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.

What You Need to Know About Mental Health & Bullying Awareness

The school year is in full swing with curriculum, homework, and special events. In the midst of focusing on academics and sporting events, a major component that should not be overlooked is student’s mental health.  Even though there is a growing awareness of mental health, there is still ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding mental health and social factors that can affect it. One of the many social factors that can affect a student’s mental health is bullying.

Bullying is considered repeated aggressive behavior with intent to harm another person which involves a power imbalance (Hase, Goldberg, Smith, Stuck & Campain, 2015). For youth, this traditional form of bullying is commonly displayed in the school setting. However, with the booming digital world, bullying is not only limited to the school setting but has expanded to the cyberworld. Cyberbullying is defined as bullying using electronic venues (Hase et al., 2015) and has made bullying easier as by using digital sources such as social media, e-mail, websites, and text messaging, makes it easier to intentionally harm others even if they would not normally do so in a traditional setting.

For young people, bullying is a major health problem for all those involved. Mental health problems may be associated with deficits in their social, academic, and physical achievements (Murshid, 2017). They are at a higher risk of mental health problems during childhood (Landstedt & Persson, 2014) such as:

  • Psychosomatic symptoms
  • Depression
  • Attempted or actual suicide

Even though bullying commonly occurs during childhood, the impact can last well into adulthood. Victims of childhood bullying and youth who bullied have a higher risk of developing mental health problems later in life (Murshid, 2017). Mental health functioning should be assessed as early as possible and over time for youth involved in bullying as early intervention is necessary to minimize mental health issues later in life.

Currently mental health education is not a mandatory aspect of all schools, however teachers and administrators can work to promote awareness with their students. Mental health and bullying awareness are important issues for all educators as they are often the first line of defense for their students at school. As the world continued to gain a better understanding of mental health and social factors that can affect it such as bullying, teachers and students should be provided with ways to recognize signs of bullying and mental health problems, and there should be opportunities around the awareness and management of these signs.

References

Murshid, N. (2017). Bullying victimization and mental health outcomes of adolescents in Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Children and Youth Services Review76, 163-169. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.03.003

Landstedt, E., & Persson, S. (2014). Bullying, cyberbullying, and mental health in young people. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health42(4), 393-399. doi: 10.1177/1403494814525004

Hase, C., Goldberg, S., Smith, D., Stuck, A., & Campain, J. (2015). Impacts of traditional bullying and cyberbullying on the mental health of middle school and high school students. Psychology in The Schools52(6), 607-617. doi: 10.1002/pits.21841

Stressed Out? SEL Tips to Manage Stress before it Manages You

By Christina Cipriano, Ph.D.

Teacher attrition costs the United States roughly $2.2 billion dollars annually; an estimated half a million teachers either move or leave the profession each year.

Why? Because they are stressed out. In fact, in a report by the American Federation of Teachers put out last month, educators in the US aren’t just more stressed out than ever before, teachers are stressed out more than the average employee working outside of education. Hostile work conditions with colleagues, high pressure demands of high stakes testing, diminished autonomy, and inadequate planning time are cited as key reasons why this generation of teachers’ psychosocial health is on the decline and they are leaving the profession.

How can we expect our students to want to learn if their teacher’s don’t want to be there?

Stress is our body’s way of responding to events that threaten or challenge us. When we encounter stress, our bodies react by redirecting blood flow to our muscles, increasing our blood pressure and heart rate, and elevating our adrenaline circulation and cortisol levels. What makes matters worse, prolonged stress can lead to diminished physical and mental well-being, increasing your likelihood of illness and life dissatisfaction, circumstances which ironically increase your likelihood of being stressed! Research teaches us that individuals are more likely to feel stress when experiencing negative emotions, navigating uncontrollable, unpredictable, ambiguous situations, and when confronted with simultaneous task demands.

Contemporary teaching is by definition, therefore, a stressful endeavor!

What if there was a way to reduce teacher stress, while also improve behavioral and academic outcomes for students school-wide? There is, it’s called SEL, and there is mounting empirical evidence to support the claim that SEL provides teachers with the strategies, culture, and collaboration they need in their school day to reduce their stress and optimize their teaching.

So you have too many demands on your plate? You can’t possibly get all you grades and evaluations in on time? What are you going to do about it? Think again- there’s always a way to dissolve the threat by making that stress a challenge to overcome!

SEL teaches us to turn a threat or stressful situation into a challenge. Appraising the cause of your stress as a challenge works to reduce your stress by changing how your brain is processing the event. When we phrase a threat as a challenge, this reappraisal opens up pathways for increased neural connectivity and message sending to promote your effective problem solving to meet the challenge. It’s not simply will power, its science!

I’ll show my principal that I can get this done by tomorrow well. It will take up my time this evening but my other demands are not as time sensitive and I can show myself that I can push myself to achieve when I put my mind to it! The reality is that when we switch our mindset to view a stress as a problem we can solve we promote the achievement of solving the problem!

Note that not all stress is bad. Research suggests that we have an optimal range of stress which is productive, rather than detrimental, to our health, well-being, and happiness. Some stress is actually healthy for promoting our productivity and happiness. How? We need that adrenaline and cortisol release to drive our productive behaviors and our satisfaction with experiences.

The SEL evidence-base provides insights into how to manage stress before it manages you.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Mental Health and School Psychologists

By Kristen Cain, M.A., LSSP

WHAT DO SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS DO?

According to the National Association of School Psychology (NASP), “school psychologists provide direct support and interventions to students, consult with teachers, families, and other school-employed mental health professionals (i.e., school counselors, school social workers) to improve support strategies; work with school administrators to improve school wide practices and policies; and collaborate with community providers to coordinate needed services”.

WHAT ROLE DO SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS PLAY IN SCHOOLS?

School psychologists play an important role by helping schools to successfully promote positive behavior and mental health. Here are 5 ways that school psychologists help to promote positive behavior and mental health:

  • Improving student’s communication and social skills:
    • School psychologists work to improve communication and social skills by providing teachers and students with strategies and resources they need to be successful in the school and community settings. Research has shown that children’s developmental competence is integral to their academic competence (Masten et al., 2005).
  • Assessing student’s emotional and behavioral needs:
    • According to the Department of Health and Human Services an estimated 15 million of our nation’s young people can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. There is a great need for these student’s to be assessed and provided with the best social-emotional services in the education setting based on their needs. School psychologists work with students and their families to identify and address learning and behavior problems that interfere with school success. School-based behavioral consultation has been shown to yield positive results such as remediating academic and behavior problems for children and reducing referrals for psychoeducational assessments (MacLeod, Jones, Somer, & Havey, 2001).
  • Promoting problem solving anger management, and conflict resolution:
    • School psychologists work with students in individual and group settings to help provide emotional/behavior services to help improve student’s outcomes.
  • Reinforce positive coping skills and resilience:
    • School psychologists work with students and their families to support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral health and research has shown that students who receive this type of support achieve better academically in school (Bierman et al., 2010; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Fleming et al., 2005).
  • Make referrals and coordinate services with community-based providers:
    • School psychologists work with parents and administrators to respond to crises by providing leadership, direct services, and coordination with needed community services and research has revealed that school staff rate the crisis intervention services provided by school psychologists as very important (Watkins, Crosby, & Pearson, 2007). These referrals are often made to community services agencies, related to mental health needs.

School psychologists have extensive training in assessment, progress monitoring, instruction, child development and psychology, consultation, counseling, crisis response, program evaluation, and data collection and analysis. Their training is specific to applying this expertise within the school context, both general education and special education, and includes extensive knowledge in school systems and law (NASP 2010a, 2010b).

Learn how Rethink Ed supports School Psychologists at www.rethinked.com.