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December 1, 2017

The Bonds of Social-Emotional Learning

To address mental health conditions like depression, schools must foster emotional safety for students and teachers alike.

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Social-emotional learning

The cumulative goal of education is to offer students opportunities to develop interrelated academic, personal, and social competencies that have a long-term impact on their lives. But how can this ideal be realized when school leaders and educators feel pressure to prioritize numerous initiatives within a limited amount of time? Questions such as "How could I possibly fit in another curriculum item and still have enough instructional time?" point to the tremendous strain on educators who understand the need to focus on the emotional health of children. This strain is all the more apparent when we consider the number of students actively struggling with significant emotional needs.

To better achieve the goal of developing interrelated competencies in children, schools must take steps to shift away from a siloed approach in which academics and emotional health are segregated. Instead, the focus should be on an integrated, systemic framework, in which parallel processes of interrelated competencies for both educators and students are identified, built, and sustained through safe, positive relationships. Social-emotional learning, an approach to instruction that takes into account the emotional components that either facilitate or impede learning, is an ideal basis for such a framework. Social-emotional learning can be the "integrative glue" that ties together initiatives such as culture and climate, classroom management, academic supports, and intervention practices (Durlak, Domitrovich, Weissberg, & Guillotta, 2016).

In my experience, to be successful, a systemic instructional approach built on social-emotional learning must incorporate two central tenets:

  1. A caring, responsive school climate is important for both students and adults. A school climate that intentionally creates and fosters the emotional safety of adults allows for the self-reflection needed to examine and adjust practices that in turn influence students' emotional well-being.

  2. Children's emotions, behaviors, learning, and regulation are inextricably tied and cannot be considered separately. Strong, positive relationships with teachers, intentional messages about ability and worth, and flexible teaching approaches are important vehicles to promote children's emotional health and increase access to learning.

Addressing student mental health within a social-emotional learning framework is critical. More children are being diagnosed with mental health disorders at earlier ages. For example, by the age of 18, approximately 15–25 percent of adolescents will have experienced a major depressive episode (Auerbach et al., 2011). Educators understandably worry about how to best serve the academic needs of children struggling with mental health disorders. However, there is a danger in seeing mental health needs only as diagnoses. This can lead to applying illness-accommodation or deficit models in which intervention feels foreign to the nature of the classroom. Instead, schools need to address mental health needs from a broader perspective that includes consideration of what strengths the student possesses and how relationships can influence motivation and performance. Such an approach can lead to increased competence and confidence for both teachers and students.

The Three Statements

In their book The Skillful Teacher (2008), Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower argue that skillful teaching is built around three key positive-expectation messages: "This is important, you can do it, and I won't give up on you." These statements are also effective in addressing student mental health needs. However, this approach should not stop at students. Using these statements in a parallel process to support teachers is also a critical and necessary component of addressing student mental health within a social-emotional learning framework. The commitment and belief conveyed by these statements can build teachers' emotional safety, thereby allowing for the self-reflection, skill building, and development of supportive relationships needed to foster students' mental health needs.

Let's examine this parallel process in the context of supporting students who struggle with depression.

"This is important."

For students: The hallmark feature of depressive disorders is a core inability to emotionally self-regulate and a persistent presence of sad, empty, or irritable moods (APA, 2013). The experience of depression is significant for students and often makes them feel different, alone, and isolated. Educators can show they understand this significance by showing empathy and acknowledging that students are not being dramatic or making things up. They should also try to convey the belief that the situation will improve. For example, a teacher might say, "I notice that you are having a hard time focusing on this math problem. What might be helpful for me to do now? We've been able to find ways to help before and I'm sure we can do that now, too." Using objective, behavioral statements followed by offers of help can reduce a student's perceived sense of judgment and hopelessness.

For teachers: It is important for school systems and administrators to acknowledge that teachers have multiple demands, responsibilities, and stressors associated with their jobs. These stressors may be compounded by the additional challenges that students struggling with emotional needs pose. Students with depression may not participate in the classroom consistently, may struggle with learning new material, and may need work modifications. It is important for teachers to feel like they have the information and skills needed to best assist students. This includes an understanding of what the symptoms of depression may look like in the classroom, and what protocols to follow in helping students access help. In addition, educators must feel like they have the authority to assist and advocate for students whose emotional needs are impacting their academic performance. For example, principals, school mental health providers, and teachers should collaborate around modifications for students with a clear understanding of the support that will be offered for both teacher and student during classroom time.

"You can do it."

For students: Students who struggle with depression may face particular difficulties related to low motivation and lack of confidence in their abilities, as well as a poor sense of self-concept. When teachers create positive relational experiences in the classroom, where they convey optimism, encouragement, and belief in student abilities, it allows students to feel accepted and understood. This, in turn, positively impacts academic performance (Cozolino, 2013).

Students may also struggle with lack of emotional awareness (such as the ability to identify their emotions) and poor self-regulation. When students are able to better recognize their emotions, they can apply more energy toward using active coping skills and creating more goal-oriented responses (Kranzler et al., 2016; Reilly, 2015). Teachers can use multiple classroom techniques to address these deficits, thereby increasing access to learning and positively impacting mood. For example, finding intentional opportunities to increase emotional vocabulary can be extremely helpful. This may be done in conjunction with a class text (using questions such as "How did that character feel?", "What about his behavior and words made you choose that emotion?", and "What other words can we use to describe how he felt?") Teachers can also take a moment to help students self-regulate by noticing, sharing observations, and inviting them to find solutions ("I notice your fists are clenched and your leg is restless—what do you notice is going on for you? What might be helpful for us to do now?").

For teachers: In a system that feels stressed, it is easy for teachers to underestimate the skills and experiences they already possess. When asked to learn a new and isolated curriculum to address student mental health, teachers may doubt their capabilities or feel confused about when a certain approach should be used and under what circumstances. They may feel discouraged about finding the "right ways" to help. An integrated social-emotional approach, by contrast, not only provides clear methods of identification and referral for appropriate services, but also encourages self-reflection and teachers' use of existing relational and engagement skills to promote student emotional health. A number of questions can be helpful in promoting self-reflection and better understanding of how to use existing strengths and skills, including: What does this student need at this moment? What current tools do I have that can address his needs? What resources might help me to feel better prepared to address her current situation? Peer-mentoring programs and professional development workshops can create opportunities for dedicated time and practice of such self-reflection.

"I won't give up on you."

For students: Humans are social beings. Very little, if any, development and learning occurs in isolation. Students' emotional development is shaped by relationships built within the classroom and through internalization of their teacher's expectations and reactions. Teacher-student relationships can thus serve as the scaffolds on which a child struggling with depression can develop, practice, and internalize self-regulation skills. Critical components of connecting with students include acknowledging who they are outside of the depression ("I'm so glad to see you—I'm looking forward to having you in class today"), offering multiple invitations for conversation even though they may not be initially accepted ("I'm here if you would like to talk or if you just need to sit with someone"), and giving non-judgmental offers of help ("I notice the group project seemed challenging. Can we think together on how I can help?"). The impact of such interactions on emotional and regulatory development cannot be understated; preliminary research indicates that positive teacher-student relationships may even protect children from negative family experiences (Reilly, 2015).

For teachers: It is important for school leaders to acknowledge that addressing students' emotional needs may touch upon teachers' own personal experiences. A systemic approach to social-emotional learning considers and supports teachers' own needs through ongoing mentoring, professional development, and explicit conveying of support and understanding.

Attunement to Emotional Health

As I've stressed, the relationships between teachers and students can have a profound impact on students' emotional health and wellness—and ultimately on their learning. But for these relationships to flourish, they need to exist within a system that values and supports emotional safety and skill building at all levels. For school systems, that means moving from a culture of blame to a more collaborative and "no-fault" framework (Cohen, 2012); supporting educators by offering relevant, ongoing professional education on social-emotional learning as part of strategic planning; and creating infrastructure to support integration of social-emotional learning programming across intervention tiers and faculty positions (Greenberg, Domitrovich, Weissberg, & Durlak, 2017).

Such work can be guided by the three statements of skillful teaching: "This is important, you can do it, and I won't give up on you." At the core of these messages is a profound belief that, with the right supports, students can succeed. As Saphier (2017) indicates, through strong relationships and intentional teaching strategies, teachers can convey to their students that "smart is actually something you can get" (p. 25). Infusing attunement to emotional health and intentional strategies to address students' emotional states can also convey to students that "well is something you can be."


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

Auerbach, R. P., Bigda-Peyton, J. S., Eberhart, N. K., Webb, C. W., & Ringo Ho, M. (2011). Conceptualizing the prospective relationship between social support, stress, and depressive symptoms among adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 39(4), 475–487.

Cohen, J. (2012). School climate and culture improvement: A prosocial strategy that recognizes, educates, and supports the whole child and the whole school community. In P. H. Brown, M. W. Corrigan, & A. Higgins-D'Alessandro (Eds.), Handbook of prosocial education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Cozolino, L. (2013, March). Nine things educators need to know about the brain. Greater Good Science Center website.

Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Guillotta, T. P. (2016). Handbook of social and emotional learning (p. 37). New York: Guilford Press.

Greenberg, M., Domitrovich, C., Weissberg, R., & Durlak, J. (Spring 2017). Social and emotional learning as a public health approach to education. The Future of Children: Social and Emotional Learning, 27(1), 13–32.

Kranzler, A., Young, J., Hankin, B., Abela, J., Elias, M., & Selby, E. (2016). Emotional awareness: A transdiagnostic predictor of depression and anxiety for children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 45(3), 262–269.

Reilly, N. (2015). Anxiety and depression in the classroom: A teacher's guide to fostering self-regulation in young students (pp. 9–35). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Saphier, J. (2017). High expectations teaching: How we persuade students to believe and act on "smart is something you can get" (pp. 39–66). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Saphier, J., Haley-Speca, M. A., & Gower, R. (2008). The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching.

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