Special Report
Teaching Profession

Social-Emotional Programs Target Students’ Long-Term Behavior

By Liana Loewus — October 14, 2013 7 min read
First graders react to the question "what face do you make when your mother compliments you?" with smiles of laughter and joy during a class session called "Feeling Faces" at Public School 24 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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One morning early this fall, 1st graders in Nydia Mendez’s class at Public School 24 in Brooklyn, N.Y., were working on identifying feelings. “It’s your birthday, make a face and show me how you feel,” 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 the boy next to her.

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

"[When] we ripped them into pieces—how did we feel about that?” Diaz asked the class. “I was sad,” a student responded. Diaz jerked her head toward a word chain hanging from the ceiling with synonyms for sad. “I was depressed,” he indicated more precisely. Afterward, Diaz asked students to turn to their partners and give them three “put-ups.”

Both Mendez and Diaz were teaching components of a social-emotional learning curriculum called the 4Rs (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) that is used schoolwide by PS 24. By building students’ self-awareness and emotional vocabulary, the teachers say they are working toward helping students to resolve conflicts and monitor their own actions. “I don’t want to be the police person in the classroom,” said Mendez. “I really want them to solve their own problems and become independent with that.”

Diaz said she emphasizes to students that “this is a place where they are safe and could discuss what they feel and find positive solutions.” Knowing they’re in a safe environment, she noted, makes it easier for students to concentrate on their work.

A Focus on Causes

Mendez and Diaz were voicing a premise that the many schools now prioritizing social-emotional learning are working under: Teachers should manage student behavior with more than just immediate compliance in mind. They should be working to shape more responsible and empathetic people.

Nicole Ayala draws a face on a paper plate during a class session on feelings at PS 24 section of Brooklyn.

It’s a lofty goal, no doubt, 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.

And there is some evidence that such programs are having positive results. 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. According to that study, SEL programs also reduced conduct problems and emotional distress, and improved students’ attitudes “about themselves, others, and school.”

Traditional behavior-management systems tend to focus on compliance, or getting students to abide by rules and consequences. SEL-based systems, on the other hand, 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 former school psychologist, “What is the long-term aim? 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.”

'Not Supporting Negative Behavior'

In this audio clip, Maria Diaz is leading her 5th grade class at PS 24 in a role-playing exercise to build social-emotional skills. She stops them for a mini-lesson on compassion.


Compliance may only work in a single classroom, under certain circumstances, while SEL takes the long view, said Maurice Elias, a psychologist and professor at Rutgers University in Livingston, N.J., and co-founder of the Social Decision Making/Problem Solving Program. “In the mental health field, what people do when they’re institutionalized doesn’t necessarily generalize when they get out,” he said. “You can have people who are very compliant and obedient in that setting, and when they get out bad things happen. It’s not coincidental there are high rates of recidivism in prison populations. It’s the same thing here. Compliance is not the goal. We want kids to learn key skills they need to be successful and responsible and good people in life.”

Having the basic tools in place for compliance “is important,” said Bear, who has conducted comparative research suggesting that American students may be overly reliant on punishment as the basis for moral reasoning. “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’

There are certain elements 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 often convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems together.

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,” she wrote in an email. “But I honestly think it creates a more healthy and safe environment for learning. And it sets kids up for life success—not just following arbitrary rules for points, etc.”

SEL programs also tend to focus on having students repair the damage when they misbehave rather than simply receive a punishment. For instance, said 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. “He could apologize and invite the kid to sit with him at lunch. Often this ‘apology of action’ or ‘fixing’ is a lot harder than just losing recess.”

PS 24 teacher Nydia Mendez reaches for an apple from an imaginary tree as her 1st grade students do the same.

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

Not a Therapy Session

Teaching social-emotional lessons also comes with some inherent risks. For instance, the “put-downs” activity in Maria Diaz’s 5th grade class in Brooklyn, in which students tore up their self-portraits, brought much of the class to tears. (Emma Gonzalez, a trainer at the Morningside Center who works with PS 24 teachers, emphasized that Diaz is a “master teacher” and that most teachers do the activity with paper hearts.) 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.

Diaz noted that she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their “class family.” She also explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect there are certain things she’ll have to pass on to counselors and administrators. In addition, she said, she warns parents at the beginning of the year that their children may open up to her about what’s going on at home. As it turns out, the parents also “share insights into situations they are going through in their own lives,” she said.

This kind of emotionally fraught work “does take a toll on me,” 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.”

Student Nicole Ayala, center, gives a thumbs up to indicate she has the answer to a question during a discussion about feelings.

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. For that reason, Elias said, teachers “need to feel comfortable turning to the school psychologist, or a behavior specialist, or the school counselor.”

Roderick said it’s important to emphasize to teachers that “this is not about therapy. It’s about teaching kids skills and giving opportunities to practice and apply them to real life situations. A class meeting is not therapy—it’s problem-solving.”

For Diaz, despite the exhaustion and other potential difficulties, implementing SEL has been worth the effort. In addition to seeing academic benefits, she said, “I do take pride in saying that I have formed decade-long friendships with parents and students alike and I attribute a lot of this to the SEL work. ... 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.”

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