Erin F. Nakamura, and Ronald C. Kessler (see “Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 11, no. 1 [March 2009]: 7). But data from the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs indicate only 1 percent of students are actually identified as having a disability in the area of emotional disturbance and receive special education services. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) suggests that school can be the ideal location for mental health services. Of those students who do receive services, nearly two-thirds receive services only in schools. Even those students who would not qualify for a mental-health diagnosis often need short-term support and help when they experience trauma, family difficulties, peer problems, or academic difficulties.
There is a way to inoculate all students with basic social-emotional skills and systematically identify and assist those who need further help. Not only does this help the children’s general well-being, but a growing body of research shows that when school leaders and teachers specifically teach social-emotional skills, academic scores also improve.
Schools can implement a multitiered system of support (MTSS) to address the social-emotional well-being of all students. Using this framework, school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers can work with teachers and administrators to implement a curriculum and other preventative strategies to help students understand their emotions, find ways to successfully manage them, and encourage all students to be compassionate, supportive, and inclusive.
This type of system was what helped Emma at Provo Peaks Elementary School in Provo, Utah. According to Kathy Hansen, ’78—the positive behavior interventions coach for the Provo City School District—when the social worker asked why she wasn’t eating, Emma said it made her mouth hurt.
“We included the school nurse and her parents immediately and got her teeth fixed that afternoon,” said Hansen. “She was able to eat by the next day, and her reading and math scores started increasing immediately.”
Not every child’s problem has such a quick and obvious fix. But unless school leaders are alert to struggling children, problems can become severe and chronic, and it may take a great deal of resources to help the student return to functioning well.
Universal to Individualized Care
Schools that are implementing an MTSS framework begin on the universal level to survey and teach all students a few healthy strategies that often are sufficient to keep problems from becoming severe and chronic. These primary prevention strategies work something like a preemptive vaccine and help to ensure that every student gets some instruction in emotional well-being.
Short-term interventions are secondary strategies in the MTSS framework. For instance, students who need assistance learning emotional regulation might attend a six-week session led by the school counselor, who teaches specific lessons on identifying feelings, healthy self-talk, and calming strategies.
Tertiary strategies target students who need ongoing individualized interventions. In these cases a school psychologist might meet weekly with a student to teach regulation strategies as well as collaborate with teachers and parents to develop individualized interventions in the classroom and at home.
In setting up such a system, the MTSS leadership team at a school should collaborate with parents and teachers to be sure that they understand the needs of families and students in that specific school community. Teachers can complete a school-wide screening to identify students having some risk factors and needing additional support.
Many other sources of data can be used to inform the school-wide actions. Referrals to the office, absence and tardiness rates, and visits to the school nurse are just a few examples of actions that could reveal trends and areas of concern. Look for correlations with academic issues. For instance, if a high number of sixth graders are tardy to school, maybe their reading instruction time is being cut short. This could be a reason for low reading scores for that group.
Consider asking about safety concerns. Dixon Middle School in Provo last year surveyed their students, asking how safe they felt. They asked for areas of concern in the school and what students felt would help. According to Hansen, the administration then increased supervision in the identified areas. They are creating student-driven video trainings to get the entire school community focused on a safer, happier school.
After leaders review all of the data, they can determine the appropriate action steps. There are a variety of social-emotional curriculum options available on the national level. The leadership group should select components that fill their needs and have strong research evidence to support their use.
Then the delivery method for the curriculum should be determined. Which groups will receive which course? When should it be taught? Does it fit in with a health class or other curriculum? Some faculty may choose to co-teach with a school psychologist, school counselor, or school social worker.
Parents should have access to the skills that students are learning and should be invited to have an active role in help-ing their children practice and use the skills at home.
After a period of time, the school-wide screening should be completed again. Leading researchers, such as Kathleen Lane at the University of Kansas, encourage schools to complete screening two to three times a year to ensure that students’ needs are being met. Some school-wide screening measures can be completed in less than 30 minutes for the entire classroom. Data should be collected in the same manner to be sure that the intervention has helped the group. What progress has been made? Are office referrals down? Is there a change in attendance patterns? What areas need further work?
Proactive Targeted Supports
The school-wide screening might indicate areas of concern for a significant number of students. For example, many might be displaying anxious behaviors that are getting in the way of the students’ success. Strategies and coping skills can be taught to assist these children.
Another possible curriculum might focus on specific social skill lessons for making and keeping friends. Teaching respectful behavior could reduce office discipline referrals for defiance.
A 2017 review of research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at the University of Chicago supports the involvement of teachers or co-teachers using a social-emotional curriculum. They found that when teachers provided social-emotional instruction in the classroom, students adopted more prosocial attitudes and engaged in less problem behavior. This might be due to the fact that teachers were able to reinforce the lessons beyond the actual instruction time and prompt students to practice prosocial behaviors before typical problems arose. In addition, they found that academic outcomes only improved when social-emotional curricula were taught by school staff as opposed to being taught by researchers or other outside professionals.
Parental involvement might be an important tool to help students. For example, students often report using cell phones or other devices just before going to bed or while in bed and having a hard time going to sleep, often getting less sleep than is recommended. A presentation by a social worker at parent-teacher conferences might inform all parents about sleep hygiene and encourage them to model good practices and help their students turn off devices early in the evening.
Intensive Individualized Supports
Data may show that a small number of students need more ongoing individualized support. Additional information can be gathered to determine the causes of these problems. For example, if defiance seems to be a problem, efforts should be made to find out the reasons behind it. Are the students being picked on during recess and thus are responding aggressively to being bullied? When asked to calm down, do they become even more upset?
Although it might take a longer amount of time, with the right attention, these students can improve. They can be taught ways to calm themselves, to respond to bullying, and to give respectful answers to adults. When a teacher notices that a student is starting to get angry on the playground or in the hallways, he or she can remind the students of the skills to practice, such as deep breathing to calm themselves, asking for help, or other skills they have learned.
This tiered intervention structure can help students with easily resolved issues like Emma’s. It can address the emotional concerns of middle school students and help them relax at school. It can provide in-depth resources to those who need more one-on-one support.
It is all about preventing small problems from becoming bigger problems and supporting all children. Every child needs basic skills and access to more options as needed. Then caring adults can rest assured that they are doing enough.
Written by Ellie Young and Cade Charlton
Illustrated by Margaret Kimball