Teacher Voices: On Supporting Students’ Social-Emotional and Behavioral Growth

Teacher Voices: On Supporting Students’ Social-Emotional and Behavioral Growth

At TpT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Laura, a former school psychologist and TpT Teacher-Author, about her work to make sure teachers and schools can support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral growth.

TpT Store Name

Social Emotional Workshop

Teaching Experience

10 years as a school psychologist 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was a school psychologist for 10 years, and for the last year and a half, I was also a special education director. I worked at a charter school in the South Bronx for the last three years of my career, and before that, I worked at a school in Massachusetts.

I originally thought I was going to become a teacher, and started college as an education major. But since I was always interested in psych, I started looking for something that married mental health and education together. It turns out that that’s exactly what a school psychologist does! I did go into it kind of blind, but it seemed to be the perfect fit for me.

I originally thought I was going to become a teacher, and started college as an education major. But since I was always interested in psych, I started looking for something that married mental health and education together. It turns out that that’s exactly what a school psychologist does! I did go into it kind of blind, but it seemed to be the perfect fit for me.

What drove you to become a school psychologist?

I’ve always been interested in how kids develop and how we can help them be the best versions of themselves. As soon as I was old enough to have a job, I started working with kids — first as a camp counselor, then later in a daycare. Basically, every possible moment I had, I was working with kids. 

Once I got into the field of school psychology, I realized that many of the kids who were struggling social-emotionally or behaviorally needed to learn skills that everyone should be learning. And that my role was to help everyone work together to provide a continuum of services that stretched from the classroom to the school psychologist’s office. 

Can you describe the work you did as a school psychologist?

When I got out of graduate school, I wound up in a high-income community outside of Boston that was incredibly progressive and supportive of social-emotional education. It was here that I got the chance to structure how the SEL services and systems were set up in the school. I figured out what the SEL curriculum was going to be. I consulted with teachers around what that looked like day-to-day so it was not just an extra thing they did, but rather built into everything they were doing. I figured out how we could identify the kids who were struggling and provide them with services. The model we put in place was focused on the whole school and not just the kids referred to the office. I spent tons and tons of time with teachers before and after school figuring out what SEL looked like so we were supporting all students.

I was there for six years, and then decided to move home to New York. I took a position at a charter school in the South Bronx, and it was a completely different experience. They had a very involved parent community, weekly character ed lessons, and a pretty strict behavior model. But they’d never had someone in-house for social-emotional services before, just an outside provider who would come in every now and again. I was able to use my experience from my previous school to develop our program, and start getting SEL integrated into the curriculum better. 

In both places, my focus was on finding a model that was as collaborative and wrap-around as possible so kids were not getting just a half-hour SEL curriculum or a half-hour of counseling, but a pretty holistic and integrated SEL education that was coordinated by everyone around them.

What’s your approach to addressing students’ social-emotional and behavioral needs? 

What’s really important to me is that we’re not just teaching one-off lessons, but giving everyone a common language and approach is really important. Then embedding it in the everyday culture of the school is what makes SEL the most effective. 

Additionally, I like to focus on figuring out how teachers can bring SEL into their academic lessons without it feeling like something more or extra. When it’s treated as just an extra lesson, it’s not as effective.

Why do you believe that teaching about mindfulness and coping strategies is valuable and beneficial?

It’s so exciting for me that SEL has become such a trending topic. For students, having these skills can increase their self-confidence, along with their ability to negotiate situations independently, to connect with other people, to develop relationships, and to manage their emotions. These are skills that we all keep learning throughout life, so it’s important that educators start building them in kids as early as possible because they will carry these skills with them when they leave the classroom.

In my own work, I saw more independence in kids, particularly in their ability to solve their own problems easily and effectively. They began using coping strategies for dealing with difficult situations. When they were struggling, they knew to take a deep breath. Those are the kinds of small changes I’d see every day. And those changes are the difference between a kid exploding in the middle of class or taking a moment to breathe and then persisting through the challenge.

For an educator who is looking to address mindfulness and mental health in their teaching practice, where do you suggest they start?

One of the common pitfalls is that schools often introduce SEL to the whole school all at once without bringing in stakeholders. To effectively incorporate it school-wide, you first need to get the teachers who are influencers in your building on board. When starting out, if you’re in a K-5 school, K-2 is the best place to pilot your SEL program. If you’re in a 6-8, start with a grade level. After that, you need to figure out your roadmap for rolling it out school-wide. It’s a three- to five-year process to get a system change like that in place, so your administrator needs to be bought in for it to be truly effective school-wide.

In terms of doing SEL in the classroom, I would suggest approaching SEL skills in the same way that you would approach teaching them reading or writing skills. There are tons of resources on TpT on how to add that into your subject area lessons, in your transitions, and in your morning meetings. A lot of states also have SEL standards, so you could approach it the same way that you approach lesson planning in order to figure out how to integrate it into your academic blocks. 

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a teacher who’s trying to incorporate more social-emotional learning and mindfulness into their practice?

Start small and start at the beginning of the day. I find goal setting to be a good way to start your day. At your morning meeting, for instance, you could work with your students to set an intention for the day — that is, what they’re going to need to do more of, what they need to less of, what strategies they have ready if things aren’t going well. 

What’s something you do to help your students connect to their feelings? 

In counseling or classroom lessons, one of the things I recommend that teachers do is start with a feelings check-in. This isn’t just to get a pulse on where kids are; it’s to help kids build their emotional vocabulary. Having someone listen to them and care about the things they’re feeling also helps them realize that emotions are going to happen and that it’s okay. Sometimes, everything isn’t wonderful sunshine, and it’s okay to be angry, jealous, or embarrassed. 

I see teachers stop doing these exercises in upper elementary classes because they think that kids don’t want to talk about their feelings. But they do. They just might not want to do it in front of all their peers. So it’s up to us to think about how to structure it and find more discreet ways of talking about how they’re feeling. In older grades, these discussions become more than just naming the feeling; it’s about figuring out a strategy for how to handle it. If you can name it, you can regulate it and manage it.

If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from your story and your experience, what would it be?

Social-emotional learning is the foundation off which you can build the rest of learning. If students don’t have SEL skills, if they don’t feel connected, and if they can’t manage their emotions, we’re not going to be able to teach them effectively. And the sooner we start to teach kids those skills, the less likely it is for a gap to develop between the social-emotional skills students have and what’s being asked of them.

Are there additional resources, articles, books, or podcasts that you’d recommend to educators looking to bring social-emotional learning to their school?

CASEL is a great resource and a great place to start. They share a ton of resources, and while there are not a lot of social-emotional lessons, there are a lot of frameworks that will help your school get set up.

If you’re looking for inspiration, the Illinois state standards have been around the longest and are pretty comprehensive. In addition, the Anchorage School District and the Austin Independent School District have been doing SEL well for a long time and are good models to look at.

Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile?

My dog, Henry! 

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About Laura

Strong social-emotional skills help students work together, manage big feelings, or persist with a goal. For 10 years as a school psychologist, I helped students build up these skills so they could move their path in a better direction. Now as a curriculum developer, I’m lucky to support educators across the country to make SEL a part of their classroom. It drives me to create in-depth resources that will make an impact on students. Check out my blog for practical tips and connect with me on Instagram. Let’s work to make social-emotional learning a part of our every day.

The post Teacher Voices: On Supporting Students’ Social-Emotional and Behavioral Growth appeared first on The TpT Blog.

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