Learn how a high-poverty district is using SEL to lower discipline rates, reach students, and turn classrooms into encouraging spaces.

How we used SEL to transform discipline

Learn how a high-poverty school is using SEL to reach students and turn classrooms into encouraging spaces


Springdale School District serves more than 23,000 students across 31 schools. Southwest Junior High School serves 640 students in both 8th and 9th grades.

Biggest Challenge

We are a high poverty school (over 70 percent), and many of our students have been exposed to significant trauma. Because we didn’t have tools to navigate the behaviors and emotions that can result from trauma, such as aggression and defiance, students and teachers alike were left feeling overwhelmed. Both students and teachers needed more composure. We needed a way to teach students personal responsibility for their behavior, a goal that we were not achieving with traditional discipline.

Related content: 3 ways to combine trauma-informed teaching with SEL


Myself and a small group of our school’s teachers attended a two-day workshop about Conscious Discipline, a trauma-informed social and emotional learning (SEL) program that addresses school climate, discipline, and teaching SEL skills through daily interactions. It provides adults with “powers” and “skills” to remain calm in moments of conflict and see behavior differently, so that we can choose an effective response.

After attending, I asked my principal to buy the Conscious Discipline book for our entire faculty and volunteered to lead the book study for interested staff. Since then, we’ve continued print and online studies, had seven teachers attend a weeklong Conscious Discipline training event and incorporated SEL-specific professional development.

We’ve changed our approach to discipline, aiming to teach missing skills instead of solely using traditional discipline. Teachers are focusing on managing their behaviors to diffuse situations, and are using SEL methods to effectively address behavior. Our goal is for every student to have a person who cares about them, someone they feel connected to and comfortable speaking with. Our school has set aside time most mornings to conduct SEL activities with students.

Teachers have seen a positive difference in students’ behavior and are motivated to continue learning and using SEL strategies. We’ve seen academic gains and, most importantly, students taking SEL skills out of the classroom, such as using breathing exercises at home with siblings.

This year, I’m revamping our in-school suspension (ISS) room to be SEL-friendly by hanging visual routines and agreements, incorporating time for students to be of service to the school, and providing opportunities for students to work together and connect with the ISS teacher. ISS students also participate in self-regulation games with the children in our school’s Pre-K classroom.

I’ve developed a questionnaire for students to take when they are assigned ISS which identifies their executive skills strengths and weaknesses, and then share the results with the student and their teachers. The student and teachers are provided with a list of activities and supports for helping the student work on executive skills weaknesses. I meet with a few students individually each week to check in on their progress. Teachers and peers are also able to send notes of encouragement to the student in ISS – we are a school family, and we want everyone to know that they are valued.

We’ve seen less of our “frequent flyers” this year. Administrators note that students are articulating their feelings and practicing self-regulation to calm down in the office. They’ve also seen more students take ownership of their actions and feelings and problem-solve for how they will handle similar situations differently in the future.

Lessons Learned

• Teachers and students should focus on growth, not just scores. We look for opportunities to celebrate positive progress.
• Confidence affects effort. It increases academic risk- taking in the classroom. Students become more focused on the learning and less worried about what their peers will think of them if they make a mistake.
• SEL encourages and fosters high student engagement and builds a school family.
• Conscious Discipline opens the door for students to be kind to one another, to be assertive, and to encourage one another.
• Connections also lead to increased risk-taking for students academically and allow them to open up and treat others in the school family with respect and care.
• Conscious Discipline empowers students to develop lifelong skills to manage trauma, emotions, conflicts, and setbacks so that they can navigate anything that comes their way- academically, personally, or socially.

Next Steps

• Continue to develop behavior intervention.
• Continue to refine our Advisory time period for students to learn about the Conscious Discipline powers, skills, and executive skills.
• Students and I are creating a website that will role-play common situations between teens and other teens and teens and parents, providing a Conscious Discipline model for responding.
• I am working with five other secondary schools in my district to share SWJH’s experiences practicing Conscious Discipline.

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