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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Giving Visibility to Students with Emotional-Behavior Challenges

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

The world is catching on to the importance of developing social and emotional learning in youth. The Second European Network for Social-Emotional Competence in Children (ENSEC) Conference was held last month in Izmir, Turkey, and I was privileged to attend and present. (In case you were wondering, the first conference was in Malta in 2007.)

The topic of preschool social and emotional competence garnered a lot of attention at the conference, revealing that remarkable work in this area around assessment and policy is being done worldwide, especially in Australia, Canada, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

But the number-one topic was student voice. Students need more opportunities to participate in school so that they can feel engaged and connected. They need to feel that they matter to the school, and that what they learn in school needs to matter to them. This is especially true for students with emotional-behavior disorder (also known as severe emotional-behavior disorder, or SEBD), but it is not limited to them. With that, some great ideas came out of the conference about including all youngsters at school sites. Here are some snippets of those ideas to get you thinking:

  • Establish schoolwide problem-solving teams. When an issue comes up that is related to all students, such as discipline, recess policy, or bullying, create a fictionalized story about the problem, and have all students read it in their classes. Then have small groups discuss and develop ways to handle it. Finally, have a spokesperson elected from each group bring the ideas to a decision-making panel, or a council consisting of both staff and students.
  • To improve discipline in school, survey students and ask them what encourages their positive behavior, and what might help them change negative behaviors. You are likely to discover that students want to feel respected, receive more positive feedback, and have more positive feedback sent to their parents.
  • Train students to be tour guides for first-time visitors coming to your campus.
  • Have idea/suggestion boxes or boards placed around the school so students can ask questions, make comments, and share concerns.
  • Create a process that will allow students to be on certain committees and teams in the school. Among the most relevant and interesting are those that relate to hiring, school climate or discipline, and community relationships.
  • Form student-staff research teams to actually study and report back on school issues and problems. They can research anything from food services to support in the community to keeping the lunchroom cleaner. Mini-research projects can be created that get input from a variety of students (and staff) and used to help in problem solving.
  • Bring service learning to your schools. This is a vehicle for involving students in improving teaching and learning within the school, helping with local community issues outside the school, and addressing global concerns that they have. Encourage civic leaders, service providers, librarians, and uniformed officers, and people from all levels of government, including heads of local planning, zoning, and licensing boards and local legislative representatives, to come to your school to share their experiences and enlist student involvement.
  • Solicit student feedback on teaching. Yes, you read correctly. When students are asked to evaluate and help improve teaching, they feel highly engaged and valued. This can be done in ways ranging from suggestion boxes to focus groups to mini-research projects.

Some important caveats accompany the above suggestions. First, be sure to include representatives from all groups of students in the conversations. Second, don't be afraid to direct concerns to students experiencing crises, such as parental loss, or illness, or incarceration. Finally, when students are given a voice, the opportunity to express their concerns must be genuine and there must be equity across groups within the school.

All children at a school need to feel that their perspective is welcomed, and, even if it is not shared, they need validation and even feedback. This strategy requires the creation of safe spaces where these conversations can take place freely and without retribution.

What are some ways you make sure to include all children in your school community? How can we do a better job of this at our schools? Please add your insights and ideas to this discussion.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jan, as your quote below/comment on my blog reaffirms, the more readers like you can share their ideas, the higher everyone's level of practice can be raised. Thanks for taking the time to share. I hope it will inspire others to do the same. After all, the blogs that I write that seem to generate the best and most response are when I share examples of practical ideas that I have been privileged enough to see in action!-- Maurice

[quote]I especially loved this idea : "Establish schoolwide problem-solving teams. When an issue comes up that is related to all students, such as discipline, recess policy, or bullying, create a fictionalized story about the problem, and have all students read it in their classes. Then have small groups discuss and develop ways to handle it".
I think you can also do this right in the individual classroom too! In fact, if it starts there, in every class, the students who wind up on the school-wide team will already have had "training" in the process-and being put on such a team would be more universally recognized as an both a true honor and genuine responsibility.
This kind of thing could be handled easily in language arts classes, or in any kind of class that experiencing a problem that would benefit from a "team" solution. I know everyone already has a lot of material to teach as it is, but it seems to me that if a bit of time was spent by every teacher on this kind of process, as truly needed, there would be more actual instruction time available for what we really want to be spending our time teaching!
To save time, the teacher could present the first part of the story to the class, (where the problem is described), and then the children could work alone, with partners, in teams or as a class to quickly "brainstorm" about possible effective solutions, and what should happen next so that the story can have a positive ending.
If the various appropriate ways to handle the problems the children come up with in class are added to the "stories", the students will wind up with some truly useful, personalized story books to add to their classroom libraries-(almost like their own personalized versions of the "social stories" that are so helpful to use with high-functioning autistic children).
Imagine the effect if a child had a recurring behavior problem and could calmly be given a short time-out to read the class story about how to solve that kind of problem, just as a friendly "reminder". I don't know that would be particularly helpful with children who have severe problems, but I know it would be a positive way to handle some of the highly active, highly verbal children in my classes, who sometimes "forget" how to behave in school!
I've made up these kinds of "social stories" before and found that reading them helps not only the children who struggle with behavior issues or social anxiety, but the rest of the class benefits as well. But I never thought about how much greater the impact might be if the students who are having the problems could be part of a functioning team chosen to come up with appropriate strategies for solving the problem!
Collaborating with each other and their teachers to write these kinds of stories would surely help to give most elementary students a feeling of security ("Problems that concern us are handled in a genuinely helpful and non-judgemental manner by my teacher and all of us working together."), personal empowerment ("I can be part of the solution."), and pride ("Our school is a nicer place to be because of our class.")
This kind of writing process goes beyond having problems addressed in a nonthreatening way "from the top down"-it gives every student a chance to problem-solve individually and as a team, and to actually to own the solutions they come up with-to "be part of the change they wish to see in the world"-even if only the everyday world of their classroom, which is a very heady thing for most students.
Over time, I would think that the students' more positive attitudes could not help but have a positively affect on the climate in the school as a whole-especially if this method of problem-solving was embraced by all the teachers.[/quote]

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, some of the individuals whose work at the conference generated the ideas in my blog were Michael Fielding, Margaret Egan, Paul Cooper, Maggie Pinar, Marianne Jansson, Ozan Oztug, Helen Cowie, Deborah Harcourt, Carmen Huser, Anne Graham, Ayse Bakirci, Selda Koydemir-Ozden, and Zuleyha Aydin. You can check the web site for their presentations at www.enseceurope.org .

Janet Patti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Maurice,
I am so glad to see you addressing this topic. It is so important, and quite frankly, another one of those missing pieces in schools. Middle school and high school educators, in particular, would see much improved climates by having young people "sit at the table." Thanks for keeping us on our toes. Janet

Katie's picture

I love the ideas of getting the students involved. My school has adopted the Positive Behavior Intervention Systems. Students are rewarded for positive behaviors displayed in the classroom and follow a school code of conduct. Ours is RAMS Pride - Respectful, Able Motivated and Safe. Many kids buy in to it but we are missing a core group of students. Having some of these students involved in school problem-solving teams could be very beneficial. Thank you for your post!

Melissa's picture

I loved all the ideas mentioned. I have worked with DSACS in the past and our school is beginning to see some of the positive affects that SECD can have on an entire school. Your suggestions from the conference are defintely ones I will work on implementing this year school-wide and in my own classroom. I especially think that asking students (especially the middle schoolers, as I am in a 4-8 building) about what would encourage their positive behavior and hopefully put an end to some of the negativity we have been seeing for years. I look forward to presenting these ideas to our administration and hopefully with their support implement them. Keep the great ideas coming!

Melissa's picture

Andrew I completely agree. Not only does this allow for success in school and empower students, but also necessary in a high-functioning society which seems to be lacking some of the skills Dr. Elias and yourself mentioned. Society needs to adapt some of these same suggestions in order to evoke and establish a more respectful and socially positive atmosphere.

ASK's picture

As a high school administrator, there is a tremendous need to have "student voice" present throughout the school. It not only allows for the staff and administration to have a "pulse" on the culture and climate of the school, it also enables each student to have the ability to "feel respected and cared for." The students are able to effectively communicate with their peers and teachers in a much more respectable manner. The disciplinary referrals have decreased with the implementation of peer leaders and the focus of the high school to incorporate more SECD into the curriculum. The DSACS survey indicated that students are in need of their "voice."

Andrew and Melissa are definitely on target in their evaluation with regards to respect. This one element needs to be expressed and practiced throughout one's lifetime, both in and out of the classroom. The sooner (at a younger age) that children learn to respect not only themselves but others, the shift in the culture and climate can begin.

Joanne MacLennan's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog, Maurice, and all of the comments that came after. What I noticed about all of the proposals that are school-wide in scope is that the students that participate in the activities need to be "ready," skills wise, for there to be successful outcomes in the process of collaboration and problem-solving. These skills, of course, are part of the SECD emotional competencies domains that are universally understood to underlie a healthy relationship with the self and healthy interactions with others.
As a retired classroom teacher, it is my view that these skills must start early and be practiced often by all classroom teachers. Of course, they can be infused into the daily interactions between teachers and the students, and be taught, as mentioned above, during the academic content of the day. Language arts and social studies are "naturals" for this.
Regarding the relationship of the these skills to student voice: here the teacher plays a key role in developing the classroom culture of physical, intellectual and emotional safety that fosters the incentives for students to want to share their voices. And, the emotional competencies domains are essential: a student must know himself and understand what his feelings/needs/desires/dreams are in order to know what to express with his voice. For his voice to be safely expressed/validated/challenged, the listener (teacher, classmate, administrator) must be skilled in SECD skills so that the ensuing interaction is a positive and productive one.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that student voice has several components and the teacher/classroom setting is a critical element/precursor for school-wide application.

KYS's picture
Teacher Assistant--Special Education

Your blog was very interesting and enlightening. In reference to including all children in school communities, we should not forget the students in special education. I work in a classroom with children with emotional and behavior challenges. Many of them have autism, so administrators and teachers think that they don't really "care" about the social aspects of school because of their (the children with autism) social deficits. However, I feel that actively involving them in extracurricular, school award ceremonies, and other special events would make them feel like they are a part of the school community. Because of their behavior issues, they are often excluded from most events and special occasions. I feel that allowing them full access with the support of a one-on-one staff is by far more positive than excluding them.

Alyson's picture

Excellent idea! Students who have an EBD and other special needs should have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. They gain social skills, develop relationships with peers, and feel connected to their school. How can we share this idea with other professionals? Maybe this idea should be included in teacher in-service and professional workshops? Does your school allow students with special needs to participate in extracurricular activities?

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