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Giving Visibility to Students with Emotional-Behavior Challenges

Maurice J. Elias

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

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Maurice J. Elias

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

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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?

walterf's picture

There are some great ideas here in helping students with EBD feel engaged and connected in the school. Many of these students struggle with motivation and feel disconnected from the school and the activities that occur there. I think that the emphasis on positive behavior as opposed to consequences for negative behavior is of particular importance. Often these students have been receiving punishments or negative consequences for most of their schooling career, so they have been conditioned to ignore them or not care about them. By using positive reinforcement, not only is it more effective, in part because of its novelty, but it also helps to engage the student and motivate him or her, as feelings of self worth increase.
I am also particularly interested in the point which recommends asking students for feedback on teaching. Has anyone used this in their classroom? Have you found it to be effective and beneficial?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi walterf! I have asked students for feedback on my teaching in a variety of ways. Usually it takes the form of a reflection at the end of a unit: students write reflectively about their own work throughout the unit, and then I ask them a couple questions specific to how I set up the unit for them. Often their feedback confirms what I had hoped about the unit, but there have been many times when I am able to improve the unit for the following year based on their feedback. I can't cite any real data on this, but I do think that because I ask my students for feedback, they feel that they have a voice, that I care about what they think. What I haven't done is make changes based on their feedback in that same year -- I think that would have a great impact on their sense of voice.

BetkerS's picture

I agree with you with needing to involve students (especially those will emotional-behavioural challenges), and for them to find their voice within their school.
I do not think it only involves giving students 'jobs' or venues to share their ideas/thoughts - and give their opinion. I think it is important to give them a voice to explain and talk about their emotional-behavioural challenges. My school has been using a great program called "Zones of Regulation" - a system that allows students recognize and vocalize the types of emotions that they are feeling, decide upon coping strategies and communicating with others about how they are needing to overcome those difficult emotions. This program is great because it can be adapted for special needs/non-verbal students and younger students (even Kindergarten) through the use of colours to represent emotions and symbols to represent coping strategies.
Although it is important to give struggling students 'jobs' or 'right to opinions' to feel empowered within thier own school - it is just as important to give them a voice that they can use to communicate about the emotional and behavioural challenges that remain within them daily.

Charlene's picture

The ideas in this article are great especially giving the students a voice in which they can express their concerns about their school. As a special education teacher, I love getting my students out to the regular education population. I only have 2 out of 6 students who are able to participate with regular education peers in specials. I should mention that I teach severe/profound students. I can see the difference in 1 of my 2 students behavior when she is participating with regular education peers. It does not seem to make any difference with the other student that goes out for specials with regular education peers. I would love to get the rest of my students out in the regular education setting for peer interaction.

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