Improving Educator Well-Being and Reducing Burnout and Stress Using SEL Professional Development

by Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA – Director of Research



Rethink Ed believes in nurturing educators and students, and advocates for empowering and supporting teachers and building an SEL culture to create a school climate that keeps the teachers as well as the students engaged, learning, and making progress.


Christina Whalen , Ph.D., BCBA

The COVID-19 pandemic led to increased stress and burnout for many educators. One study reported that more than 40% of educators surveyed reported experiencing a component of burnout in the 2020-2021 school year and are now considering leaving the field of education altogether. Education is a high-risk career in the United States due to its stressful workload as well as the frequent lack of social supports, training, and resources. About 50% of teachers leave the education profession in the first 5 years equating to roughly 500,000 each year. Teacher stress and social-emotional competencies (e.g., emotion regulation, stress management, cultural competence, self-awareness) can impact student behaviors, academic performance, and relationships.

Does SEL Impact Our Educators?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is not only important for student outcomes, but it is also essential for building SEL competencies in educators to help reduce emotional exhaustion and burnout and improve self-efficacy and job satisfaction. In fact, taking care of educators’ well-being may be one of the best things that schools can do for students because the people who are spending the most time with students and taking care of them must be also taking care of themselves. Professional development in SEL has been shown in multiple research studies to improve teacher’s well-being and to reduce burnout and stress and improve student outcomes. For example, mindfulness-based SEL training has been shown to have a lot of promise for decreasing teacher stress and burnout and improving their emotional regulation and ability to tackle challenges in the classroom.

How Can Rethink Ed’s Professional Development Modules Support Educators?

In a recent study conducted across 10 of our valued partner districts and involving 1,090 educators, the completion of the Rethink Ed Social Emotional Learning PD modules were compared to educator ratings of burnout, stress, and well-being. Similar to other studies, surveys were used to evaluate the perceptions of burnout, stress, well-being, and job satisfaction.

What Did This Study Find?

  • Almost one-fifth of the participants reported having feelings of stress and burnout.
  • Educators completing the SEL PD modules (an average of 29 short modules) rated overall more positively and with significantly less stress and burnout than those who completed 0-5 modules.
  • Educators who completed the SEL PD modules rated better well-being, school connectedness, and job satisfaction than those who did not complete the modules.

Research supports the fact that teachers who feel more positively at work have better student outcomes and are less likely to leave the field. Teachers must take care of themselves to be able to nurture and teach their students. It is important for schools to take care of their teachers to promote engagement, connectedness, passion, and productivity. Rethink Ed believes in nurturing educators and students, and advocates for empowering and supporting teachers and building an SEL culture to create a school climate that keeps the teachers as well as the students engaged, learning, and making progress.

In Conclusion

The outcomes of this research support the findings that professional learning in SEL may have a positive impact on teacher well-being and reducing burnout and stress. Training educators in SEL not only supports improving student outcomes but may also impact overall school climate and the teachers’ feelings of acceptance, belonging, and willingness to address their own biases and limitations.

Research supports the fact that teachers who feel more positively at work have better student outcomes and are less likely to leave the field. Teachers must take care of themselves to be able to nurture and teach their students. It is important for schools to take care of their teachers to promote engagement, connectedness, passion, and productivity. Rethink Ed believes in nurturing educators and students, and advocates for empowering and supporting teachers and building an SEL culture to create a school climate that keeps the teachers as well as the students engaged, learning, and making progress.

For more details about this research read our White Paper on Professional Development in Rethink Ed’s SEL Relates to Less Educator Stress and Burnout and Better Perceptions of Well-Being and School Connectedness.  



Dr. Christina Whalen,
Ph.D., BCBA

Dr. Christina Whalen, Director of Research, is a psychologist and behavior analyst and lives in La Jolla, CA. At Rethink Ed, she is the primary author of Tier 3 curriculum for Social Emotional Learning and assists with the development of professional development videos for educators. She has over 20 years of experience working with children, teens, and adults with special needs. She is the author of the book Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments and has presented at numerous education, behavior analysis, and psychology conferences. Dr. Whalen was the initial founder and creator of TeachTown, a computer-assisted behavior analysis intervention for children with developmental disorders. She also worked for various clinics, schools, and research programs. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, and did post-doctoral training at UCLA and the University of Washington.

The SEL Effect: How, Why, & When

A Review of Supports for Social and Emotional Learning in American Schools and Classrooms: Findings From the American Teacher Panel

by Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA


A strong, evidence-based curriculum paired with strategies for implementation is essential for an effective and consistent SEL adoption, the known benefits of which grow with every study and survey conducted.

Christina Whalen , Ph.D., BCBA

What do educators think about social-emotional learning (SEL)? Laura S. Hamilton and Christopher Joseph Dross felt that was a question worth answering. They recently released information from the American Teacher Panel on a 2019 Survey and found that:

  1. Most teachers were confident they could improve SEL for their students but felt that variables outside their control had a greater influence on students’ SEL than they could counteract.
  2. SEL curriculum is more commonly implemented in elementary schools. Secondary school educators more commonly relied on informal community engagement, check-ins with students, and involving students in school decisions.
  3. Educators who thought their state or district has adopted SEL standards used SEL practices more than those that thought they did not. Additionally, educators with SEL professional development opportunities used SEL practices more than those without, this was also reflected in educators’ sense of overall well-being.

Let’s break down these takeaways into some useful strategies, tools, and practices that can be used by educators, administrators, and parents & caregivers.

Variables Outside Their Control

The pressure on teachers to improve students’ academic performance makes spending time on SEL in the classroom challenging. This highlights a problem: Students have a social emotional need, but the time, resources, and prioritization have not been given to meet it. The greatest influence on student wellness outside the classroom is their home life, this is advantageous when parents and caregivers have the right tools:

Bring the Lesson Home:

• Engaging in SEL activities at home greatly improves a student’s understanding of the principal at play in the lesson. Engagement is improved when the principal is displayed in action.
• Rethink Ed SEL provides home connection letters to help parents and caregivers reinforce SEL learning that students are doing in the classroom.
• Home connections include conversation prompts, exercises, and activities that adults can do with their child to promote, develop, and reinforce a new SEL skill.

Elementary vs Secondary

While social emotional learning curriculums for secondary students should include community engagement exercises, opportunities to check-in with students, and activities designed to practice responsible decision-making, these alone do not make up an effective evidence-based SEL program. Much of the disparity in SEL adoption between elementary and secondary schools was attributed to the level of school support received. How do we bring together administrative support and an evidence-based SEL program?

SEL Programs for Secondary Success:

• Use an SEL program that provides grade-level curriculum for students K-12 to support secondary school teachers in effectively teaching social emotional learning principals.
• To ease educator workloads, look for curriculums with guidance on promoting SEL during every class. Rethink Ed SEL includes Academic Connections that provide teachers with strategies for integrating SEL into academic activities.
• Secondary students need to participate in community activities that help them better understand their social roles. When those activities correlate directly with an SEL lesson, the impact is two-fold. Rethink Ed includes discussion questions, journaling prompts, writing activities, and student leadership opportunities within student lessons.

Supporting Educator Wellness Through SEL Standards

Half of the educators surveyed were unaware of state or district-level SEL standards. Educators who thought their state or district had adopted SEL standards (whether they had or not), used SEL practices more than those that thought their state or district did not. What is the best way to go about communicating SEL standards to educators, and might there be more reasons than just increased SEL adoption to do it effectively?

Implementation, Equity, & Professional Development:

• Keep educators informed of SEL standards by involving district leadership in equipping SEL school leaders with the necessary resources. Successful SEL program implementations include guides, roadmaps, and even live hands-on support.
• Increased use of SEL practices is positively associated with an educators’ sense of well-being. Educators in lower-poverty schools report higher levels of well-being compared with their counterparts in higher-poverty schools. The survey writers highlight the importance of continually monitoring these disparities and encourage the development of resources and strategies for educators to address their own social and emotional well-being.
• According to the survey, only 3/4 of educators received training that addressed SEL during 2018-2019. Supporting educator adoption of SEL standards starts with SEL PD. That’s why Rethink Ed includes a professional development library that not only teaches strategies for SEL implementation but builds up the educators’ SEL knowledge so they can incorporate it into their daily activities. Rethink Ed’s professional development curriculum covers a wide variety of topics, including the ones that are least covered according to the survey: adapting SEL practices to different cultures and using student SEL data.

In Conclusion

The survey highlights the need for more teacher support, feedback, and perspective in SEL curriculum, professional development, and implementation. Teachers need clear communication about what their district and state require and what resources are available for them, their students, and the parents & caregivers they collaborate with. A strong, evidence-based curriculum paired with strategies for implementation is essential for an effective and consistent SEL adoption, the known benefits of which grow with every study or survey conducted.


Dr. Christina Whalen, Director of Research, is a psychologist and behavior analyst and lives in La Jolla, CA. At Rethink Ed, she is the primary author of Tier 3 curriculum for Social Emotional Learning and assists with the development of professional development videos for educators. She has over 20 years of experience working with children, teens, and adults with special needs. She is the author of the book Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments and has presented at numerous education, behavior analysis, and psychology conferences. Dr. Whalen was the initial founder and creator of TeachTown, a computer-assisted behavior analysis intervention for children with developmental disorders. She also worked for various clinics, schools, and research programs. She received her PhD from University of California, San Diego and did post-doctoral training at UCLA and University of Washington.

Enjoying the Holidays During a Pandemic

by Angela Nelson, MS, BCBA
Executive Director of Clinical Services,
Rethink Benefits

A guide for families raising children with learning, social and/or behavioral challenges

Rethink suggests following the recommendations of your public health officials for guidance on holiday gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.


As the winter holidays approach, you might be wondering how to balance supporting your child’s learning, social and/or behavior challenges and adapting to the unique circumstances of celebrating during a pandemic. Our team has compiled a list of ideas we think you’ll find helpful. There are many holidays across cultures, worldwide, during the latter months of the year. This time of year is often filled with fun, family, great food, nostalgic movies, traditions and maybe even presents. This season can also create a wave of stress – a lot of stress. There are more people to see, more events to attend and prepare for, more decorations and distractions, time off from school/work/therapies – the list goes on. Now with 2020 being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may also have to deal with modifications and changes to our usual celebratory routines. This can be hard for some kids (and adults, too!). Holidays often requires extra preparation, organization and logistical planning in order to keep stress to a minimum. Let’s take a look at some examples of how families can maximize the holiday cheer this year:

Prepare Ahead

Teach valuable skills your child will benefit from having now, so he/she can participate in holiday activities. These include:

  • Motor skills — Practicing spinning a dreidel, crafting, unwrapping and wrapping presents
  • Language skills — Using manners (Please, thank you), following instructions (Don’t touch!)
  • Academic — Budgeting and purchasing presents, baking, counting up on an Advent calendar
  • Social skills — Turn taking, sharing, gift giving, playing games, having a conversation with unfamiliar people
  • Self-help skills — Tolerating winter clothing, trying new foods, sitting at the table
  • Physical distancing – Role playing safe distances
  • Mask wearing – Practicing wearing masks for increased durations of time

Plan Traditions Carefully

Decor Tips:

  • Set presents out right before opening to reduce temptation
  • Involve your child in decorating
  • Add decorations slowly or scale back what you put out if change is difficult for your child
  • Be mindful of safety (plastic vs. glass ornaments, fake vs. real menorah candles)

Celebration Tips

  • If you won’t be celebrating in-person with others, consider telling your child sooner rather than later to help him/her cope with a possible upset
  • Consider writing a social story (an illustrated teaching story in first-person) to help your child understand how this year’s holidays may be different
  • Get your child involved in brainstorming “distance” holiday games and festivities that might be fun to do over video conference, or select alternative activities to do at home
  • Practice attending religious ceremonies via video conference so when your holiday comes, your child will be more familiar to this format
  • If you plan to attend religious ceremonies in-person, practice going, stake out a spot and plan an escape route if this is not a regular occurrence for your child
  • Practice being around more stimuli (smells, candles, music, etc.)
  • Place a picture of the gift’s recipient instead of name tags on gifts, so your child can participate in gift giving independently if he/she cannot read
  • Wrap up toys/gifts your child already owns if your child is overwhelmed by new/unknown items, so he/she can still participate with others
  • Prepare an event book of past pictures/descriptions to help your child anticipate this year’s festivities, especially if they will look similar
  • Use a visual schedule/calendar to set expectations for things such as when a Christmas tree is coming/going, the dates of Kwanzaa, etc.

Keep Behavior Protocols Running

  • Work with teachers/therapists to help you prepare and suggest ideas to maintain skills
  • Ask for help from your support network to keep protocols consistent (child-care workers, etc.)
  • Keep exclusive reinforcers handy (items, toys, snacks that are highly motivating but are restricted) for long car rides and behavior expectations during events
  • Use visuals such as sticky notes or a reminder on the refrigerator of what behaviors you are working on with your child and what they are earning, as it’s easier to forget during holiday time

The Day of the Holiday or Celebration

  • Define social expectations for your child if you will be around other people and if there are any rewards associated with appropriate behavior
  • Define social expectations for the caregivers to alleviate confusion and frustration (e.g., take turns between child monitoring/play facilitation vs. family/friend socializing)
  • If mealtime is difficult for your child, give yourself permission to eat ahead of time to avoid food struggles
  • Brief family members of any special requests (pets out of the room, lower the music, need a quiet place for a home base, etc.)
  • Give yourself a pep talk. You are prepared and doing the best you can. This is your holiday, too!

During the Festivities

  • Stake out a quiet spot for your child to find retreat, if needed
  • Introduce your child slowly to family/friends
  • Use a concrete visual aid (e.g., an ornament) to signal when it’s someone’s turn to open a gift if impulsivity is a challenge for your child
  • Watch for behavioral precursors, as they may come up more quickly in stressful situations
  • Give tasks/jobs so your child feels included (e.g., helper in the kitchen) • Allow staggered gift giving or reserve for later if your child gets overwhelmed
  • Inform unfamiliar/new people of your child’s needs and how to act around them
  • Watch for safety hazards as not all environments or homes are child/baby proofed the way your child is used to at their own home
  • Reserve special one-on-one time for your child to help him/her feel safe
  • Allow breaks or give special roles during eating if your child cannot sit for long periods (e.g., the “roll passer” or the table interviewer)
  • Enjoy yourself!

Overall, this time of year can be sprinkled with stressful scenarios and, while we can’t prevent everything, practicing, preparing and planning ahead can help to make for a more enjoyable holiday season for everyone. We invite you to reflect on some of these tips to see how you can personalize them to your family and the holidays you enjoy.

Additional Resources:

How to prepare your child with special needs for Chanukah

13 Holiday Survival tips for your child with special needs

How an autism family prepares for Thanksgiving


Angela Nelson has more than 15 years of experience working with individuals with developmental disabilities and their parents. She is the Vice President & Executive Director of Clinical Services at Rethink Benefits, overseeing a team of clinicians and generating content to support and empower families. Angela has a master’s degree in Counseling and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She lives in sunny Los Angeles, has 2 daughters and loves the outdoors.

Top Take-Aways From Webinar on Meeting the Needs of Children with Behavioral Challenges Virtually

by Dr. Kurt Hulett, Author, and Special Education Advocate


View the webinar that was moderated by Kurt Hulett on 10.7.2020

“Remember, it is relatively easy to teach social skills and provide social-emotional supports via web-based technologies. School districts need to be creative in figuring out new ways of reaching and teaching students.”

Kurt Hulett

Take-Away #1:  The Law has Not Changed in Light of COVID-19:   

The Department of Education has made it clear since the beginning of COVID-19 that the requirement of FAPE will continue as it has since 1975, although it may look different as far as how services are provided and determined. As we move forward, it is believed that hearing officers and courts may offer some grace to school districts for the spring of 2020 and the implementation of IEP’s; however, this is only as it relates to the “how” of services. The expectation is still that FAPE must be provided as outlined in each IEP and progress toward goals are made and monitored.

Take-Away #2:  Always Progress Monitor and Document Evidence:

The importance of progress monitoring was recently enshrined in the landmark Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) Supreme Court case. The High Court noted, “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The High Court continued, “A child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect … every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectivesIt cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis [trivial] progress for children who are not” (emphasis added). The issue of progress monitoring has been identified as one of the most critical issues to come out of the Endrew F. case, and one issue that has the potential to place school districts in hot water. Legal experts predict that the field of special education, post-Endrew F., will see an increase in state complaints and due process cases around the issue of progress monitoring.  At the end of the day, and at a minimum, school districts must follow each and every child’s IEP, document the services provided, and document the progress made toward goals and objectives.

Take-Away #3:  If Confusion or Lack of Clarity Exists in the IEP — Take Action and Revise

According to the panel, every school district should have a robust plan to ensure the implementation of FAPE. It is clear, however, that certain behavioral goals — which were written for implementation in a classroom interacting with other students — will be impossible or extremely difficult to implement and progress monitor in virtual environments. In these circumstances, the panel recommends reconvening the IEP team and amending the IEP goals and/or short-term objectives. The new goals and objectives need to focus on the unique needs of the child and take into account his or her physical setting. If virtual, each and every goal should appropriately address each child’s needs, while also being relevant and reasonably progress monitored. Remember, it is relatively easy to teach social skills and provide social-emotional supports via web-based technologies. School districts need to be creative in figuring out new ways of reaching and teaching students.  

Take-Away #4:  Student and Parent Engagement is Critical  

Parents and students need to be provided with the instruction and supports to develop the skills necessary to advocate for themselves. Schools should reach out to families and offer training in the area of self-advocacy. So often we expect students and parents to inherently possess these skills, whereas the great majority of the time they simply need to be taught the skills. In addition, parents of children with behavioral challenges may be facing increased and elevated levels of stress as they are losing daily (in-person) supports, in addition to being the primary provider of daily supervision and even, potentially, instruction. Schools need to reach out directly and regularly to both parents and students to see how they are doing and to see what the school can do to support them. Even if it is simply engaging in conversation and providing human interaction, these touch points can go a long way to supporting folks in a homebound environment. Remember, parents want the absolute best of their children, but sometimes they need support to know how to best proceed. As well, the regular touch points can help teachers to evaluate the mental and emotional health of students and to continue to assess his or her needs. We must remember the importance of human interaction and direct communication during this new norm.

Take-Away #5:  Virtual Doesn’t Have to be Less

Unfortunately, due to many variables and perceptions, virtual instruction and services are often considered inferior and less desirable to in-person learning. In many circumstances, the services that have been traditionally provided have only been done so in-person. As we focus on the individual needs, however, of each child — in particular students with behavioral challenges — the panel noted that many kids are actually flourishing with virtual learning. Many students come to school with social anxiety and other disorders that are aggravated by significant over-stimulation; therefore, a number of students nationwide are adapting well in this new environment. By removing the social and behavioral challenges presented for some students during in-person learning, they have more capacity, time, and energy for learning new skills and content. If we look closely, we can find silver-linings in even a pandemic!

Learn more about how Rethink Ed’s Social Emotional Learning Platform, Skills Platform, and Behavior Success Suite serves students, educators, and families in fully remote learning environments. If you’re a school leader that would appreciate a look at how our team could serve your community, request a demo.


Dr. Hulett is a leading special education advocate and educational consultant based in Central Texas. He works extensively on behalf of children and families engaged in the IEP and Section 504 process. He is well-known for his ability to navigate difficult situations and secure the educational services, goals, and desired outcomes for the parents and students he serves. In addition, he trains principals and administrators in the utilization of both best practices and legal approaches to special education management. Dr. Hulett is the author of the best-selling text “Legal Aspects of Special Education.” He is committed to helping all stakeholders meet the needs of students with disabilities.

The State of My Field: Special Education in the COVID-19 Era

by Dr. Kurt Hulett, Author, and Special Education Advocate

View the webinar that was moderated by Kurt Hulett on 05.15.2020


“We need to worry less about compliance and checking boxes and more about meeting the needs of children during this turbulent time.”

Phyllis Wolfram

On April 15, 2020, Rethink Ed brought together several of the nation’s leading experts in special education. The panel discussed the state of our field during the COVID-19 crisis and delved into issues facing special educators during this unprecedented time. I volleyed the panelists’ questions on everything from how we might begin to address ESY’s to the SEL implications of supporting students with disabilities through remote learning.

The advice given ran the gambit from covering the newly created CASE principles to how we should check in on the emotional wellness of students we cannot see. The panelists shared a wealth of technical information and several heartwarming suggestions for navigating this crisis together as a family of educators. Several common threads emerged during the panel discussion, but perhaps the most important is that we are all working tirelessly to support one another and the people we serve. The other consistent and compelling messages are as follows: 

  • First, make sure each child is safe and secure. Academic needs should take a backseat to the health and well-being of each child, both physically and emotionally.
  • Children need predictable and structured schedules and learning environments during this time. Consistency of schedule and routine helps children to feel safe and secure.
  • Educators must be vigilant in checking on their students’ social and emotional well-being. Without having children physically present in class, the traditional cues are gone and thus harder to track each student’s emotional health.
  • Communication with parents is critical. Rely on input and guidance from them to understand their needs and level of comfort with home instruction. By reaching out often, we can collaborate with parents as true partners. Using these communication channels, we can avoid overwhelming parents as well as missing any new and pressing needs.
  • Worry less about compliance and focus on the needs of each child. IDEA did not anticipate nor plan for COVID-19 and a few timelines and checkpoints may be missed along the way. Instead of worrying about checked boxes, ensure that each child is progressing on their goals and that they are healthy and safe during this time.
  • Problem-solving is critical. IDEA was not built for COVID-19 and it is taking significant amounts of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to (remotely) meet the needs of each child.
  • Take care of your teachers and staff. It is extremely easy during a time like this for teachers to become stressed and overwhelmed. We need to check in with teachers and staff often to make sure we are all taking care of one another.

Dr. Hulett is a leading special education advocate and educational consultant based in Central Texas. He works extensively on behalf of children and families engaged in the IEP and Section 504 process. He is well-known for his ability to navigate difficult situations and secure the educational services, goals, and desired outcomes for the parents and students he serves. In addition, he trains principals and administrators in the utilization of both best practices and legal approaches to special education management. Dr. Hulett is the author of the best-selling text “Legal Aspects of Special Education.” He is committed to helping all stakeholders meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Fostering SEL Skills Through Intervention in Problem Behaviors

by Kristen Hopkins

Sign up for the free webinar which will be presented by Kristen Hopkins on 01.30.2020


“Know your POWER so that your INFLUENCE can live up to it.”

Kristen Hopkins

I came up with this quote in 2016 after seeing some of my most troubled students lives transformed through Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). But it wasn’t just SEL that transformed their lives; it was me knowing my power and understanding that that same power had influence — influence to change the narrative of “troubled youth” by changing my perspective first.

Being around students that had major trauma and who lived in high poverty conditions made me first understand that they are not all the same. I took the time to get to know each and every student in my program. I learned about their families, their strengths, their weakness, their mistakes and their fears. One of my students told me I just had to remember his name and he would respect me. He then explained that his teachers would never say his name correctly and that he was named after his deceased father. That was his trigger to act out, and I would have never found that out if I didn’t ask. Taking the time to build these relationships allowed me to know how I would relate and interact with students as well as plan proactive strategies before negative patterned behaviors could arise. 

For so long we’ve labeled our “at-risk” students and put them into a box before getting to know them. To bring about new solutions that would help me connect with students, I had to first shift my own personal paradigm.

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sineck writes, “If we are starting with the wrong questions, if we don’t understand the cause, then even the right answers could steer us wrong.” I had to understand the “WHY.”

WHY was a student behaving this way?

WHY is this so hard for this student?

After I understood some of their patterns, I started to ask my students what was their WHY. This is what made me realize that many students didn’t know their WHY: WHY they came to school, WHY they wanted to graduate, WHY they wanted to do better. So guess what? They would miss school, they didn’t get good grades, and they didn’t want to do better.

When students facing challenging behaviors don’t have a WHY, it can be difficult to make room for social-emotional skills to form. 

I have a former student that didn’t voice her opinions while class was in session, but always wanted to talk about the topic after class. I started to realize that she had great ideas but wasn’t confident enough to speak up. She was too worried about what her peers thought of her. Many students feel the same way, but some respond by acting out because they think it’s the cool thing to do and they want attention from their peers.

One of the best places to target a child with behavior challenges is when you can interact with them one-on-one. When a student is sent to in-school suspension or a Restorative Practice Center, it can become a great space to conduct real intervention and incorporate Social and Emotional Learning. This can only happen if this space has structure and the teacher has control over the space.

Students typically come into these environments upset due to being kicked out of class. Positive attention skills, such as cultivating a warm and engaging style when students enter, can shift the mood of a child. Using active listening techniques to hear a student’s side of the story instead of automatically assuming that they are wrong allows a student to open up. In this way you can began to build a rapport with the child.

Research shows us that punishment does not change negative behaviors, however a respectful consequence along with a “teaching”  component implemented consistently can change behavior. When we first acknowledge the positive behaviors that students have, it begins a dialog.

Once you establish a good rapport it’s time for some self-reflection. This allows a student to understand how to make responsible decisions in the future that will keep them from being kicked out of class.  Coming up with solutions together to replace the negative behaviors will give the student a voice and allow them to feel an ownership of the decision process. This is not only encouraging for students thinking and expression of ideas, but also for their autonomy and self-direction. 

Once you have guided them to a solution, then it’s time to set goals while promoting intrinsic motivation. Giving students who struggle with behavior challenges incentives is not the best solution, but allowing them to feel internal satisfaction for good behavior is a very effective way to ensure consistent growth. 

Fostering Social-Emotional Skills through intervention first starts with the educator and the tone that’s set for intervention.  So just like the quotation I included in the beginning, we all have power. Understanding how your power can influence your most challenging students will help produce amazing stories of resilience.


Kristen Hopkins is an author, educator, social-entrepreneur, motivational speaker and community impact strategist with over a decade of experience in producing research-based community empowerment programs. Kristen began her work with the award-winning company, Dangers of the Mind (DOM), in 2014 when she published a book of the same title. She later decided to expand DOM into a consultancy and lifestyle brand with a mission to reach, teach and empower future pioneers by helping them recognize and harness their intrinsic power. Since its inception, Kristen has educated over 2500 youth in the United States, Ghana, and Haiti through Dangers of the Mind and she has reached even more participants via DOM’s digital programming including a podcast, virtual coaching, Danger Zone Power Calls, the clothing line, a collective of brand ambassadors and more. Kristen is committed to being the voice advocating for at-promised youth and looks to continue her research, teaching and advocacy work for Social-Emotional responsive resources.

Harnessing Universal Design for Learning and SEL in Special Education

by Jennifer C. Townsend, M.Ed.

Watch the webinar presented by Jennifer Townsend on 4.25.2019.

By implementing a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that supports all learners, we can create a place where all learners actively engage in their learning experiences. Whether you’re exploring how to foster engagement so all learners can be invested, or you’re seeking ways to present information that support learner independence, developing opportunities for action and expression that support learner initiation and connection will create a pathway to success for you and your students.

Enhancing social connections within the context of learning can help you create the emotional “hook” for a learner.  Here are some practical ideas for how to enhance learner engagement across various developmental stages, as outlined in the Social Emotional Learning – Knowledge and Skills (SEE-KS) Quick Reference Guide.  Consider incorporating some of these ideas informed by UDL and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into your educational practice. 

A bin with three drawers labeled 1st, 2nd and 3rd provides an example of a structured work system
Photo A

Part A of SEE-KS encourages educators to create opportunities that foster engagement to support learner investment. One practical idea is to provide provide access to and directly reference concrete objects within you classroom. For example, use bins of materials for specific activities and denote the steps toward completion of three tasks within the evidence-based practice of a structured work system (Photo A). The drawers may contain items such as a learner’s favorite color markers, a photo of a peer to ask to join in the task, or an invitation to be delivered to a peer. Objects such as these will provide the learner with just the right supports to engage in a learning opportunity. Remember — it’s not about first work, then play. Rather, infusing your learner’s high interests into an activity will result in increased enthusiasm and participation.

Two students work on a poster of a map. One is coloring while the other references an app on her mobile phone.
Photo B

We can also consider linking meaningful topics and materials to a task with a connection to daily life. For example, in Photo B two learners are intentionally paired together based on their interests. They are using an app as a map reference to provide them with information needed to complete a project. One learner has a higher interest in coloring, while the other shows a strong desire to use technology to engage in learning new information. Being proactive and intentional in the planning of this lesson provides both learners a meaningful and engaging experience in which they are both able to contribute to each other’s learning.

A student practices reading the word 'hug' with his teacher accompanied by pictures of his classmates.
Photo C

Let’s also consider the idea that learners increase their vocabulary as they become better readers and reflect on how we tend to focus on teaching nouns to less advanced learners. What if we consider also teaching verbs and pairing these actions with peers? In this way we can ensure that the learning involves an engaging social interaction. For example, in Photo C the learner is reading the word ‘hug’ while looking at images of peers, creating a real-life application of a social request.

As educators, it’s important for us to ask ourselves this question: how can we create optimal learning experiences that foster opportunities for learners to access, engage and connect in their learning? One of the ways we know works is through infusing UDL and Social and Emotional Learning practices into our classrooms. In this way, we can focus on ensuring learning strategies that promote access, engagement and expression of learning across all stages of development.


Jennifer C. Townsend, M.Ed., is an Educational Consultant with expertise in social emotional learning differences. She co-wrote Social Emotional Engagement Knowledge and Skills (SEE-KS) to support this success. She has extensive experience working in collaboration with school districts to build capacity for educating students with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities within the public and private school settings using best practices paired with appreciative inquiry coaching and universal designs for learning. Jen has a Master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and a postgraduate certification in Autism Spectrum Disorder from Johns Hopkins University and a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services certification from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, and is an adjunct faculty member at Carroll University School of Education in Waukesha, WI. She is a licensed educator in the state of Wisconsin as a Special Educator and Director of Special Education and Pupil Services. Jen Townsend is an active member in the field of education and believes that together we can go beyond just making a difference; we can be the difference.

SEL & Mental Health: An Integrated Power of Prevention

by Dr. Jared Scherz

Watch the webinar presented by Dr. Scherz on 12.12.2019.

At the very least I can distinguish fear from worry and anxiety, often confusing people and preventing important remedies. Fear and worry are both instinctive, not requiring any active thinking while anxiety, both ruminative (past-oriented) and anticipatory (future-oriented) involve a composition of brain/body imbalance, trapped energy, avoidance, pessimistic world view schema, and much more.

I believe my fear is primal, like encountering a bear in the woods. Like many in education, we feel a growing sense of helplessness compounding our fear. We witness daily, students struggling with their own pressures without the internal or external resources to manage them. Substance abuse, bullying, and suicide are just a few of the seismic threats schools lack the time or preparation to handle.

How we prevent and intervene with both children and adults at risk of stress blossoming into debilitation is a conversation occurring at the highest levels. Even in the face of evaporating funding, money is being made available for violence prevention, trauma-informed care, and the adoption of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Yet even with funding, schools haven’t yet been guided in how prevention (i.e. climate, anti-bullying, SEL) can reduce the risk of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

It’s unclear to many what Social and Emotional Learning is intended to produce and how it supports schools in creating physically and emotionally safe learning environments. Appreciating how SEL extends well beyond skills development, has developmental milestones, and is paradigm-driven, can help if we recognize mental health issues as complex and not simply symptom-driven.

Understanding how trauma, violence, mental health, and substance abuse, are rooted in a low tolerance for distress, a lack of self-reflection, and poor ego development, will make the goals of SEL clearer, saving schools tremendous time, money and energy, but also saving lives. SEL goes well beyond skills development; it’s about how we overcome challenges through growing our resiliency to adapt.

When inundated with chronic or acute stress, lacking both the internal resources and external supports to endure, our physical and/or psychological health is placed at risk. Behavioral problems may manifest for those who blame the world and mental health issues for those who blame themselves. For educators, distress may divest adults of their professional energy. Engagement is impacted—a national problem evidenced by our challenges in recruitment and retention of educators.

To solve any problem we must do two things. Firstly, we must understand why the problem exists, so that we are creating a solution that doesn’t recycle old problems. Secondly, we must emphasize process as much as outcome, so the ‘how’ becomes just as important as the ‘what’. I am a firm believer that attending to processes over outcomes or content is the path toward individual and systemic health. Whether it’s reframing anxiety from symptoms to self-generated angst or bringing cohesion to fragmented systems, my role is illuminating process as the key to transformation.

Maintaining a process focus becomes increasingly difficult when others seemingly operate under some different standard of authenticity. I should still maintain my integrity regardless of others, but the high stakes and glaringly disparate views make this increasingly challenging. With the holidays approaching, I suspect this will be a source of concern for many who don’t share similar views with all family members.

Having and sharing different views is the essence of learning and the basis of a democratic society, so why is this so difficult for so many? Perhaps it’s the same reason why history teachers are reluctant to discuss modern politics in class— because they don’t want to risk the potential fallout in their community or add the stress of unproductive conflict. When we lack trust in exploring differences however, the fabric of our entire community begins to unravel.

Constructive differencing is a core element of Social and Emotional Learning, valuable for both academic and relational success. This particular competency requires the ability to self-reflect a somewhat stable identity, and exhibit sufficient empathy to learn from others. Through conflict resolution, we develop intimacy with others who are different, even more deeply than with those who are more similar to ourselves. But when our values differ greatly, informing how we think, believe, and perceive the world, can we still explore our differences with curiosity? Is intimacy still possible?

If I can’t remain neutral, how can I expect others who aren’t devoted to unconditional positive regard and non-judgment to refrain from taking sides? Or worse, if we become further entrenched as a society in advocating for our own position while denigrating the other side, might we devolve as a society? The stress of unresolved differences can harm the mental health of an individual or a system, generating tension many experience as anger.

When we are perpetually angry, we don’t think as clearly, aren’t as receptive to other’s perspectives, and may lose our desire for empathy. If we operate under this duress, we employ protective mechanisms that insulate us from others while growing tension that harms our health. A child who lacks the resiliency to tolerate distress, another integral SEL tool that diverts energy from wellness into self-protection, may become a victim or perpetrator.

A sharp decline in wellness can bring us into survival mode, where mental health problems flourish. Our isolation, lack of attention to needs, and hyper-vigilance deplete our system and compromise our health. And this is why I personally take emotional depletion seriously. Knowing the signs of problems and the processes that generate health or dis-ease, are the best prevention tools.

As a society and the nurturers of future generations, we have to find a way to bridge our differences through a process that values differences, even with different values. With the risk of academic decline, addictions, violence and mental health problems, it becomes critical that psychosocial emotional learning becomes part of the fabric of the school, well beyond the skills embedded in a curriculum.

If we can reframe our view of Social and Emotional Learning as a foundation to strengthen psychological health, growing resiliency to support us during times of duress, we will limit the extremes of regression that cause more serious mental health problems. We can learn to recognize the signs that students are struggling through our own improved self-reflective practices.

While this may at first glance seem like extra work, even a burden that distracts from the purpose of teaching, you may soon value the prosocial elements that enhance concentration, attention, and motivation to achieve academically. 

If we can embody the principles of SEL, we can strengthen our own resilience and the integrity of our system. And more systems engaged with this important work will filter into society. The work isn’t easy and resources are limited, but if we are to balance learning to make a living and learning to live, we have to begin with a shared picture of what we are doing and how we plan to do it.


Dr. Jared Scherz is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and consultant, working with educators for nearly 30 years. From elementary school counselor to founder of the first personal growth and professional platform in education, Dr. Scherz focuses on the intersection of individual wellness and organizational health. Dr. Scherz is a pioneer in psychosocial emotional learning, integrating educator wellness and SEL into a new paradigm. Dr. Scherz believes that self-reflective practitioners are the keys to cultivating environments for academic and psychosocial emotional learning to flourish.

At TeacherCoach, we develop educational ecosystems, bringing a new revenue stream into the school district, making schools the hub of wellness in their community Through the first ever Learning Engagement System (LES), districts can meet the wants of the individual and the needs of the organization.

Year-round Thankfulness Strategies to Help All Students Thrive

by Dr. Sara Totten

“Remember when you wanted what you currently have. Remember to be thankful for what you’ve worked hard to have right now.”

I have the above quote posted on my mirror at home as a daily reminder to give thanks for every day. I was 17 when I found out I was pregnant and left home not long after. I never imagined that as an adult I’d have a doctorate degree and be able to financially support not only myself, but also to help support my daughter in college. I remember WIC appointments, section eight housing applications, finding daycare that would take the voucher assistance I received and trying to balance school, work, and the amazing little girl I was blessed to start and end each day with.

Though I did well in school, I don’t remember feeling a strong sense of belonging–particularly as a pregnant high school senior–until I started college. I had a professor who was a single parent. I remember meeting with her and the many encouraging words she gifted to me: words about survival, success, and hope. In class, she shared the stories of the youth she had worked with at a correctional facility. She shared compassion and commitment to understand each youth’s story. And, she shared the hope she had for each youth’s healing.

What I was given was an educator that not only cared about my success in her class, but cared about me as an individual, as she had for so many others. She had the ability to understand the perspective of another, and demonstrate empathy without judgement, no matter the mistake or action encountered. And though she didn’t formally teach my college class Social Emotional Learning (SEL), she modeled the definition everyday.

As Social Emotional Learning (SEL) becomes a core component of school, I am reminded that SEL is not just about the instruction or content. In the November (2018) report for CASEL “Respected: Perspectives of Youth on High School and Social Emotional Learning,” 42% of youth self-identified having felt lonely at some point in their school career; 52% identified feeling comfortable (in the school environment) and taking risks in school, and about a quarter of students did not endorse feeling comfortable being themselves. In addition, student ratings of self-efficacy dropped significantly in middle and high school, particularly among females (West, Fricke, Pier, 2018).

Adults play a key role in improving student outcomes in both achievement and behavior through the relationships they create with students. Morris (2016) discussed the need for educators to hold an “unconditional belief that all students possess an ability to succeed…Schools are modeling this kind of love every day, when they believe that the children they teach are worth it. (p.61).” The statement is especially true for adult relationships with our most disenfranchised students.

As educators, we can implement thankfulness strategies to create environments and relationships where all students can thrive. I offer the following three tips for implementing Thankful to Thriving all year long:

1.Handwritten Thank You’s
Acknowledge something specific a student has done. I have handwritten thank you’s to students who haven’t always spoken up or shared their perspective, to encourage and appreciate them for being willing to share their voice. 

2. Recognize and Build Leadership
Invest time in learning about students’ strengths. I have seen students with some of the most challenging behavior show strong mentorship skills for younger students. I recently observed a 2nd grader who has had referrals for physical aggression shine as a mentor for a Kindergarten social skills group. I worked with another student a while back who was exhibiting some bullying behaviors, so we assigned him a younger student to support during lunch. Without direction, he began checking in with her at recess. He felt success and importance in his role and the bullying behaviors ceased.

3. Take Personal Interest
Learn names and correct pronunciations. Find out what students have a personal interest in and ask questions. I work with a food service director who stresses with her staff the importance of learning each student’s name and how valuable connection is to school culture. Asking students about their after school events, jobs, or other interest areas has gone a long way to build relationships. 


What we model matters; the relationships we build with staff, students, and families matter. I am thankful for every child and every adult that has ever shared their story with me. I am thankful for the opportunities that I have to give back what was provided to me. Most of all, I am thankful for the shared humanity we can all gift to one another every day, every year and having the opportunity to create environments where all students can thrive.


References

DePaoli, J.L, Atwell, M.N., Bridgeland, J.M., & Shriver, T.P. (2018). Respected: Perspectives of  youth on high school & social and emotional learning. A Report for CASEL.

Morris, M.W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. The New Press: New York.

West, M.R., Fricke, H., Pier, L. (2018). Trends in student social-emotional learning: Evidence  from the CORE districts. Policy Analysis for California Education.


Dr. Sara Totten is currently the Director of Student Services for the DeForest Area School District, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Edgewood College in Madison studying principal perspectives of disproportionate placement of African American students in special education programs.

Sara is currently the interim president-elect and has previously served the Social and Awards and Legislative representative roles on the Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services. She also serves on the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance (SAA) and participated on the research and development committee to revise the SAA Evidence-Based Agenda this past year. In addition to her role as director, Sara has taught a number of courses for Lakeland University’s Master Counseling program.



5 Things a Student with Autism Wishes His Teachers Had Known

by James Sinclair

If students are like flowers, then students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are a unique and extraordinary part of the garden that is a school. At first, we may seem out of place – our differences stand out and you can’t take your eyes off us. However, you will quickly come to realize that what makes us special can ultimately better the bouquet.

From those who tried to force off my thorns, to those who simply left me to wilt, I definitely had my fair share of ill-prepared teachers while growing up as a student with Autism. After sitting down to write this article, I realized that there were many things I wished my teachers had known when I was in school. So here are 5 tips to help you help your students with ASD grow and thrive.

1. Don’t stifle our creativity 

Yes, people with ASD can be great at math. We can be awesome with programming and we might even be good at everything else your iPhone has an app for. But, we’re also more creative than we are often given credit for – as demonstrated by recent studies into ‘the paradox of creativity in autism’ (Best, Arora, et al.). Despite this, there is a huge misconception that all students with ASD are built for stats and science, and this can often result in many of them being steered away from subjects in which they might have excelled.

For myself, this occurred during school when I was removed from art classes due to becoming visibly distressed at the lack of precise definition in the lessons.  Instead of providing me individualized support and accommodation, I was excluded from this essential outlet to explore my creativity during the school day. As such, it wasn’t till I created my blog that I realized that not only could I be imaginative but, as it turns out, I wasn’t half bad at it. The lesson here isn’t that all children with ASD should become bloggers though; it’s that we shouldn’t be stereotyped into fields that are purely based on facts and figures.

2. Be definitive (but not too definitive)

People with ASD aren’t mind-readers and can struggle with interpreting and understanding actions. Of course, this isn’t any great secret, which is why many tips for teaching students with Autism will encourage you to be as definitive as possible when giving instructions.

Now, I’m not going to say this is bad (because it’s not), but it’s often the case that when many see the phrase “be definitive” they will rely on using examples to teach. This is a problem for people with ASD as, due to our practical minds, we will often only take the outcome away and overlook the nuance and process, limiting the creation of a holistic understanding that drives new knowledge acquisition.

Educators can avoid this shortfall by working at a 1-on-1 level with a student with ASD, coaching them through a task from start to finish. Ensuring that actions are understood over repeated is crucial here and, while it may seem time consuming at first, it’s no different from the old ‘teach a man to fish’ saying –  your options are either to give us your full attention and sit down with us once, or give us fleeting support and prepare to sit with us again and again.

3. Promote a growth mindset

Imagine that you’re asked to complete a puzzle with 8 pieces. When you finish, the examiner says “Well done. You’re really smart,” and then offers you the option of doing another 8-piece test or one with 16 pieces. According to multiple studies (Dweck, 2006), you’re more likely to go for the 8 piece again in order to avoid the possibility of embarrassing yourself in front of the examiner who gave you praise. On the other hand, if that examiner had said “Wow, that looked tough, but you got there in the end,” (or something along those lines), it’s more likely that you would take on the 16-piece puzzle.

This is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset – something which is incredibly important to consider when teaching people who are very literal, such as students with Autism.

This was certainly the case for me growing up. After I was told that I was a ‘math whiz’ in my early years, I stopped trying to learn new things and thought I would always remain the best (which gave me a nasty shock when I changed schools). Ensuring that people with ASD always know there is room to improve is instrumental in guaranteeing that we do so.

4. Don’t label us as “bad kids”

One of the classic misconceptions surrounding students with ASD is that when we have a meltdown and become disruptive, we are intentionally causing trouble for ourselves and those around us. This is well and truly, positively and precisely, unfathomably wrong (and I still don’t think I have stressed that enough).

In reality, a meltdown is when our minds have become overloaded/overwhelmed and, instead of knowing that this is the moment to take a break, our bodies instead shutdown and ‘reboot’ in our most natural state: the fight or flight mode. As most are aware, this can cause quite a disturbance and be very upsetting for all those around. However, it’s not more upsetting for anyone than the person with Autism themselves.

When this does happen, it shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity to punish or scold the actions of your student with ASD, but to step up, offer support, and identify intervention strategies for that student in the future.

Take a moment to consider if the meltdown was:

  • Caused from not understanding a question.
  • Due to learning too many different things at one time.
  • Triggered by something in the room causing a sensory disturbance and making it impossible to focus.

Either way, the one constant is that throwing us out of the classroom won’t help. That’s why, when dealing with a meltdown, always remember to tackle the cause and not just the response.

 5. Teach us to embrace Autism

I spent most of my early childhood keeping my Autism a secret, locked away with the fact that I often wore pyjamas under my school clothes and that I was still watching (and loving) Dora the Explorer until the age of 16. This need to hide the real me meant that I was far too busy disguising my Autism to learn, and it often resulted in me pretending to be sick or purposefully disconnecting from my peers.

Of course, teaching a child with Autism to avoid this by embracing their condition is not quite as simple as a motivational speech – after all, Autistic or not, what adolescent is 100% comfortable with their identity? But small tricks like giving students with Autism a safe space to recharge our batteries and lending an ear when we seem upset can often be enough to hold us over until we find our own way. Compared to the previous 4 tips, this may not seem like much. However, just like teaching students without ASD, teaching someone with Autism is about giving us the tools to succeed and then helping us find independence.

Though students with ASD often come to school possessing their own unique tools of success, they can often suppress them in pursuit of fitting in.  This means that to help a student with Autism reach their full potential, we need educators who will look beyond simple book learning; who will guide us while we learn to see our sometimes obsessive personalities as unparalleled concentration, our often irregular approaches as inventive problem-solving, and any and all of our other differences as the strengths they truly are.


References

  • Dweck, Carol S., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House, 2006.
  • Best, C., Arora, S., Porter, F. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2015) 45: 4064. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2518-2

James Sinclair is an avid autism advocate who, when he’s not playing the latest Pokémon game, is busy finding the positive in every diagnosis. As an advocate, James has had previous speaking opportunities at The British Parliament and at Cambridge University and his writing has been featured in Reader’s Digest, Metro Newspaper and his self-founded site: Autistic & Unapologetic.