Safety Built on SEL

by Tonje Molyneux

Thousands of students carrying backpacks stream into schools every day. They come to school to learn. And we rely on the adults who staff these schools to ensure that every child leaves them with the education and experience he or she needs to become a healthy, productive adult. The reality is that some children bring more to school with them in their backpacks than last night's homework. These children come weighed down by the effects of difficult life experiences. Some of them are abused or neglected. Others live with the loss of a parent. Some witness violence at home or in the community. Others are bullied or harassed. And still others are living in poverty. But the violence, chaos, and neglect don't have to jeopardize children's ability to learn in school. Schools can be a sanctuary where all children—including those who need it most—experience safety and support. And when children feel safe and supported, they are ready to learn.

Starting with Social-Emotional Learning

To that end, schools need strategies that foster a safe and supportive learning environment. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one such strategy. It's a promising place to start when creating a safe and supportive learning environment and is fast becoming recognized as a key ingredient for school and life success (Durlak et al., 2011).

Our Second Step program is one of the most widely used SEL programs in the U.S. The universal, classroom-based program promotes the development of students' social-emotional competence and self-regulation skills. Students with these skills are better able to maintain healthy relationships with peers and adults and have more coping strategies to manage stressful situations (Osher, Kendziora, & Chinen, 2008). When all students in a school are learning and practicing these skills, it helps create a foundation of social-emotional safety. It is from this foundation that a safe and supportive environment can grow.

The Second Step program recently bolstered its ability to help schools create a safe and supportive learning environment with the addition of the Second Step Bullying Prevention Unit and the Second Step Child Protection Unit. They both build on the foundation of SEL skills taught in the Second Step program while also focusing on specific prevention and intervention goals. The goals for the Child Protection Unit are to develop staff, adult caregiver, and student knowledge and skills for protecting students from unsafe and abusive situations in and outside of school.

The Child Protection Unit

The Child Protection Unit is designed to promote personal safety and protect students from unsafe or abusive situations via its four core components: staff training, student lessons, student and staff support resources, and family education and engagement materials. The first module of the training helps school leaders assess their current child protection policies, procedures, and practices and then begin to develop a comprehensive Child Protection Plan in line with current research and best practices. Module 2 prepares all staff to recognize common indicators of child abuse and neglect seen in children, respond in a supportive way to a child who discloses abuse or neglect, and report child abuse or neglect. Staff are also trained to recognize staff violations of child protection policies and report them according to their school's procedures. Module 3 prepares teachers to teach the Child Protection lessons to students. The Child Protection Unit also encourages the development of safe, supportive, and nurturing relationships between students and school staff by providing teachers with techniques for reframing student behavior and responding in a supportive way, and materials for logging concerns and developing support plans for students experiencing difficulties in their lives.

The student lessons build on the foundation of assertiveness, empathy, emotion management, problem-solving, and friendship skills from the Second Step lessons with content that encourages help-seeking behavior and positive student norms by teaching students to recognize, refuse, and report unsafe or abusive situations. In addition, the Child Protection Unit features materials and resources to help educate families about child abuse and neglect to help raise their awareness about the importance of the issue and give them additional skills they need to protect their child.

Implementing the Child Protection Unit can help schools strengthen the layers of protection, safety, and support all students need to have in place before they can benefit from learning. For students experiencing abuse, a protective layer that includes adults who will intervene when necessary and support them during a difficult time is especially important. These students cannot recover if abuse is continuing, and when it does stop, true recovery and healing can only take place when students feel safe with and supported by the adults they rely on. And when the training is used together with the Second Step program, it not only teaches children who may have been abused to regulate their emotions, it teaches adults in the school how to better support children who may exhibit symptoms in the classroom. (Cole et al., 2005).

All Students Ready to Learn

Schools can start building an environment of safety and support by implementing a social-emotional learning program that includes training and content to prevent bullying, protect students, and promote safety. Feeling safe and supported at school is even more important for students who may have been abused.  Students coping with abuse need school to be a sanctuary, a place where they feel physically and emotionally safe, and buoyed by nurturing, stable relationships with supportive adults. When the most vulnerable students experience school as a safe and supportive learning environment, one in which they feel welcome and respected, engaged and connected, challenged and valued, then it's likely all students feel safe and supported, too. And when students feel safe and supported, they're ready to learn.

References

Cole, S. F., O’Brien, J. G., Gadd, M. G., Ristuccia, J., Wallace, D. L., & Gregory, M. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students' social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Osher, D., Kendziora, K., & Chinen, M. (2008).  Student connection research: Final narrative report to the Spencer Foundation  [Grant No. 200700169]. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.


Tonje Molyneux is a Senior Program Developer with Committee for Children. This article is adapted from a white paper on safe and supportive learning environments she wrote which will be available in the coming months.