Student Well-Being

Teachers Use Social-Emotional Programs to Manage Classes

By Liana Loewus — October 15, 2013 5 min read
First graders react to the question, “What face do you make when your mother compliments you?” during a class session called “Feeling Faces” at Public School 24 in New York City.

One morning early this fall, 1st graders in Nydia Mendez’s class at Public School 24 in Brooklyn were working on identifying feelings.

“It’s your birthday. Make a face and show me how you feel,” Ms. Mendez said to students, who instantly became all smiles and flapping arms. “You lost your favorite pencil.” Their puppy-dog eyes hit the ground. “Your body’s showing me that you’re disappointed,” she said to one boy.

A few halls away, Maria Diaz’s 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they’d done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a “put-down,” or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.

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This story is adapted from a new online special report by Education Week Teacher, “Inside Classroom Management: Ideas and Solutions.”

Both Ms. Mendez and Ms. Diaz were teaching components of a social-emotional-learning curriculum called the 4R’s (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) that is used schoolwide by PS 24, and at other schools in the New York City district and beyond. By building students’ self-awareness and emotional vocabulary, the teachers say, they are working to help students resolve conflicts and monitor their own actions.

“I don’t want to be the police person in the classroom,” said Ms. Mendez. “I really want them to solve their own problems and become independent with that.”

A Focus on Causes

Ms. Mendez and Ms. Diaz are working under the same premise as the many schools now prioritizing social-emotional learning, or SEL: Teachers should manage student behavior with more than just immediate compliance in mind. They should work to shape more responsible and empathetic people.

It’s a lofty goal, but one that is gaining plenty of traction. Schools around the country are using programs like Responsive Classroom, Second Step, and the 4R’s to teach young students to recognize and regulate their emotions, understand others’ perspectives, resolve conflicts, and build relationships.

Teacher Nydia Mendez reaches for an apple from an imaginary tree as her 1st graders do the same at PS 24 in New York City. Ms. Mendez begins a lesson about feelings with a series of physical exercises that gets students warmed up.

There’s evidence that such programs have benefits. In a meta-analysis of 213 research-based social-emotional-learning programs, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning found that such programs boost student achievement, as measured by standardized tests and school grades, by an average of 11 percentile points. The study said SEL programs also reduced problems with student conduct and emotional distress, and improved their attitudes “about themselves, others, and school.”

Traditional behavior-management systems tend to focus on compliance, or getting students to abide by rules and consequences. Systems based on social-emotional learning are more concerned with the emotional causes and ramifications of student behavior.

“The most critical thing to think about in classroom management is, ‘What is the ultimate aim?’” said George Bear, an education professor at the University of Delaware and a former school psychologist. “The short-term aim might be compliance—and I have no problem with that—but is that the only thing you want to develop in a kid?”

More than just meeting behavioral expectations, he said, children need to learn “empathy, perspective-taking, social problem-solving skills, anger control, self-regulation, and, to be honest, shame and guilt.”

Having the basic tools in place for compliance “is important,” said Mr. Bear. “But then you build upon that and don’t stop there. ... I get frustrated when teachers have an orderly class and that’s their only goal.”

‘A Messy Process’

Certain elements are common to many SEL programs: Students learn vocabulary words related to feelings and practice identifying their emotions. Classroom rules, or community standards, are created with student input. Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.

Rebecca Schmidt, who teaches 4th and 5th grade at the Inspired Teaching School, a charter school in the District of Columbia, uses a variety of social-emotional-focused methods to manage her students. “It’s tough, and a messy process, and takes a lot longer than a typical external-incentive/rewards classroom management [approach],” she wrote in an email.

SEL programs also tend to focus on having students repair the damage when they misbehave, rather than simply receive a punishment. For instance, said Ms. Schmidt, if one child in her classroom does not let another play at recess, instead of just having to sit out, the offender will have to find a way to “fix” the problem.

“He could make a card or write a note to the kid,” she explained. “Often this ‘apology of action’ or ‘fixing’ is a lot harder than just losing recess.”

Nicole Ayala, center, gives a thumbs-up to indicate she has the answer to a question posed during the lesson in Ms. Mendez’s classroom.

Tom Roderick, the executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, based here in New York, and the creator of the 4R’s SEL program, said “the misbehavior then becomes an opportunity for learning.”

Teaching social-emotional lessons also comes with risks. For instance, the “put-downs” activity in Maria Diaz’s 5th grade class, in which students tore up their self-portraits, brought much of the class to tears.

At times, classroom meetings and other discussions can churn up feelings students are having about serious problems at home, which can be difficult for a teacher to navigate.

Not a Therapy Session

Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.

Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home. This kind of emotionally fraught work “does take a toll on me,” Ms. Diaz admitted. “I become so engulfed in [the students’] lives that I sometimes forget to take care of me. It is a balancing act that I have not mastered.”

SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child. Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.

Mr. Roderick said teachers must understand “this is not about therapy. It’s about teaching kids skills and giving opportunities to practice and apply them to real-life situations. ... It’s problem-solving.”

For Ms. Diaz, despite the exhaustion and other difficulties, implementing SEL has been worth the effort. In addition to seeing academic benefits, she said, “knowing that my children are OK and that they’ve acquired the necessary skills to live in a peaceful environment is what matters most. The challenges become secondhand.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Teachers Use Social-Emotional Programs to Manage Classes

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