Addressing Their Social-Emotional Needs
BY KIMBERLY A. SCHONERT-REICHL/School Administrator, June 2019

Emotional disorders in children, says researcher Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, are compelling educators to address social-emotional needs while attending to learning.
As a former middle school and high school teacher for at-risk youth and as a professor in education for almost three decades, I have witnessed considerable changes in the makeup of students, who are increasingly multicultural and multilingual from racially, ethnically and economically diverse backgrounds.

Trends in the well-being of students are of particular concern. Epidemiological reports highlight increased childhood mental health problems, with an estimated one in five youth experiencing psychological disorders severe enough to warrant mental health services, according to the U.S. Public Health Service. School-based studies of children who suffer from serious emotional disorders reveal a large proportion of those needing mental health services do not receive them. By high school, as many as 60 percent of students become chronically disengaged from school, according to 2004 research in the Journal of School Health.

Prevention and intervention are essential for reducing mental illness and promoting students’ social and emotional competence.

School-Day Tradeoffs
Schools are facing mounting pressure to improve academic performance while attending to children’s social and emotional needs, expected to do more than ever before with static or diminishing resources.

What can educators do to decrease children’s mental health problems and promote their social-emotional competence and well-being? Would educators compromise academic progress by using the school day to explicitly address social-emotional development?

Understanding the answers and identifying the factors children need to be successful long has been an important objective for researchers, parents and educators interested in promoting student well-being and success at school. Informed, in part, from recent innovations in social and emotional learning, the past decade has seen an abundance of re-search documenting that SEL programs not only decrease children’s emotional distress and aggressive behaviors, they improve students’ well-being, kind behaviors and academic achievement.

Protecting Selves
Two particular lessons stand out for me in my work as a beginning teacher at an alternative high school in my early 20s.

I was devastated that my students seemed to hate me. (This may have stemmed from the fact I taught reading — a subject with which many of the students struggled). I worked so hard. How could they dislike me so much?

It was not until I saw this as their strength and their resilience. They had created “armor” to protect their vulnerability. They pushed me away so that I could not hurt them. When I understood this, I could move past my hurt feelings and recognize I had to find ways to engage them in creating the learning context that included them in decisions about classroom rules, decorating the classroom, having a voice in assignments and finding the strengths they each possessed.

I learned the simple lesson that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I also learned that schooling should include educating the heart as well as the mind.

Teacher Well-Being
My second lesson is one gaining increasing traction in the SEL field and in education more broadly — the importance of teacher social and emotional competence and well-being. We know from current research that teachers play a central role in promoting the social and emotional competencies of their students. Yet until recently, the influence of teachers in implementing SEL has been given scant attention, as has attention to teachers’ own social and emotional competence and well-being.

As a new teacher working with students exhibiting emotional and behavioral problems, I absorbed it all and soon experienced empathy fatigue as well as “stress contagion,” which manifested in a series of somatic problems, including stomach problems and headaches. There was no acknowledgment then of the stress teachers encounter. I had no-where to turn for my own stress and hence joined the ranks of new teachers leaving the profession early in their careers.

Notably, when teachers receive training in the behavioral and emotional factors that impact teaching and learning, they feel better equipped to propose and implement positive, active classroom management strategies that deter students’ aggressive behaviors and promote a positive learning climate. Unfortunately, such training and support rarely take place during preservice teacher preparation.

Preservice teacher education is in the best position to provide the necessary information, coursework and/or field experiences that would enable teachers to apply SEL techniques. All teachers today need to know something about the theories and research on children’s social-emotional development and the knowledge and skills for creating learn-ing contexts that promote student mental health. At the same time, educators might learn to identify strategies and supports for their own social and emotional competence and well-being.

KIMBERLY SCHONERT-REICHL is a professor of applied developmental psychology and special education at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. Twitter: @kimschon