It was nine-year-old Tobin’s first day at a new public school, and like most kids he was nervous. He didn’t know the other students or his teacher, and he already had quite a history of behavioral problems at other schools. He likely wondered whether this experience would be just another failure for him.
However, on that first day, he took a simple but monumental step: He summoned the courage to ask his teacher to take a walk with him. (Tobin’s new classroom was intentionally small and supportive, and at times included extra staffing to accommodate such requests.) I don’t know what they talked about, but I do know this: In that small request, Tobin set himself on a new path in school, one pointed toward success.
Getting there required a year and a half of hard work and gradual progress. Eighteen months earlier, Tobin had come to my school, a private nonprofit that serves students with emotional, psychiatric, and developmental disabilities who have not been successful in public school settings. He had missed more than 30 days of school in the past year, and when he was in school his behavior was often unpredictable and sometimes explosive. He often struggled to meet academic expectations, and his reading skills lagged significantly behind those of other students his age. When an assignment was difficult for him—or looked like it would be too hard—he was easily overwhelmed, at times erupting with rude remarks or attempts to flee his classroom.
For a student like Tobin (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy), there are many valid approaches that a typical school might take: extra attention to his reading skills, a course of rewards and consequences for his disruptive behavior, suspensions for particularly challenging behavior, perhaps a suggestion to seek outside counseling or medication.
But we took a different route. While we certainly provided intensive academic supports and efforts to reinforce “good” behavior (and reprimand “bad” behavior) after it occurred, and these strategies did help Tobin, we also focused more proactively on nurturing his social and emotional skills. This included strengthening his abilities to recognize his emotions and thoughts and how they influenced his behavior, cope with stressful feelings or situations, and maintain positive, cooperative relationships with peers and teachers. For example, we helped Tobin realize when he was getting overwhelmed by a difficult-seeming assignment, and ask for help instead of acting out.
Given all of the challenges facing Tobin—and the realities constraining public schools—it’s not hard to imagine a focus on social-emotional skills like these being considered a luxury (if even considered at all). And yet social and emotional learning (SEL) can actually prove essential to helping students meet their goals, even—or perhaps particularly—for children with significant behavioral problems. While these children have not traditionally earned the attention of SEL programs, I believe there is good reason for that to change.