By: Nancy Roosa, Psy. D.
The agonizing discussion around the tragedy of school shootings – happening on a weekly basis in this country -- too often devolves into a polarized argument about whether the main problem is guns OR mental health. The argument seems moot, since BOTH access to a firearm and mental health problems have to come together – in one troubled individual - to result in one of these large-scale school massacres. Therefore, while the discussion about gun control is an important one, I’m going to leave that for another forum. In this blog, in my role as a psychologist, I’d like to focus on how we can improve the mental health of our children.
There is no clear answer as to why some students choose to go on a deadly rampage against members of their own community – the peers and adults they spend time with every day – although clearly something has gone very wrong for them in that community. Some research does link bullying and social isolation to school shootings. The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education in a 2004 report found that “almost three-quarters of the (school shooting) attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. In several cases, individual attackers had experienced bullying and harassment that was long-standing and severe. In some cases, the experience of being bullied seemed to have a significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in his decision to mount an attack at the school.”
I do not want to blame the victims, by somehow implying that the social environments at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and Santa Fe – and all the other sites of horrific massacres - were particularly cruel or harsh. We know that some students at every school feel ostracized and alone, and some are also coping with other serious life stresses, i.e. living in families stressed by poverty, addiction, and/or mental health challenges. But just because this is commonplace doesn’t mean we should accept it. Our society needs a stronger safety net, so that all children are safely housed, well fed and emotionally nurtured in their families, outside of school.
In addition, schools are increasingly recognizing their part in raising the next generation of emotionally mature and secure individuals, and many are attempting to include “social-emotional learning (SEL)” in the curriculum. But while everyone might agree that SEL is a good idea, few people seem to know how to teach it. A recent study by the nonprofit organization CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) found that 83% of principals believe that social-emotional learning is important and a full 95% say they are committed to developing their students’ social and emotional skills. However, only 38% of them had a plan for implementing such learning. Clearly the importance of SEL has been recognized, but doing it well – or doing it at all – still leaves many educators at a loss. Implementing an effective SEL program does require substantial resources – time, money and expertise. Teachers and staff must be trained and then spend time and energy every day implementing the plan. How can we expect schools to find those additional resources when they are already underfunded for the many tasks they are currently charged with? Adding SEL effectively will require that we provide adequate funding to our schools.
Yet, some research shows that the resources invested in SEL bring a hefty payback, not just in social emotional health, which is clearly hard to measure, but also in students’ academic achievement. In 2011, a meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development found that students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program showed an 11 percent gain in academic achievement. In 2015, a study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis found an $11 benefit for every $1 spent on a rigorous SEL program.
Here in Boston, we have our own success stories involving SEL. One local school, the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan, was, 5 years ago, one of the district’s lowest performing schools, at risk of a takeover; now it’s classified as a “level 1” school, the highest category, based on student achievement. Last fall, they were awarded the coveted School on the Move prize by the nonprofit organization Edvestors, which has, for the past 12 years, awarded this prize to a school within the Boston public school district that has made the most progress, based on quantifiable data about student achievement. This school, as well as the other two finalists at this year’s award ceremony in November, highlighted that one important factor was implementing social-emotional learning across the curriculum. They also spoke about the importance of teacher empowerment and creating a sense of an inclusive community in their schools.
Clearly SEL works. Let’s look a bit more closely at what it involves. The cornerstone of SEL learning is gaining five essential skills and competencies, according to CASEL.
1. Self-awareness: recognizing and labeling one’s feelings and accurately identifying one’s strengths and limitations.
2. Self-management: regulating emotions, delaying gratification, managing stress, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving goals.
3. Social awareness: showing empathy, taking others’ perspectives, and recognizing and mobilizing diverse and available supports.
4. Relationship skills: clear communication, active listening, cooperation, nonviolent and constructive conflict resolution, knowing when and how to be a good team player and leader.
5. Responsible decision making: making ethical choices based on consideration of feelings, goals, alternatives and outcomes, and planning and enacting solutions with potential obstacles anticipated.
This is an ambitious list, and we don’t expect these skills to be mastered by 10th grade along with the ability to write a 5-paragraph essay. These are skills that one can—and should!—spend a life time learning. But just pondering this list for a few minutes makes me realize that these are the qualities I value in the people I interact with—my colleagues, friends, and family members—and they are the main qualities that determine whether one lives a productive, satisfying life … much more so than one’s MCAS score.
Will implementing SEL in our schools stop all mass shootings? Sadly, probably not. But will it allow more of the next generation of Americans to grow into socially and emotionally competent individuals? I’d suspect that answer is yes. So let’s start the conversation about this – in every home, in every neighborhood, in every school. Let’s keep our Eyes on this Prize: educating every child for life.
There are a plethora of programs claiming to promote SEL, and a few important guides to distinguish among the programs. Anyone interested in learning how to implement an SEL program could start with one of the following guides.
· The 2015 CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs (CASEL.org).
· How to Implement Social and Emotional Learning at Your School, by Maurice J. Elias, Edutopia, March 24, 2016.
· Selecting the Right SEL Program, by Leah Shafer, June 20, 2017. Harvard Graduate School of Education.
About the Author
Nancy Roosa, Psy.D. has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems.
Dr. Roosa’s evaluations are highly-individualized and comprehensive, integrating data obtained from a wide range of standardized assessment tools with information gained from history, input from parents, teachers and providers, and important observations gleaned from interacting with the child. Her approach to testing is playful and supportive.
Her evaluations are particularly useful for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box.