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September 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 1

Choosing to Be Positive

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Social-emotional learning
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Credit: © Stefanie Felix
It starts small, maybe even with laughter. A student whispering to a classmate, slouching in his seat, or rolling his eyes. A young child's hurt feelings on the playground. A middle schooler whose mind is stuck on an argument with peers so she can't focus. These everyday occurrences have the potential to escalate into challenging classroom conflicts. But they also provide us with unique opportunities to get to know our students. These are moments when teachers may need to choose between pushing forward with a lesson and stopping to address the root of a student's behavior. How should teachers respond?

Relationships Are Central to Learning and Development

Most educators and parents agree that relationships affect children's well-being. A growing body of research sheds light on why relationships matter in school and why promoting high-quality relationships with students is the best response to challenging behaviors.
For example, research shows that young children who experience warm, trusting teacher-student relationships with low degrees of conflict are more likely to have a positive adjustment to school (see Rimm-Kaufman & Hamre, 2010), to perform well academically, and to have fewer behavior problems (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999). These effects can be long-lasting: A study by Hamre and Pianta (2001) found that students with a strong, positive relationship with their 1st grade teacher had better grades than their peers, even after accounting for differences in verbal ability and behavior problems. These academic gains persisted across the elementary and middle school years. According to the same study, teacher-student relationships characterized by high degrees of conflict were linked to poor academic outcomes and behavior problems, including school avoidance, lower classroom participation and cooperation, and more peer-directed aggression.
How do relationships work their magic? Teachers who build positive relationships with students validate students' emotional experiences and promote a sense of security and belonging that supports their active engagement (Hughes, Luo, Kwok, & Loyd, 2008). In addition, high-quality relationships serve as a protective factor during times of distress; these relationships are considered the "active ingredient" in building resilience among students who are at-risk for academic problems or other poor developmental outcomes (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015; Meehan, Hughes, & Cavell, 2003). A positive relationship with a supportive adult can buffer children from trauma and other adverse life experiences, and can provide the personalized responsiveness and scaffolding necessary for adaptive skill-building in the face of disruptive or challenging life events (see Burchinal, Peisner-Feinberg, Pianta, & Howes, 2002).
Not only do classrooms characterized by positive relationships better support social-emotional development in children, but the social-emotional competence of children and adults also influences the development of classroom relationships. Teachers who are better able to self-regulate typically create calmer, more consistent, and more predictable classroom climates (Jones, Bub, & Raver, 2013). These adults are able to take care of their own needs, while also modeling positive regulation and communication strategies for children. In turn, students with strong social-emotional skills are more likely to cooperate in class and be well-liked by teachers, and may receive more help and be more engaged in school activities (Denham, 2006).
Research also suggests that the quality of a school's culture and climate matters: Schools that are safe, caring, participatory, and responsive are better positioned to support the development of positive relationships among adults and children (Jones & Bouffard, 2012; Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D'Alessandro, & Guffey, 2012). Teachers' work environments, peer relationships, and feelings of connection to a school community affect their roles in creating a positive school climate (Thapa, et al., 2012). School leaders can thus play a crucial role in ensuring that challenging behavior is treated as an opportunity for growth by creating schoolwide programs and practices that support healthy relationships and nurture social and emotional learning for students and staff.

The Problem with Getting Tough

Unfortunately, some schools act on the belief that the developmental and academic needs of children are best served by punitive disciplinary approaches. These strategies often include frequent removal from the classroom, loss of privileges, and public reprimands for minor infractions like classroom interruptions or not standing in line correctly. Consequences are enacted immediately, without opportunity for student dialogue, reflection, or input, and often without discussion of the reason or context for the misbehavior.
Such schools tend to rely on highly structured adult control, such as physically placing students' hands on their desks, or prescribing in detail how students should look when seated for a learning activity. They may apply rigidly high expectations for children's behavior—for example, calling for 100 percent time on task, 100 percent of the time, even for very young children.
A punitive approach to challenging behaviors can undermine the quality of teacher-student relationships. Frequent use of negative consequences or harsh punishment leads to classroom environments that feel tense, critical, and characterized by high-conflict interactions—environments where students don't feel it's safe to make mistakes and to learn from them. Consequences that are viewed as overly harsh or arbitrary can erode the feelings of trust that are essential to high-quality, positive relationships.
Similarly, such an approach can interfere with the development of essential social-emotional skills. Consequences enacted immediately, without student dialogue or involvement, reduce students' opportunities to practice self-awareness and social communication. By pushing disciplinary problems out of the classroom, automatic punishments eliminate teachers' opportunity to model or scaffold new behaviors and skills in real time. Further, these actions often marginalize or shame students, which can undermine their future success in school.
Emerging research indicates that punitive approaches to challenging behavior—and "no excuses" approaches in particular—may compromise the quality of relationships and limit the development of key social-emotional skills. In a recent ethnographic study, students from one "no excuses" charter school reported lack of autonomy and lack of opportunities to make decisions or learn from mistakes. These students also reported a negative attitude toward school and teachers, lower motivation, feelings of stress and anxiety that overshadowed any positive academic experiences, and strained relationships. They often felt "at odds rather than at ease with teachers" (Golann, 2015, p. 112).
Another recent study found that students in schools characterized by a highly adult-directed, prescriptive approach to discipline were more likely to have lower scores in grit, conscientiousness, and self-control than their peers in schools with a less prescriptive approach (West, et al., 2016).
These findings are consistent with research indicating that children who spend more time in self-directed activities tend to have better executive function and regulation-related skills than those whose activities are highly structured by adults (Barker, et al, 2014). Presumably, less adult-structured time gives children the opportunity to exercise autonomy, rally their own motivation, develop focus and persistence in activities of their choosing, and independently practice managing attention and behavior—all cornerstones of effective self-regulation or self-management.

A Positive Approach: Social-Emotional Learning

The methods that schools use to address challenging student behaviors can either undermine teacher-student relationships or strengthen them. To ensure the latter, we advocate for a schoolwide approach that nurtures social-emotional learning (SEL). This approach sits in direct contrast to punitive discipline strategies.
Schools that nurture social-emotional learning view challenging behaviors not as distractions from the work of learning or failings of individual children (or educators), but as typical developmental occurrences that provide adults and children with real-world opportunities to practice new or emerging skills. An SEL approach promotes relationships and skill-building through supportive classroom practices and collaborative problem solving.
Supportive classroom practices. In SEL schools, teachers create classroom environments that include high levels of support and low levels of conflict, nurturing students' sense of belonging and security. Teachers take time to learn about and acknowledge each student's individual strengths and skills, intentionally and consistently drawing attention to what students are doing well. This positive feedback is distributed evenly across all students regardless of their academic skills or behavioral history. Thus, students do not feel that they have to meet certain unattainable expectations to be valued (Hatt, 2011).
Such classrooms typically establish daily or weekly routines in which even the most challenging students consistently receive positive, specific feedback for their efforts and hard work (for example, morning meetings or end-of-week celebrations). By engaging students in daily or weekly routines—for example, by explicitly inviting students to give compliments and positive feedback to one another—teachers build student skills in positive communication and social interaction, which minimizes conflict in the classroom. School leaders must support teachers in having the space and resources for these rituals.
Collaborative problem solving. Schools using an SEL approach proactively build the social, emotional, and communication skills students need to participate in dialogue-based problem solving. Students learn how to listen. When behavior problems occur, students are encouraged to take time for reflection or cool-down breaks—either individually, in a designated "safe spot" in the classroom, or through restorative justice practices such as peace circles (Wadhwa, 2016), in which classroom and school communities come together after a conflict has occurred. These strategies encourage students to communicate their feelings; to listen to the feelings, needs, and perspectives of others; and to think through possible solutions or consequences. Here, again, school leaders play a crucial role in developing the structures and space for effective problem solving.
Scaffolding skills in real time. Finally, when difficult situations arise in SEL schools, adults coach children and scaffold their use of strategies to effectively manage attention, feelings, or behavior in increasingly independent ways. Research indicates that mastering these skills takes many years—well into adulthood—and requires multiple opportunities for children to practice, make mistakes, and get feedback from supportive adults (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011). Children also learn from adult modeling. Adults must practice positive self-regulation and communication with one another; interactions between administrators and teachers should be characterized by the same commitment to collective growth and learning.
Building on our own work with teachers and schools, we have designed a set of strategies for use in grades PreK–5, which we call SECURe because they foster Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education (Bailey, Jones, et al., 2014). The selected SECURe strategies featured in boxes throughout this article can be flexibly used to support the development of high-quality relationships and key social and communication skills while preventing and addressing challenging behaviors. Some schools use these strategies as part of a comprehensive SEL curriculum; others adopt strategies to fit the specific social-emotional challenges of their student body. The SECURe strategies have been used over the last eight years in schools across the United States, and we continue to revise them today. In pilot studies, teachers who used SECURe strategies as part of a comprehensive SEL curriculum had better classroom climates, and their students demonstrated reduced impulsivity, greater attention, and better academic and social-emotional performance than their peers in non-SECURe classrooms (Jones, Bailey, & Jacob, 2014; Jones & Bailey, 2014).

A Choice to Be Positive

Educators commonly agree that strong, supportive relationships lead to healthy development and school success for children. But when it comes to creating these relationships—particularly in the context of challenging behaviors—schoolwide approaches differ greatly. We believe that school administrators, teachers, and parents should be guided by research that indicates that a schoolwide social-emotional learning approach is most likely to bolster relationships between adults and children, as well as build key social and emotional skills. Schoolwide efforts should include (1) supportive classroom environments characterized by high levels of belonging and low levels of conflict, (2) multi-tiered strategies that involve active dialogue with students and provide time to listen, reflect, and problem solve, and (3) everyday opportunities for students to practice new skills in the context of challenging behaviors. The strategies we need are available—and research and experience show that they work.

Bailey, R., Jones, S. M., & the SECURe Development Team (2014). Social, emotional, and cognitive understanding and regulation in education (SECURe): Program manual and K–3 curricula. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 593.

Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. (1997). The teacher-child relationship and children's early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 61–79.

Burchinal, M. R., Peisner-Feinberg, E., Pianta, R., & Howes, C. (2002). Development of academic skills from preschool through second grade: Family and classroom predictors of developmental trajectories. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 415–436.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the brain's "air traffic control" system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function (Working paper no. 11). Cambridge, MA: Author.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience (Working paper no. 13). Cambridge, MA: Author.

Denham, S. (2006). Social-emotional competence as a support for school readiness: What is it and how do we assess it? Early Education and Development, 17, 57–89.

Golann, J. W. (2015). The paradox of success at a no-excuses school. Sociology of Education, 88(2), 103–119.

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early teacher-child relationships and the trajectory of children's school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72(2) 625–638.

Hatt, B. (2011). Smartness as a cultural practice in schools. American Educational Research Journal, 49(3), 438–460.

Hughes, J. N., Luo, W., Kwok, O., & Loyd, L. (2008). Teacher-student support, effortful engagement, and achievement: A three-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 1–14.

Jones, S. M., & Bailey, R. (2014, March 7). Preliminary impacts of SECURe preK on child- and classroom-level outcomes. Presentation at the conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington, DC.

Jones, S. M., Bailey, R., & Jacob, R. (2014). Social emotional learning is essential to classroom management. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(2), 19–24.

Jones, S. M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Social and emotional learning in schools: From programs to strategies. Society for Research in Child Development Social Policy Report, 26(4), 1–22.

Jones, S. M., Bub, K., & Raver, C. C. (2013). Unpacking the black box of the CSRP intervention: The mediating roles of teacher-child relationship quality and self-regulation. Early Education and Development, 24(7), 1043–1064.

Ladd, G. W., Birch, S. H, & Buhs, E. S. (1999). Children's social and scholastic lives in kindergarten: Related spheres of influence? Child Development, 70(6), 1373–1400.

Meehan, B. T., Hughes, J. N., & Cavell, T. A. (2003). Teacher-student relationships as compensatory resources for aggressive children. Child Development, 74, 1145–1157.

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Hamre, B. K. (2010). The role of psychological and developmental science in efforts to improve teacher quality. Teachers College Record, 112, 2988–3023.

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Higgins-D'Alessandro, A., & Guffey, S. (2012). School climate research summary: August 2012. New York: National School Climate Center.

Wadhwa, A. (2016). Restorative justice in urban schools: Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. New York: Routledge.

West, M. R., Kraft, M. A., Finn, A. S., Martin, R. E., Duckworth, A. L., Gabrieli, C. F., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2016). Promise and paradox: Measuring students' non-cognitive skills and the impact of schooling. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(1), 148–170.

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