Professional Development From Our Research Center

Teachers Support Social-Emotional Learning, But Students in Distress Strain Their Skills

By Sarah Schwartz — July 16, 2019 | Corrected: July 18, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Michael Lamb’s title. He is the executive director for Washington, D.C., at Turnaround for Children.

In Tacora Snell’s 5th grade classroom, it’s not unusual for students to tell her that they need a break.

Snell, a math and science teacher at Ketcham Elementary School in the District of Columbia, starts talking with her students early in the year about vocalizing their emotions. And if a student does have an outburst of frustration, she’ll pull them aside to ask: “You’re angry—you have every right to that emotion—but how could we have dealt with that differently?”

With these practices, Snell hopes to build her students’ social-emotional skills. Her school is one of the growing number across the country that are explicitly teaching students how to build strong relationships, make smart decisions, and take on challenges.

Some research has linked focusing on these social-emotional competencies to higher academic performance and better outcomes outside of school. But while most teachers say it’s important for them to teach these skills, many still don’t feel equipped to help students manage their emotions—especially when it comes to the children who are facing the greatest hurdles, according to a new nationally representative survey from the Education Week Research Center.

It’s not just teachers. Colleges of education have been slow to embrace the teaching of social-emotional learning as part of their core curricula for prospective teachers. Principals also report in surveys that they favor the teaching of SEL, but time constraints and lack of teacher training are a major barrier.

In Education Week’s survey, teachers said they had difficulty “finding ways to help students who appear to be struggling with problems outside of school"—43 percent of teachers said they found this hard.

Teachers also said it was difficult “finding ways to help students who appear to be experiencing emotional or psychological distress.” Twenty-three percent of teachers said that was their most challenging task.

When students have faced trauma or adverse childhood experiences, they can remain “locked” in a fight, flight, or freeze response, said Michael Lamb, the executive director for Washington, D.C., at Turnaround for Children, an organization that uses neuroscience to inform childhood learning and development. Turnaround has partnered with the D.C. schools, including Ketcham, where Snell works.

“If you experience an adverse or traumatic event, your body and your brain react to that in that moment. But it also stays with you for the rest of your life,” he said. Almost half of all children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as abuse or neglect, or witnessing violence in their community, according to Child Trends.

“We must purposefully design the learning environment to buffer students from that stress,” Lamb said.

Lack of Training

For Snell, training helped change some of her less-effective practices and shift her mindset around what SEL should look like. Before her school started working with Turnaround, Snell said, she was “anti-calm-down corner,” assuming her 5th graders were mature enough not to need a separate space to reset and reflect. Turnaround suggested she reconsider—everyone, including adults, sometimes need to separate themselves from a stressful situation, she remembers discussing with the Turnaround staff. Now, students ask to go to her room’s calm-down corner when they’re feeling overwhelmed, she said.

But many teachers say they haven’t received adequate training around these issues. Less than 40 percent of teachers surveyed by the Education Week Research Center said they received training in conflict de-escalation, and a similar number said they had been trained in child trauma. Only 29 percent said they had received mental health training.

And some teachers said that the training around social-emotional skills they did receive didn’t cover the more complicated, painful, or dangerous situations they might encounter—or give them practical strategies to use in the classroom.


Ashley Toscas, a kindergarten teacher in Scottsdale, Ariz., said she didn’t realize how unprepared she was to deal with students’ trauma when she started at her current school. She felt her teacher-preparation program had given her plenty of opportunities to practice developing strong relationships with students. And in her district, she had participated in a half-day mandated reporter training for abuse and neglect and a day or two of workshops on social-emotional learning.

But Toscas said these experiences didn’t give her tools to support her students, who are growing up in pervasive poverty in environments where they are exposed to gang violence and drug use. “There are so many students with so many mental-health needs, I [felt like I] needed a separate degree,” said Toscas.

Other teachers said that the SEL trainings they had been part of focused more on classroom routines, rather than how to address students’ emotions or extreme behavior.

Elizabeth Cate, also a kindergarten teacher, took a two-day SEL training offered by her district, Metro Nashville public schools. Nashville has a district social-emotional learning department and partners with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning.

The training’s content, which covered things like how to set a classroom mood and start a morning meeting routine, didn’t help her with the severe challenges in her class this year, she said.

Some of her kindergartners had extreme emotional outbursts and deliberately hurt themselves in class. One student often turned furniture over. Cate felt “completely unprepared” to help her students in the moment, she said. And she wasn’t sure how to address the family issues, ranging from the birth of new siblings to incarcerated parents, that she guessed to be the underlying causes of her students’ distress.

She had a “very cursory training” this past year on trauma-informed classrooms—a total of three hours, spread out after school across three days, about a month apart each. The workshops covered students’ brain development and how trauma affects learning, she said.

Cate understood the research as it was presented, but felt the training didn’t take the next step to show her how it was practically applicable to her teaching. “I felt like there was a lot more that needed to be fleshed out in that, that wasn’t,” she said.

Creating Their Own Systems

When faced with a problem they can’t handle alone, teachers say they try to turn to other school-based professionals, like psychologists or counselors. But almost half of all teachers in Education Week’s survey reported that they couldn’t call on these staff members when they needed them: Forty-six percent of respondents said they “somewhat” or “completely” disagreed that their school had adequate support services from counselors, school psychologists, or other professionals to assist students experiencing emotional or psychological distress.

Laurie Waddle, a middle school health and physical education teacher in Kirksville, Mo., said her school counselors are “wonderful"—but there are only two for about 600 students. Students who struggle with behavior work with these counselors if they are designated to receive special education services. But Waddle, who has taught at the school for 13 years, said other students don’t often see the counselors for behavioral issues. (The student-to-counselor ratio at Waddle’s school isn’t unusual. On average nationwide, there are 482 students for each school counselor.)

Instead, teachers are developing their own systems, honed from years in the classroom, for noticing warning signs and coaching students through outbursts. In Education Week’s survey, 70 percent of teachers said they addressed their students’ mental-health challenges by talking with them.

Often, young children’s body language changes when they’re experiencing intense negative emotions, said Toscas, the Arizona teacher. “They won’t talk to you; they won’t smile at you,” she said. “It’s almost like I’m talking to a stranger.” When Toscas sees a student display these nonverbal cues, she tries to spend one-on-one time with them. She might not even talk with the child directly about what’s bothering him. “But they have a comforting place,” she said.

Takeima Ricks, a kindergarten teacher in Person County, N.C., also pulls students aside for one-on-one conversations when they start to have an emotional outburst. She tries, too, to shield them from the inquisitive looks of other students. “If other children are looking at them, that agitates them more,” Ricks said.

Some teachers have drawn from other training or experience around students’ mental-health needs.

Before she started at her current school, Waddle taught at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for adolescents for 16 years. There, she found that developing a rapport with her students was the key to working with kids who had experienced trauma. She learned to abandon a deficit mindset—instead of thinking, what’s wrong with this student, she started asking, what happened to this student to make him act the way he’s acting?

“You appreciate that the kid even came to school that day,” said Waddle.


Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students in Distress Strain Teachers’ Skills


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