SEL & Mental Health: An Integrated Power of Prevention

by Dr. Jared Scherz

Register for the December 12th webinar, presented by Dr. Scherz, SEL & Mental Health: A New Prevention Paradigm.

I’m a psychologist whose job is to support others, and yet I’m feeling stressed. Searching for a solution to our politically driven polarization is taking its toll on me. I’m afraid I’m losing clarity and objectivity in my exchanges with others, both personally and professionally. Professionally, I rely on my objectivity to help others navigate differences to prevent self-harm and violence, and so I find this struggle I’m in quite disconcerting.

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.

Writing for Resilience: The Impact of the Positive Purpose Essay on Students

by Dr. Maurice Elias

The Power of Purpose

When students enter the schoolhouse door without a sense of positive purpose, it is difficult for them to connect their varied learning experiences and other opportunities into a coherent whole that shapes their lives.  They lack a strong reason to learn, take on challenges, or behave well. An enduring sense of purpose typically emerges in adulthood, but having a primary goal, a moral compass, a focus on something other than, and larger than, oneself, and actions that align with these beliefs, start to become particularly important in middle school.

Stanford University psychologist William Damon views purpose as a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of positive consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Not surprisingly, positive purpose is connected to social-emotional learning skills.  For example, here are links with social awareness:

  • Finding your special task –  what it is that allows you to excel?
  • Recognizing your feelings and using them as a guide to your actions
  • Recognizing and encouraging the achievements of yourself and also of others, for large and small accomplishments, as they contribute to purpose.

Getting Started with a Positive Purpose Essay

Writing an essay about positive purpose is an important way to build social awareness, as well as provide direction and energy for learning.  But students usually can’t just start writing. Here are some steps to get them ready:

  1. Look at the positive purpose of well-known individuals, via non-fiction books, biographies, documentaries, social studies, current events.
  2. Learn about, reflect on, and write about the positive purpose of a personally-known individual – interview a local hero, community leader, member of the clergy, first responder, family member, educator or other staff member in the school. 
  3. Write about one’s own positive purpose.

Use a Prompt to Guide Writing

You can use a standard essay writing prompt for your students’ grade level, adapted to positive purpose as the subject of the essay.  Here is an example from middle school in Jersey City, NJ:

In your classes and in your life you may have learned about and encountered people with a strong sense of purpose. Similarly, you might feel your own sense of purpose. In a five-paragraph essay that includes an introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion, please respond to the following:

  •           What is your definition of purpose?
  •           What might be your purpose? Why?
  •           How would someone know that is your purpose in life? 

From an essay written by an 8th grader from a high-poverty, low-achieving school based on the prompt above, here is the introduction and definition of purpose:

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others,” said Albert Schweitzer. I believe I was made to  entertain, inspire creativity and guide others.

I think the definition of purpose means reason to do something, like when you say what’s your purpose for choosing a certain career, and you state  your reasons. This is why I strongly am convinced that I was made to guide  and entertain others because, having a strong passion for art and Broadway plays… A purpose of doing something can lead you into realizing what you want to grow up to be, as you recognize what you like to do.

Here is how she responded to the last prompt:

Others would realize what my purpose in life is by knowing what my career and life goals are or, who I admire to be one day. I admire to be like Steve Jobs because I believe without mistakes you can never grow to be an exemplary person and, even though Steve Jobs failed many times he became one of the most successful men in our generation.

Try It With Your Students

Her essay—and those of her peers in Grades 6-8—opened her teachers’ eyes about the depth of her thinking, aspirations, and abilities. By articulating their sense of purpose, students became more aware of their own potential, and their own assets.

Try it with your students.  Have them share drafts of their essays with classmates, get several rounds of feedback, and then practice reading them with clarity and pride in class, at assemblies, or at parent or community meetings.  Students can also communicate their positive purposes by creating artistic or musical renderings, along with brief write-ups.  I am sure your students can find creative ways of communicating their sense of purpose, and in doing so, they will become more resilient.

Join me in the October 30th webinar to learn more about purpose, as well as Laws of Life, and Students Taking Action Together—activities you can use with students to engage them in ways that skills-focused training typically does not.


Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is a professor and former director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, Rutgers University. He is also director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), academic director of the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) and founding member of the Leadership Team for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Dr. Elias lectures nationally and internationally and devotes his research and writing to the area of social-emotional and character development in children, schools, and families. He is a licensed psychologist and writes a blog on social-emotional and character development for the George Lucas Educational Foundation at www.edutopia.org. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Ellen, near their children and grandchildren. Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D Professor of Psychology at Rutgers., and Steven E. Tobias, Psy.D Director for Center of Child and Family development are the authors of several books including: Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students and Emotionally Intelligent Parenting.  

5 SEL Strategies that Strengthen School-to-Home Collaborations

by Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.

Educators and parents/guardians alike have a sense that school-family partnerships are important. In fact, parent and guardian engagement is a top predictor of a child’s school success.1 Yet I hear from numerous schools who are deeply engaged in implementing research-based Social and Emotional Learning that they are struggling to create authentic relationships with families. They list off the events they host – Meet the Teacher Night, Math Night, and Muffins for Moms/Donuts for Dads – but still feel a gap. “We see only a few well-known faces attending meetings and we can’t seem to attract the others to come.”

But what if our focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) could be the glue that bonds educators and families together? What if we didn’t create more events or extra newsletters, but reframed our way of viewing the relationship and, as a result, our practical approaches to it?

We all – families and educators alike – share a goal of learning. And thanks to the work of Carol Dweck on growth and learning mindset,  we are becoming increasingly aware that in order to support learning, we have to be learners ourselves.2 Educators and parents/guardians have endless learning opportunities at the ready to explore and understand their students’ temperaments, what they are working on cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally, and how we can support and promote that learning. The key is to be aware of and find the right tools required to harness these opportunities.

While teachers bring extensive professional knowledge of content and pedagogy to the conversation, parents/guardians bring a deep knowledge of their family and neighborhood context and their individual child: who they are, where their strengths lie, and how they are growing and changing. Everyone involved needs to be engaged in promoting the most critical skills for success in school and life: social and emotional skills. So therein lies an opportunity to learn from one another about strategies for supporting a student’s development.

If learning is our common ground and core focus, and relationships will ensure that learning takes place, then it makes sense to take a look at the best practices around creating learning communities. Shirley M. Hord, expert researcher on school change, in her book on Professional Learning Communities cites five key attributes of professional learning communities in schools.3 Examining these attributes and pairing them with tools and structures from our school-based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiatives can lead to highly practical, everyday approaches for developing collaborations with families that we know will benefit students.

Here are 5 tips for using SEL Practices to foster strong school-to-home collaborations

1. Supportive and Shared Leadership

What does shared leadership mean in relation to creating a caring school community and promoting students’ social and emotional development? It may mean that the power hierarchy that exists in schools – principals at the top in a building, other administrators, then educators, paraprofessionals, and finally parents and caregivers – is not as important as the collaborative relationships that can co-create a shared vision.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) encourages school initiatives to create an SEL leadership team to ask questions like how can our school feel like a safer, more connected community?4 So how can those meetings take place at times and in locations where families can bring their valuable voices to that table?  Consider whether someone’s home or a community hall, church or other public gathering place would be a better location. To enable parents and caregivers of younger children to participate, try recruiting older siblings to provide childcare for younger ones. And during the meeting itself, utilize SEL tools like cooperative games, pair shares, or listening exercises for promoting perspective-taking, empathy and active listening to learn from others.

2. Collective Creativity

How can we identify and understand the assets, strengths, and expertise our students’ parents and guardians bring to the conversation? It could be as simple as sending home a flyer and asking a few good questions. We know parents and guardians are experts on their own children and family cultures. Many, in addition, may bring skills from their own interests or professional expertise that can be a valuable resource in improvement conversations.

It’s also essential to adopt norms and learning agreements – like constructive language that never places blame – that encourage people to bring open minds and hearts to the discussion so that all parties can contribute honestly to a bigger vision for learning.  When placed upon the principal and teachers’ shoulders, creating a safe, caring school community can feel like a monumental task. But when family members feel empowered to add their voices, substantive contributions and energies to the effort, educators will be surprised at how much can be accomplished. Have SEL tools at the ready to use on communication, listening, and collaboration like setting learning agreements, holding challenging and constructive conversations on race and bias, and how to assert a differing opinion in a constructive manner.

3. Shared Values and Vision

With each new school year, there is a fresh opportunity to look at the learning from the last year and add to your vision of what it means to offer the best education for students. Schools I’ve worked with not only create a “Hopes and Dreams for the school year” poster with their students, they create a banner that encourages parents and guardians, teachers, and support staff like bus drivers and lunch volunteers to share what their hopes and dreams are. And with that reflection, how can those hopes and dreams be revisited and inform conversations through the year as our measure of success? Use your SEL tools to hold a conversation about hopes and dreams and how they might be reached through your work together. Positive rules (what to do, what not to do) emerge in SEL programs out of those hopes and dreams. Consider how can you discuss school rules and family rules — similarities and differences — and how all might work to understand the differences and support and reinforce the commonalities.

4. Supportive People and Environmental Conditions

Trust is the firm foundation upon which an authentic partnership is built. In order to develop a relationship with parents and guardians, we need to have a number of contacts with them throughout the year – not just one or two. It can be useful and practical to think in terms of touchpoints; they don’t have to be long or involved.

How we can create regular, periodic opportunities to smile, exchange words of greeting, and appreciation for one another’s roles? If one teacher feels responsible for making regular touchpoints happen, then it can feel like a great burden. But what if the expectation is that all are responsible for a monthly touchpoint? What if parents stuck around at drop off or pick up time to share an appreciation once a month or a teacher stopped by a swim meet or soccer practice for a friendly chat with their student’s parent/guardian? These short interactions might seem trivial, but they can go a long way toward building an environment of trust and support that is conducive to positive school-to-home collaborations.

5. Shared Personal Practice

Each individual – parent, teacher, principal – must be engaged in their own learning and be willing to share and discuss their trials and errors, their successes and flat-out-failures in order to grow individually and together. This means that there are numerous opportunities to build a sense of trust, to build a sense of caring, to build a sense of “we are all figuring this out together” kind of collaboration. How can you use the SEL practice of setting a positive, measure-able goal – creating a small experiment – to try something new? Share that goal with other parents and teachers and then, return and reflect on how it went — the strengths to build upon and the areas to change.

If we are in the process of improving our ability to teach and learn by focusing on caring relationships, then we have to examine how parents, caregivers and family members are given the chance to be a vital part of that mix. It may take some forethought, a new set of expectations, and some uncertainty along the way, but the rewards will be plentiful. Students will experience the most powerful form of Social and Emotional Learning possible through the adults in their lives modeling collaboration and effective communication. I can’t imagine a more worthwhile process.


References
1. Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (1994). A New Generation of Evidence; The Family is Critical to Student Achievement. National Committee for Citizens in Education.
2. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
3. Hord, Shirley M. (1997). Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory and American Institutes of Research.
4. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). Guide to Schoolwide SEL. Chicago, IL: CASEL.


For over twenty years, Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., has worked with educators and families to help them become more effective with children through social and emotional learning (SEL). She is author and illustrator of the blog, Confident Parents, Confident Kids with more than 22,000 followers in 152 countries world-wide. Her book, “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids” will be released on November 5, 2019.

She serves as a regular expert contributor to the Webby Award-winning site, NBC Universal’s Parent Toolkit. She writes and offers expertise for numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Parent Magazine and Edutopia. She serves on the Tauck Family Foundation’s Advisory Committee along with members from Child Trends, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Harvard’s School of Education. She consults with schools, conducts research and creates tools on parenting and SEL with partners at the University of Pittsburgh, Montana State University, and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

She frequently speaks at conferences, offers coaching, and conducts workshops in Ohio and nationally. Past roles were with the Ohio Department of Education, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, the Center for Peace Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service. She has her master’s degree in Instructional Leadership with a focus on social and emotional development and lives with her husband and eleven-year-old son in Columbus, Ohio.

Tips for Creating Employability Opportunities for Students with Neurodiverse Conditions

by John Peterson

Students with neurodiverse conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, ADHD and social anxiety have tremendous strengths that could benefit any employer. As educators, our end goal for ALL students includes having them learn, practice, and model employability skills. We also want employers and coworkers to see our students with neurodiverse conditions as capable young adults with their own unique strengths first, and as individuals who may benefit from accommodation and support second. 

What has been amazing to see from an educational leadership role is how much employers benefit from employing my students with neurodiversity and how their perceptions of what these students can and cannot do changes significantly over time. In short, employers typically stop seeing these young adults as having a disability and start focusing on their other characteristics like their honesty, humility, work ethic, supportiveness, and caring.

This article will cover recommendations for school districts to consider when it comes to supporting students with neurodiversity.

Communicating the Benefits

When setting up employment and volunteer opportunities for students who are neurodiverse, it’s a good idea to set and reinforce expectations with employers ahead of time. To help employers see students as young adults with many strengths, educational leaders can reach out to their local area service clubs (like the Optimists Club, Rotary Club, Lions Club, or the Chamber of Commerce). Local business leaders are members of these organizations, which are looking to do good in their community. They thrive on connections with other organizations whose mission is to do the same – like our school districts. Connect with these organizations and present information about the goals for your students at one of their meetings. When doing so, you can share the following talking points with potential employers regarding employing neurodiverse individuals and individuals with disabilities:

  • Adults and young adults do NOT want to be known as disabled OR for others to see them as disabled; rather, they want to be known as abled – a coworker who has strengths and wants to contribute to the team.
  • When employers hire these students, the morale of the workplace increases because:
    • Coworkers see how hard our students work and what strengths they bring to the workplace, and they often want to emulate these characteristics themselves.
    • When coworkers see how little our students complain while overcoming the obstacles in their lives, it provides them with the motivation to improve their own outlook.
  • Coworkers often serve as mentors to our students, giving them added value and leadership experience as an employee through guiding someone new to the organization who is learning the company’s expectations.
  • Employers gain the benefit of watching our students’ skills grow while having these same skills benefit their organization; in short, everybody wins.

If employers have this information ahead of time, then the choice to employ our students who have barriers in their learning, behavior, or abilities becomes an easy one. Employers need to understand that this is NOT charity work on their behalf and that our students do NOT need pity or sympathy. Rather, our students need mentors and opportunities: our local businesses can supply these and so much more.

Promoting Employability Skills at School

We can also strengthen our students’ employability skills during the school day. One way is by emphasizing to all students that going to school and attending classes is their full-time job. You could even post these expectations for all students in every classroom.  You should also align these expectations to the schools’ Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) school-wide system.

These expectations might include:

  • Showing up to class on time
  • Following the school’s dress code, including:
    • Wearing clean clothes.
    • Wearing appropriate clothes.
    • Avoiding specific items.
  • Following proper hygiene etiquette .
  • Showing respect to and having proper social behaviors with the adults they interact with.
  • Giving your best attitude and effort each day.

Not only should you promote these expectations, but also remind all students of the connection between these behaviors and employability skills that they will need to consistently demonstrate for future employment.

You can also prepare students with neurodiverse conditions to transition into the workplace by conducting mock interviews and having them construct resumes. In mock interviews students who are neurodiverse can practice social expectations that are required during a job interview and receive constructive feedback from a variety of adults on what they did well and what they could improve. Educator leaders can either have other educators help in these mock interviews or invite community members and business representatives in to assist in this process.

The stage in the hiring process where students with autism and other neurodiverse students get tripped up is often during the interview. Students may struggle with the give and take of a social exchange, may not always pick up on social cues, and can encounter challenges in fully sharing all of their talents and strengths. Students who are neurodiverse need to practice these skills and to fully understand the expected behaviors that employers are wanting and needing to see during the interview process.


John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin.  and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.

Taking Parent Fear and Anxiety out of the Evaluation and IEP Process

by John Peterson

Talking with numerous educators over the years, I have heard many colleagues express significant concern regarding how anxiety- and fear-provoking the initial special education evaluation and IEP development process can be for parents and caregivers, especially when the area of autism is being considered. Instead of focusing on the hope that comes with the collaboration between home and school and improving specific communicative skills, educators often feel like they are walking on eggshells around parents and caregivers when it comes to the initial evaluation process and IEP development for autism.

According to Rethink Ed, even though students with autism make up only 9% of all students with disabilities, they account for 25% of all due process hearings in special education. With this statistic in mind, it is no wonder that educators run into parents and caregivers who are experiencing a variety of negative emotions when they first hear the word autism. In some cases, the emotions are so intense that I’ve even heard educators question, “Should I even bring up the ‘A-word’ to the parents?”

What is amazing is the stark contrast in how educators view these same students being evaluated for autism. Educators see:

  • Strengths that the students possess and how the IEP team can build upon these strengths
  • Unlocked potential that they cannot wait to tap in to
  • And, most of all, hope for a promising future

So as educational leaders, how can we flip the script and take parents’ and caregivers’ focus away from fear and anxiety and guide them towards strengths, untapped potential, and hope for a promising future? Simply put, the answer lies within how we assess our students with autism and how we interact with their families throughout the evaluation and IEP process.

Avoid Subjectivity

When parents and caregivers are first learning about autism or even hear an educator refer to autism, they may see their child in a much different light than other members of the IEP team. The key in the evaluation process for educators is to take the subjectivity out of the eligibility determination and take the focus off the differences in perception between home and school. If the differences between home and school become the focus, the natural result more often than not is an adversarial relationship. In other words, if the parents emotions are already running high and they are not 100% trusting the educators evaluating their child, then any differences in perception of their child will only exacerbate the relationship between home and school.

Instead of falling into this trap of perceptions, educators should focus on providing objective data that compares the student with autism to his or her same age peers. Rating scales and models such as Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Supports (SCERTS) yield objective data that compare students’ communicative skills to those of other students their age. This takes the subjectivity out of the conversation and supplies parents and guardians with a better understanding of what communicative strengths their child has and what areas call for specially-designed instruction. This shift naturally takes IEP teams away from the “us versus them” mentality and places the focus on skill development and goal attainment.

Communication is Key

Not only should educators focus on objective rating scales and data to compare students to their peers, but educators should also open the lines of communication with parents at the beginning of the evaluation process and continue that communication all the way through the initial IEP meeting. It often helps to know the “why” behind parents’ and caregivers’ reservations and concerns. Sometimes a listening and available ear can go a long way in reducing these concerns. On a regular basis, it also strengthens the relationship between home and school.

Strategies to help improve communication between home and school while navigating the initial evaluation for autism could include:

  1. Asking parents and caregivers if you could either stop by their home or meet them for coffee at a local cafe – this shows that their concerns matter to you and that you are willing to meet them in a location that they are comfortable with to hear about them.
  2. Offering to connect the parents and caregivers to other parents and caregivers who have gone through the initial evaluation process for autism (make sure you obtain consent of the other family before offering this up) – this shows that you are acknowledging the challenges and the variety of emotions that they are experiencing, and that they are not alone in this journey.
  3. Giving parents and caregivers an opportunity to talk with both general and special education teachers about their expectations for a student who receives special education services in the area of autism – this shows parents and caregivers that educators focus more on a student’s disability area needs and goals and NOT on labels.
  4. Remind parents and caregivers that the emotions that they are experiencing are common and that it may be beneficial to bring in either a family friend and/or parent advocate to help them separate the emotions from the issues – this shows that you are willing to work with them no matter who is at the table.
  5. Encourage the parents and caregivers to meet with the IEP team after three or four weeks of services being delivered – this shows parents that you value their feedback and are open to making adjustments to programming based on this feedback.

What is a common theme throughout all of the aforementioned recommendations is that parents and caregivers see you and the IEP team members as having a vested interest in the relationship and wanting to work with them for the benefit of their child. In the end, parents and caregivers want to know that their child is receiving the assistance that they need and are being supported by educators who truly care for them. Hopefully these recommendations and talking points help your IEP teams reduce fear and anxiety and create a strong foundation for your relationship with them for years to come.


John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.


Rethink Ed’s Skills Success platform supports educators in developing and delivering quality IEPs, addressing many of the instructional challenges currently present in special education including. Find out more.

Strategies for Social and Emotional Learning that Begins with Adults

By Jill Yamasawa Fletcher

School-wide Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Because students model what they see, the most important social emotional learning begins with the adults in a school. Given this, it’s important to ask— do the adults in your school model self-awareness, self-management, growing social awareness, build healthy relationships, and exhibit responsible decision-making throughout the school day?

For example, if an adult makes a mistake and scolds the wrong student, does the adult own up to it and sincerely apologize for making a mistake, or do they brush it off? Do adults at your school share appropriately about their lives and experiences to build positive relationships with colleagues as well as students? Do all adults speak about their own emotions and talk about their feelings about things with students so students understand it’s okay to express feelings in a school setting?

If adults in your school do this regularly, then the culture of your school will benefit and this will be reflected in your students’ ability to take ownership of their own social and emotional learning. To ensure students manage their own SEL skills, it’s not enough to teach them lessons and provide them with strategies; these behaviors must be clearly evident in the interactions between adults within the institution.

Teachers have been told they are the most important element in the ability of a child to learn. When it comes to a student’s ability to learn and access social-emotional learning, this is true of every adult in a school.

I use the term adults and not teachers because each adult working at a school affects students in some way: consider a school’s front office clerks who assist students when they walk in the first day of school with a question; the attendance office clerk who speaks to tardy students; the school security attendant who guides students to make better choices during free periods; and the cadre of other professionals who serve the needs of students and the running of a school. These adults have interactions with students on a day-to-day basis and also offer opportunities for healthy SEL interactions.

One Solution to Adult SEL: Staff Wellness Days

One way my multi-track school has worked on the issue of adult social-emotional growth is by creating staff wellness days. While we have not found a way to incorporate all of the adults on campus yet, this past year we found productive ways to engage with teachers, administrators, and educational assistants.

Because we are a multi-track school, only three tracks are on campus at any given time, which means the entire teaching staff is rarely on campus at the same time. These staff wellness days are one of the few times the faculty are all on campus together.

A staff wellness day is scheduled once a quarter, runs about 90 minutes, and is led by staff members. Staff members sign up to lead various sessions such as tennis, volleyball, yoga, circuit training, dance, bullet journaling, cooking, baking, lei-making, essential oils, karaoke sessions, and so on.

Wellness Day Logistics

The beauty of staff wellness days is each educator is able to share their talents. This is how they are organized:

  1. An email is sent out about 3-4 weeks before each wellness day, which occurs once a quarter.
  2. The email asks for staff members, if they are willing, to lead a session. Staff members reply with an activity they would like to lead.
  3. Once all the sessions are set, the rest of the staff are given a selection of 8 or so sessions to sign-up for.

It’s not just teachers who lead wellness day sessions; educational assistants, assistant principals, and the principal have all shared their talents.

Why it’s Important

Wellness Days serve to give educators space and time to engage with one another in a relaxed and fun environment. These non-work sessions allow adults time to chat about common interests and see their colleagues in a new way. Relationships are built and forged by doing new things together.

For instance, when two adults learn how to bullet journal for the first time, they may both struggle with the concept of a future log or the difference between an event and a task. As they talk through their confusion, they will eventually arrive at an answer by discussing it, or asking the person leading the session. Finding this information together, and finally understanding it together, creates a new bond.

One of the most difficult things to do in any organization is to build authentic relationships. Making mistakes, laughing, and learning together in a low-stakes task provides this opportunity.


Jill Yamasawa Fletcher is a National Board Certified Teacher, Edutopia blogger, and a 2018 Hope Street Group Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellow. She believes in the power of teachers telling their stories and letting students lead. In her career, Jill has taught special education math, English as a second language, language arts, and college and career readiness. Jill is currently serving as an interim assistant principal at Kapolei Middle School. Connect with her on Twitter @TeachinginHI.


To discover how Rethink SEL Professional Learning empowers the adults in a school with the tools and strategies they need to create positive school climates in which all students can thrive, visit www.rethinkSEL.com.

Effective Reinforcement Strategies for Children with Autism

by Tranika Jefferson, BCBA, LBA

Many teachers have used “First ___, then ____” statements in planning lessons for teaching with their students with autism. For example:

  • First complete the math problem, then you can use the iPad.
  • First match the objects, then you can listen to music.

As adults, we also use “First ___, then ____” statements in our everyday lives. For example:

  • First exercise, then you can get on social media.
  • First finish your work project, then you can watch your favorite TV show.

Essentially, this method of using “First ___, then ____” statements is a behavioral analytic strategy called the Premack principle. The Premack principle was originated in David Premack’s (1965) research with animals and is defined as “A principle that states that making the opportunity to engage in a high probability behavior contingent on the occurrence of a low frequency behavior will function as reinforcement for the low frequency behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 271).

The Premack principle can be used to increase desired behaviors by allowing engagement of a preferred or liked activity contingent on them displaying the disliked or not preferred behavior. For a student that spends much more time playing with toy cars than learning site words, a contingency based on the Premack principle might be, “When you state your site words (low frequency behavior), you can play with your toy cars (high probability behavior).”

A child with autism may engage in certain preferred behaviors in high frequency such as:

  • Self-stimulation 
  • Perseverative interest
  • Repetitive behaviors

Therefore, they may disengage in behaviors and activities that may be asked of them. Teachers can be successful in motivating students with autism to attempt tasks that were previously less preferred or difficult if they plan their instruction to follow a disliked activity with a liked activity as the Premack principle states. 

A few tips to successfully use the Premack principle are:

  • Find a “then” (high probability behavior/activity) that is reinforcing for the student. If the high probability behavior/activity does not increase the low-frequency behavior, then find a “then” that does. 
  • Always and immediately (as soon as possible) provide the “then” (high probability behavior/activity). The high probability behavior/activity will be reinforcement for the low probability behavior only if it is followed after the low probability behavior.

References: Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus: Pearson.


Tranika Jefferson is a Board Certified Behavior and Licensed Behavior Analyst who holds an advanced degree in Juvenile Forensic Justice. Tranika is a Professional Services  Consultant with Rethink Ed. She delivers on-site and virtual training and coaching/mentoring sessions on Rethink’s web-based platform to teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, and district leadership. She is also a doctoral candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis.

Using Student Strengths to Create Belonging

By Dr. Sara Totten

In my role as Director of Student Services, I recently observed in a classroom where a student, we’ll call him Lewis, demonstrated minimal eye contact, response (verbal or physical), or social interaction. Upon Lewis’s arrival to the classroom, I observed the educator working with him provide a number of visual, physical, and verbal prompts to guide his morning routine. The educator also performed a number of sensory activities with the student. As the morning progressed, Lewis transitioned to the snack table and remained in his seat for the duration of snack time. I then observed him verbally respond to the educator— the first verbalization of the morning!I

I am embarrassed to say I had at first assumed the student was non-verbal because I hadn’t witnessed any verbal communication during the arrival activities. I realized the implication of my initial assumption that the student did not yet have verbal language. Gut punch!

The experience was a reminder of how easily we, as educators, return to what we think we know. There is a natural desire in all of us to categorize and label; this is often how we make sense of the world. We take from what are often limited exposures or observations to form our schema. But, there are dangers in assumptions, particularly when any of those assumptions create conscious or unconscious limitations for our students and lead to environments where our students may not feel they belong.

All students want and deserve to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. To truly create a sense of belonging, students need to be seen. In an effort to create opportunities for belonging, educators must take time to get to know student strengths, interests, and preferences in a meaningful way. The more educators can build on student strengths, create student engagement, and hold high expectations for all learners the more students will feel a sense of belonging. To do so, educators might utilize the following:

  • Student interest inventories or strengths-based assessments
  • Time to observe students in their environments, paying attention to communication, play, and overall interactions.
  • Identify Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) when students are performing well. Specifically, what about the environment created the behavior you wanted to see, and what about the immediate action after the behavior reinforced it?
  • Increase opportunities for connections (i.e. morning meeting, free or structured play, etc)
  • Explore students’ interests in lesson plans
  • Create multiple ways for students to express ideas
  • Identify and provide avenues and opportunities to meet potential sensory needs

It is vital that educators constantly reflect upon their own assumptions. McCollum (2016) identifies a simple yet effective notion, that of “presum[ing] intellect.” If we assume all students have high capacity and intelligence for learning, we change the assumption that comes with a label. We shift from deficit thinking, to strengths-based thinking. We own that it’s on us as educators to create the environments where all our students can flourish.


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.