According to a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) study, the number of children aged 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety increased by 29 percent between 2016 and 2020, while those diagnosed with depression increased by 27 percent.
The situation worsened with the pandemic. And now, stressed students are hurting others and themselves.
There’s a dire need for safety in schools and other educational institutions — it’s time for strategies that help create safe learning environments.
A nationally representative survey of nearly 700 pre-K-12 teachers found that social-emotional learning (SEL) was a popular safety solution for 91 percent of all the teachers surveyed.
Social-emotional learning is a long-term solution for making students and adults more socially and emotionally well-rounded, but what makes it an effective and critical solution for pressing issues such as safety in learning institutions?
Social-emotional learning: Foregrounding emotional and mental safety
While safety is most visibly threatened by physical acts such as bullying and school violence, the roots of such threats take us to social, emotional, and structural issues that need to be addressed to effect change.
Consider some of the most common reasons for bullying. Bullies are often victims of bullying themselves, and as a result of their perception of what has happened to them, they frequently lack empathy.
In other cases, bullies don’t have any real friends, and they struggle to build relationships. To combat their loneliness, they seek social attention the wrong way. Moreover, bullies often lack psychological well-being, often comparing themselves to others, which leads to frustration and envy. As a result, they undermine other people with acts of aggression to level the playing field.
The core SEL competencies help develop good mental, emotional, and social health — three elements that can contribute immensely to dismantling safety issues such as bullying and creating safe learning spaces.
For one, social-emotional learning helps students understand how their decisions will impact others. It enables students to develop and demonstrate values such as compassion, empathy, respect, and intelligent behavior while making and navigating life decisions in and out of school. Increased empathy can reduce aggressive behavior, both verbal and physical, as well as bullying incidents.
SEL also fosters relationship building and a sense of belonging and inclusion. For example, when teachers implement identity-affirming and culturally-responsive SEL they create supportive and responsive learning climates that help prevent isolation and disengagement, and positively impact students’ behavior.
This is especially important among students who are systemically more prone to being marginalized and excluded from social groups due to their identities and backgrounds. If a school’s learning instruction reflects diverse cultural identities and personal experiences, it’s easier to develop a culture that supports the equitable treatment of all students, thereby helping to create a safer school environment.
Furthermore, SEL provides a reliable structure to the learning process, making it easier to promote a safe learning culture and address student experiences of anxiety, helplessness, and general insecurity.
Ultimately, social and emotional learning skills are crucial in connecting character and lifestyle decisions, helping to foreground and sustain emotional and social safety in learning institutions.
With SEL, we can foster emotional safety and mental wellness, and help reduce violence and risky behaviors among students. In so doing, we can nurture safe, positive learning environments, and equally important, harness the power of restorative practices.
Conflict and the power of restorative practices
Bullying, fighting, and violence may not have a simple or singular solution, but we can change the way we respond to these issues.
Instead of a discipline system that centers on punitive and exclusionary practices, which mostly seem to do more harm than good, it’s far more effective to have a restorative system.
Restorative practices encourage supportive and respectful behavior, placing the onus on an individual to be truly accountable for their actions and to make amends for any harm done to others as a result of those actions.
These practices can tackle a situation like bullying with sensitivity and understanding; in a way that improves outcomes for all individuals involved, instead of trying to serve one at the cost of another.
For example, instead of merely ostracizing and punishing a student who engages in problematic behavior, restorative practices seek to create a safe space in which the student can learn from their past unacceptable choices, understand their impact, and improve their ability to make better decisions.
Restorative practices have a student reflect on their conduct by addressing specific questions like: What choice did I make and how did it affect others? Is there another way I could have handled this situation? Would I make the same decision if I had a second chance, and why?
The idea behind restorative practices is that “when you know better, you can do better.”
Restorative practices have several benefits, including developing empathy and respect, fostering positive relationships, and improving decision-making. These are also some of the benefits of SEL. As such, SEL intersects with and can help strengthen restorative practices, which, in turn, enable students to make positive choices that lead to safer schools.
Per the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the likelihood of positive outcomes in high schools — including improved school and classroom climates — is especially high due to the alignment of restorative practices and SEL in secondary settings.
Granted, the problem of safety is a large and complex one, and building social and emotional skills alone won’t solve it, but social-emotional learning is a major step in the right direction that can have powerful consequences.