By Adam L. Sáenz, PhD, L.S.S.P.
How We Got Here
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) could save your life. Literally. Consider the case of Jason Seaman.
Mr. Seaman, a 29-year-old science teacher at Indiana’s West Noblesville Middle School and former defensive lineman for Southern Illinois University, entered his classroom on May 25, 2018, starting his day off like any other. His students would take what would be their final science test of the school year.
I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Seaman had engaged his students or colleagues in discussion about the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas that left 13 dead and 10 injured just a week before. I know that 130 miles to the northeast of Santa Fe, we in Bryan/College Station, Texas were still processing the event and at various stages of grieving.
As Mr. Seaman’s students took their test that morning, one student asked to be excused from class. He probably just requested a restroom break, but the details aren’t clear. What we do know is that moments later, that student returned to the classroom armed with .22 and .45 caliber handguns and immediately opened fire.
“Mr. Seaman started running at him,” a student witness reported, “He tackled him to the ground. We were all hiding in the back of the classroom behind some desks, and then Mr. Seaman was yelling to call 911, to get out of the building as fast as we could, so we ran out.”
Mr. Seaman’s actions were immediate and decisive, but the damage was done. Before Mr. Seaman could even reach the shooter, seven rounds struck a female student in the face, neck, hands and chest. As he rushed the student, Mr. Seaman was shot three times, once in the abdomen, once in the hip, and once in the forearm. He was able to disarm and detain the student until the school resource officer arrived to assist only moments after the initial shots were fired. Mr. Seaman was taken by ambulance to the Indiana University Hospital, where he made a full recovery. The wounded female student was also hospitalized in critical condition, yet she was expected to recover after having sustained collapsed lungs, a broken jaw, and significant nerve damage.
Let’s study the details of Mr. Seaman’s case in the context of SEL. Whether he was aware of the process or not, he demonstrated mastery of the five elements of SEL in a matter of seconds. First, he must have known the student was intensely angry, given the weapons in the student’s hands (social awareness/empathy). Since the urgency of the moment didn’t afford him the luxury of encouraging the student to simply talk through the feelings of intense anger (social skills), he knew he needed to intervene immediately and physically (responsible decision-making). He likely felt terror that a student was actively shooting (self-awareness), but he was able to control that emotion (self-regulation), as evidenced by his heroic actions.
The heart of our SEL lesson from Mr. Seaman is found in his words during a subsequent television interview, “I care deeply about my students and their well-being,” he told the reporter. “That’s why I did what I did that day.”
My goodness. That is powerful. What we learn from Mr. Seaman is that when we don’t have the luxury of time to consciously engage our SEL skills, our core-level beliefs—our deepest values, fears, biases and prejudices—drive our behavior automatically. Fortunately for the students in Mr. Seaman’s classroom that day, his core-level belief was that his students mattered above all, and it was that foundational belief that resulted in his automatic action to risk his life to save his students’ lives. There you have it, without hyperbole: the case of Mr. Seaman illustrates that the SEL skillset can save your life.
It is important for us to remember, though, that the SEL skillset is not centrally about preparing ourselves to deal with active school shooters. That kind of preparation, sadly, is more urgent now than it has ever been, but SEL has so much more to offer us. SEL is essential to our capacity to live adaptively in our daily lives—days that don’t involve hostage situations or active shooters. The classroom teacher dealing with postpartum depression as she returns to work from maternity leave? Exercise in SEL. The angry parent who uses social media to air his misinformed conclusions of you? Exercise in SEL. Your passive-aggressive neighbor who still leaves his garbage cans on your driveway even after you’ve politely asked twice that he not do so? Exercise in SEL. Your spouse, who 23 years later still doesn’t know the correct direction to mount the toilet paper roll? Exercise in SEL.
The list could go on, even down to each moment-to-moment interaction we have with any other human being who, in whatever way and for whatever reason, evokes within us a potentially conflict-producing emotion. In every case, the successful return to mental wellbeing is dependent on our ability to know and regulate ourselves, and to understand and interact with others. SEL is the oil in the gears of any relationship machine.
The Gap Is Growing
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (2014) study revealed that 20 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience a severe mental health issue. While that statistic is staggering, note that the study specifically identifies adolescents with severe mental health issues; it is difficult to determine how many more will experience just mild adjustment disorders. The study offers further findings: in 2014, less than half of the adolescents who experienced depression received treatment for it, and suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.
These adolescents, Espeleage, Page and Polinin (2016) note, are entering classrooms led by teachers who report feeling untrained to identify or intervene with even mild mental health issues. Adding to the sense of urgency is the reality that even when delivered in the context of positive behavior support, the traditional stick-and-carrot behavioral interventions commonly used in schools to shape student behavior (e.g., office referrals and suspensions) have proven ineffective as interventions for students with significant emotional issues.
In our outpatient clinic, we have found increasingly over the course of the past 15 years that it is not therapists in counseling offices, but teachers in classrooms that have become the frontlines of mental health intervention. When we treat students in our clinic, that process often traces back to a referral based on concerns expressed by a classroom teacher who perceived some significant—though perhaps subtle—change in the student’s behavior over time. This seems to represent a national trend, as students are living in a culture characterized by what social scientists have identified as increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—terms originally used by the United States Army to describe the multi-lateral world that resulted from the end of the cold war (Allen, et. al., 2016).
The growing gap between students’ high emotional needs and teachers’ limited training to meet those needs drives the challenges administrators face each day and at the end of each year. Teachers grow discouraged about their ineffectiveness meeting students’ emotional needs. Chronic teacher discouragement leads to burnout. Burnout leads to staff turnover. Staff turnover grows a culture of relational instability (Caruso, 2013; Bayar, 2016).
The Promising Practice of Social and Emotional Learning
Research is clear: high emotional intelligence—the ability to accurately understand and adaptively manage the thoughts and feelings of self, other, and the group—drives transformational leadership in schools (Flippo, 2016; Zins, et. al., 2004). Campus and classroom-level educational leaders who demonstrate high emotionally-intelligent leadership skills benefit on multiple fronts: they serve in their capacities with greater success, and they are more sustainable. Perhaps most importantly, though, emotionally-intelligent school leaders establish the relational culture necessary for effective learning—for both teachers and students (Moore, 2009). Students demonstrate academic and behavioral gains in schools in which SEL is consistently modeled by classroom-level leaders (i.e., instructional staff); classroom-level leaders consistently model social-emotional learning on campuses in which campus-level leadership demonstrates a commitment to emotional intelligence by modeling social-emotional learning (Domitrovitch, et. al. 2017). Where stick and carrots have failed, SEL offers hope.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a national clearinghouse that supports educators and policy leaders, enhancing the experiences and outcomes for PreK-12 students. Over the course of the past 25 years, CASEL has monitored effective SEL interventions, noting that the best outcomes are realized from SEL interventions that address the following five key elements: 1) self-awareness, 2) self-management, 3) social awareness, 4) relationship skills, and 5) responsible decision making. (See Figure 1 below.)
Three Models of SEL Intervention
SEL interventions are typically delivered via one of three models. The first model is the mental health specialist as the interventionist, in which the school counselor or school psychologist offers class-based SEL instruction. A primary limitation of this model is scalability; given limited time and staff, the actual instruction delivered to students often ends up being minimal. The second model is the teacher as the interventionist, in which the classroom teacher is tasked with delivering a formal SEL curriculum on a regular basis. While this addresses the challenge of scalability, teachers can be resistant to the idea of having yet another facet of instruction added to their already-full plate. The third model is the educator as the intervention model, and this model has been proven to provide the greatest return on investment. In this model, SEL intervention begins with adult SEL: teachers and staff are trained to know and practice the five aspects of SEL so that they can serve as living interventions of emotional intelligence to their students. In this model, SEL instruction is infused into campus culture, meaning that every student is learning effective SEL strategies from all adult behavior across all campus settings at all times.
Our Findings: Theory and Practice
As mental health providers, our clinical team sought to develop a therapeutic approach to serve students in schools well before a referral for outpatient treatment was initiated. In light of the promising research on SEL, could we develop an infused SEL curriculum that would empower educators to meet student needs? What if we could teach students to recognize and manage their emotions in age-appropriate ways? What if we could teach students empathy and effective conflict resolution? And what if we had teachers and administrators on campuses that purposely modeled those skills? Surely that would represent an inside-out approach to school safety. After an in-depth review of relevant research, our clinical and research team developed The Heart-Smart Classroom, an infused SEL curriculum that was based on the research that served as the foundation for The EQ Intervention and was designed to empower educators to know and model emotional intelligence.
Fortunately, emotional intelligence is not a static personality trait (like IQ), but a fluid, skill-based construct that can be grown via mindful practice (Goleman, et. al., 2004; Corrie, 2009; Hurley, 2012; Hughes & Terrel, 2013). Since what we can grow, we can measure, our team also developed a psychometric tool that is used as the backbone of the Heart-Smart Classroom curriculum. The Educator Assessment of Social and Emotional Learning (EASEL), is an online assessment tool that measures personality style, capacity for emotional intelligence, and vulnerability to stress. Educators begin The Heart-Smart Classroom SEL training by completing the assessment to learn their personality style, capacity for emotional intelligence, and vulnerability to stress. Through the remainder of the two-day professional development, educators are guided through each of the five areas of SEL:
- Self-Awareness: What do I need to know about my personality type, my innate fears, and my vulnerability to stress to predict how I will respond in crisis situations? How will those aspects of my personality manifest—for better and worse—as I interact with my colleagues, my students, and their parents? Relevant EASEL results include the Personality Domain, the Self-Awareness scale, and the Stress Management scale. (DeYoung, et. al., 2007; Hower, 2010; Maslach, 2004).
- Self-Regulation: Given what I now know about my personality type, my innate fears, and my vulnerability to stress, how do I regulate my thoughts and feelings to be most effective as I interact with and lead those who are different from me (especially in emotionally-charged situations)? Relevant EASEL results include the Self-Regulation scale. Relevant SEL interventions include mindful breathing techniques and cognitive restatement strategies (Hakim-Larson, 2006; Shankman & Allen, 2015).
- Social Awareness: How much empathy have I demonstrated as I interact with my colleagues, my students, and their parents (especially those who are different from me, or who have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences)? How likely is it that those whom I am leading—student or faculty—feel seen and heard by me? Relevant EASEL results include the Recognition of Others/Empathy scale. Relevant SEL strategies include encouraging the expression of emotion and being able to use body cues to identify emotion (Elias & Arnold, 2006).
- Social Skills: How do I lead in my domain of influence (classroom or campus) based on what I know about myself and others? Relevant EASEL results include the Recognition of Others scale. Relevant strategies include the social contract (for both faculty and students) and restorative discipline techniques focused on maintaining relational harmony when breaches of the social contract occur. (Hitch & Coley, 2012)
- Effective Decision Making: How do I lead based on what I know about myself and others? Through integration of the previous four categories, leaders maximize the probability of effective decision making in any given scenario.
Our clinical team at The Applied EQ Group partnered with Dr. Myeongsun Yoon—an absolutely brilliant psychometrician in the Department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University—to conduct a psychometric analysis of the EASEL’s reliability and validity. As we’ve analyzed the data collected in norming the EASEL, we’ve been amazed at the correlations that emerge between teacher and administrator personality types, stress management styles, and innate capacities for self-awareness and empathy.
Our research team also partnered with Dr. Gwen Webb-Hasan, associate professor in the departments of Education and Human Resource at Texas A&M, to ensure that our curriculum bore the quality of social and cultural sensitivity. We have been delighted to have the material incorporated into her graduate courses as she equips the next generation of educational leaders, particularly by challenging them to become more aware of their biases in diverse populations. Diverse populations, in the context of SEL, refers not only to the standard demographic variables, but also to personality types and coping styles.
Our initial findings based on pilot case studies in Texas, New Hampshire and Arizona school districts offer hope. Educators report that as they understand the strengths and weaknesses associated with their personality type, they are more equipped to self-regulate, positioning them to intervene more effectively with troubled students. They also report that as they grow more proficient recognizing the sources of their stress, they are more equipped to engage in adaptive, helpful (versus maladaptive, toxic) responses based on the fight-or-flight model. These points of personal growth merge to create faculties and campus cultures that are better equipped to meet the increasing emotional needs students bring to our classrooms and campuses.
Since educational leaders face demands at both macro and micro levels, they face unprecedented levels of stress in the workplace as educational leaders. Projections suggest that this is the new normal. While such stress can literally steal life vitality, the emotionally-intelligent leader possesses the unique skills set that converts that stress into a fuel for increased effectiveness and sustainability. American psychologist Rollo May noted that “responsibility is the ability to respond appropriately to the demands of one’s environment” (May, 1971). As student mental health needs in the school environment increase, SEL offers an approach to empower educators with the ability to respond appropriately. The introspection required by SEL is not necessarily easy, but it invites us to make a difference in the world by becoming the best version of ourselves in both our professional and personal lives.
Dr. Adam L. Sáenz is a licensed psychologist and CEO of The Applied EQ Group, a clinical and research group based in College Station, Texas. He is the author of The Power of a Teacher and Relationships That Work. His forthcoming book on social and emotional learning, The EQ Intervention: Raising a Self-Aware Generation Through Social and Emotional Learning will be released February 2020 via all major outlets by the Greenleaf Book Group: Austin Texas.
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TEPSA Instructional Leader, July 2019, Vol 32, No 4
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