When It Comes to SEL, Administrators and Teachers See Things Differently

By Arianna Prothero — March 10, 2023 7 min read
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When it comes to how well schools are addressing students’ social and emotional challenges, administrators and teachers might as well be on different planets.

There is a yawning gap between administrators and teachers in how thoroughly they think behavior management programs—such as social-emotional learning (SEL) and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)—are being implemented in their schools.

That’s the key takeaway from a recently released report by EAB, an education research, polling, and consulting group. And it’s a troubling disconnect given that more than 8 in 10 educators said in a survey for the report that students in their district are developmentally behind on key social-emotional skills such as relationship building and self-regulation.

Too often, administrators are not providing teachers with the support they need to properly implement the SEL and PBIS programs that districts invest in, the report said, describing many districts as being “program rich, but impact poor.”

Barriers—from a lack of training for teachers on how to implement behavior management strategies and programs, to teachers feeling like they are under pressure to catch students up academically and don’t have the time to address social and emotional issues— are foiling schools’ ability to address this problem head-on.

Among the report’s most eye-opening findings:

  • Student behavior is driving down teacher morale. Teachers surveyed this school year said they see substantially more verbal abuse and opposition toward teachers than those polled in 2018, and that feeling of disrespect “makes teachers feel undervalued in their role,” the report said. That environment makes it even more difficult for teachers to manage their classrooms and student behavior.
  • Schools still don’t have enough mental health support staff such as school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other behavioral support specialists, despite an influx of federal funding and support staff hiring sprees. Fifty-four percent of teachers surveyed by EAB said that a lack of support staff is still a significant barrier to following the behavior management framework in their school or district.
  • School districts are “program rich, but impact poor” as districts often focus on the latest flashy tools or approaches rather than training teachers on existing tools or approaches and giving them strategies on how to properly implement them.
  • Administrators and teachers have very different views on how behavior management strategies are actually getting implemented in their schools. Administrators are much more likely than teachers to say their district has clear behavior management strategies, that teachers use PBIS and SEL, and that the district provides training on these things.

More on that last point: Half of the district administrators and 55 percent of school administrators say their district has an explicit district-wide behavior management framework. Only 36 percent of teachers say the same.

When it comes to actually using behavior management strategies, 89 percent of district administrators said their district uses SEL while only 66 percent of teachers said the same. Eighty percent of administrators said their district uses PBIS while only 58 percent of teachers indicated so, and 85 percent of administrators said their district uses both while 62 percent of teachers said their district does.

In one district, the report noted, more than 30 administrators said that they use PBIS and SEL. But none of the teachers said they use either strategy.

There is also a large gap between administrators and teachers on how much training districts are providing on behavior management. In districts that use SEL, 71 percent of administrators said that they or their districts’ teachers have been trained on SEL while only 37 percent of teachers and staff said they had been trained. For PBIS, 79 percent of administrators and 53 percent of teachers said their district provided training.

One factor that could be contributing to a disconnect between administrator and teacher perspectives is staff turnover, said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent for the Slate Valley School District in Vermont.

“When we’re hiring dozens of new teachers a year, it’s difficult to get people up to speed” on what the frameworks, strategies, and expectations are, she said.

Many of Slate Valley’s current teachers don’t have the same institutional knowledge as educators in her district did about a decade ago, Olsen Farrell said.
“When I started in this district 12 years ago, the majority of our teaching staff had 25 years or more in the district as educators, now the vast majority of staff have five years or less.”

The number of teachers in her district with temporary teaching licenses has also gone up over that time, she said, and now about 20 percent of teachers have provisional licenses. That means they haven’t had the same amount of training or completed the same kind of coursework that fully licensed teachers have.

In districts with similar situations, Olsen-Farrell said, administrators may be assuming their teachers are better versed in the various behavior management frameworks than they actually are. “Everyone doesn’t have the same baseline,” she said.

Students’ behavior problems getting worse

Student behavioral issues continue to rise despite many districts having behavior management programs such as PBIS and SEL, said the EAB report.

Students’ relationships with their peers have deteriorated too. Teachers reported in the EAB survey that they are seeing more bullying, verbal altercations, and physical violence among students compared to 2018—and they are also seeing more of this kind of behavior directed at them as well.

A recent EdWeek Research Center poll, which surveyed educators in January and February of this year, turned up similar results. Seventy percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said that students are misbehaving more in the classroom compared with the fall of 2019.

Olsen-Farrell said she has seen a sharp increase in behavioral issues this past fall from students of all ages, and parents. And that’s despite the fact that students in her district have been learning fully in-person since the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.

In the Garden City school district in New York, superintendent Kasum Sinha said that it’s her district’s youngest students who are struggling the most with their social-emotional development. “They may not have learned how to play together,” she said. “It might appear to be acting out, but they just need to be taught those skills explicitly, which they would have learned if they had had normal preschool or early elementary years.”

She added: “Kids communicate through their behaviors, so it’s part of us understanding, what are they telling us through their behaviors?”

Older students in the district have struggled mostly with mental health challenges, she said.

Student behavioral issues were already top of mind for educators even before the pandemic. An EAB survey during the 2018-19 school year found that students’ behavioral disruptions were on the upswing—so much so that teachers estimated that they were spending nearly 2.5 hours of learning time a week addressing the problem.

But when the pandemic hit, the report says, school administrators’ attention was monopolized by the need to provide students with bare necessities—such as food and remote instruction. The student behavior issue was left unattended to fester.

Add in the trauma and mental health issues stirred up by the pandemic, and students’ behavioral problems exploded with the return to in-person learning. The situation has become that much more challenging since 2019 for schools to provide students with behavioral support and positive school environments, says the report.

Now, 84 percent of educators—teachers, support staff, and school and district administrators—say that students’ behavioral skills today are behind that of their students from just before the pandemic. When asked if student behavior is one of their top five concerns, educators working in schools were more likely to respond “yes” than district administrators.

Among teachers, 78 percent said that student behavior is one of their top concerns this year compared to 57 percent before the pandemic.

For its report, EAB surveyed 1,109 teachers, administrators, and support staff from more than 60 school districts in October and November of 2022.

For superintendents’ perspectives, EAB surveyed nearly 200 superintendents from 37 states for a separate report. That survey found that the vast majority of superintendents say that student mental health and behavioral concerns are worse now than before the pandemic. Among the top barriers superintendents cited to addressing those challenges: insufficient staffing, budgeting constraints, and a lack of effective solutions.


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