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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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