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.