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How we turned around our disciplinary infraction rate

The right SEL approach helped this elementary school reduce disciplinary referrals and intervene early


Cordata Elementary School is a 400-student public school serving grades PreK-5 in the Bellingham School District in Washington. The school has the highest percentage of English Language Learners in the district at 33 percent; and 68 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Biggest Challenges

A few years ago, Cordata Elementary School was experiencing a high number of disciplinary referrals. Our school was also ranked the highest-need school in the district based on students’ scores on early childhood assessments. The assessments measured areas such as social-emotional learning, language, numeracy, and large motor skills. We knew that in order to help our students achieve academically and reduce discipline rates; we needed to find a way to address students’ non-academic needs.

Related content: How SEL inspired a transformation in my school


Our solution was to develop an intensive intervention model centered around social-emotional learning (SEL) that would allow us to intervene early with students who needed targeted social-emotional support and monitor their progress over time. The initiative included multiple components including adding staff, implementing training programs, adopting an SEL assessment and using a team approach.

  • Hiring staff. We hired a full-time Intervention Specialist along with two paraprofessionals to support SEL at our school. We trained all staff members, including classified positions on Positive Discipline and trauma-informed teaching and began using the Caring School Community program to help build community and develop students’ SEL skills.
  • Measuring SEL competence. We adopted the DESSA Comprehensive SEL System from Aperture Education to measure students’ social-emotional competence. We administer the DESSA-mini, a universal screener, to students in grades K-5 every fall and spring. If a student is flagged as potentially needing additional support, we administer the full DESSA to get a better understanding of their needs. This process essentially provides us with a diagnostic tool to determine what interventions need to be in place.
  • Team meetings. Three to five times a year we have team meetings to discuss student data. The SEL Specialist, Reading Specialist, Math Specialist, School Counselor, and Special Education Teacher will discuss each student and look at the data related to that student to identify the best ways to support that student. This data team also meets with classroom teachers every six weeks to discuss observations and anecdotes about the students in order to figure out how to best meet the student’s needs. Once we identify the area of need, we put appropriate interventions in place. In addition, a behavior team meets weekly to review data and notes, we bring parents in for child study team meetings when we have concerns, and follow up six weeks later with the family and teacher.

These intentional interventions have had amazing results. We have had a drop in the number of student referrals, especially for those students receiving intervention. For example, last September alone we had 150 office referrals for first grade students. This year that number dropped to 38 for that same month. We are seeing a significant reduction in problem behaviors.

We are also seeing more teachers teach mindfulness strategies and layer SEL on top of that.

The impact on individual students has been profound. For example, one first grade student previously had escalated incidents in the classroom pretty frequently. The student would often end up running out of the classroom into another classroom where he would tip over chairs and tables and clear the room. We worked strategically and intentionally with him all year including daily mindfulness lessons and he made significant growth. By the end of the year, instead of engaging in disruptive behavior, he would request a break and then access the mindfulness exercises on his own. Today he doesn’t need any extra intervention at all.

Lessons Learned

  • Use data. Just like in English or math, data is an important component in identifying and teaching non-academic skills and monitoring student progress. If you plan to use an SEL screener, make sure it is strengths-based and backed by research.
  • Understanding the power of a child’s need for belonging and significance is a powerful tool. When we focus on relationships and unconditional respect, when we reinforce positive behaviors with specific feedback, and when we implement restorative practices, this goes a long way.
  • Teach students SEL language. We intentionally teach students the terms and phrases that go along with our SEL lessons. For example, they know what self-awareness and social identification mean and how to identify these skills. If everyone – including students – is speaking a common language it helps to teach these skills.
  • Work in teams. When teachers are able to work in teams to support individual students you will see better outcomes for those students and the teachers will feel more supported in their work.

Next Steps

This is our second year with this intervention model. We plan to continue using this model because we know how valuable it is to our students, teachers and administrators.

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