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Thinking back to my own training as an elementary school preservice teacher, I remember the lack of preparation dedicated to handling classroom discipline or behavioral issues. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that understanding how to help students recognize and control their emotions and develop ways to manage their less desirable behaviors is critical in ensuring a good classroom environment and proper child development.
Growth of Social Emotional Learning in K-12 Schools
While there are decades of research on the importance of social emotional learning, there has been a recent increase in the actions of school districts demonstrating a growing recognition of the importance of and benefits to students when social emotional learning becomes an integral component of the curriculum and when negative student behaviors are handled with more thought and less knee-jerk suspensions or expulsions.
Data collection on suspensions and expulsions highlight the racial and gender disparities that exist, leading to higher rates for boys of color and students in special education. This trend continues throughout the trajectory of schooling. However, with increased recognition and new policy changes, these rates have begun to decrease. The California Department of Education has seen a steady decline in suspensions and expulsions over the last several years, and there has been a concerted effort of teachers and administrators to implement alternatives to removing children from school. The U.S. Department of Education has a page dedicated to informing schools and citizens about their recommendations for improving school disciplinary practices.
A report released in October 2016 by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), titled “When Districts Support and Integrate Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Findings From an Ongoing Evaluation of Districtwide Implementation of SEL,” outlined the impact of a program which supported “systematic implementation of SEL efforts across districts.” Key outcomes of the program were the development of capacities to support SEL implementation and positive trends in behavioral and academic growth for students. Additionally, suspensions decreased significantly.
Social Emotional Learning and Discipline Policy Change in Early Childhood
Startlingly, research done by the Foundation for Child Development found that nationwide 3 and 4 year olds are being expelled from preschool at a rate 3.2 times higher than students in the K-12 system (2.1 per 1000 in K-12 vs. 6.7 per 1000 in PK). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recognized the large-scale problem of suspensions and expulsions in early childhood settings, and, along with the U.S. Department of Education, it released a statement on expulsion and suspension policies in early childhood settings. Recommendations include:
- Developing and clearly communicating preventative guidance and discipline practices
- Developing and clearly communicating expulsion and suspension policies
- Accessing technical assistance in workforce development to prevent expulsions and suspensions
- Setting goals and analyzing data to assess progress
In light of this statement and further attention given to preschool suspensions and expulsions in the media, many states have begun to enact their own policies and recommendations.
So What’s Next?
As recognition of the importance of social and emotional skill development makes its way into policy at the school, district, and state levels, we should hope for continued improvement in the ways that teachers react to disciplinary situations and students respond to alternative interventions. Stakeholders should push for inclusion of alternatives to suspension and expulsion. Training teachers and other staff members in how to react to incidences of student misbehavior, clearly stating the school’s stance on discipline practices, and making supports available to help when a needed are all crucial reforms. Removing a child from the learning environment doesn’t make sense if keeping the child in the learning environment and using an alternative intervention can be the catalyst for social emotional growth and learning.
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