About social, emotional and behavioral wellness

Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Social and emotional skills are critical to be a good student and citizen. Extensive research, including a meta-analysis of 213 studies, has shown that programs designed to promote social and emotional competence in students produce important outcomes, including improvements in standardized academic test scores (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, and Shellinger, 2011). In addition, social and emotional learning has been associated with reduced problem behaviors including conduct problems, drug use, and violence (e.g., Botvin et al., 1995; Farrell and Meyer, 2001). The cost effectiveness of these approaches has also been established in a recent report finding that programs designed to promote social and emotional competence produce, on average, a benefit to cost ratio of 11:1 (Belfield et al., 2015).

Social, emotional and behavioral skills develop in the context of social relationships and within school and classroom contexts, where children learn, apply and practice the skills of self-awareness, self-management, interpersonal awareness, relationship skills and decision-making. Because this type of skill development is influenced by the culture and climate of the school and classroom (Bradshaw, Koth, Bevans, Ialongo, and Leaf, 2008; Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D’Alessandro, and Guffey, 2012), it is important that educators and school leaders attend to school-wide routines, habits, and practices that reinforce a positive school climate, while also teaching the social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills that undergird positive youth development. The application of multi-tiered logic through application of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support framework serves as a highly viable approach for schools to address social, emotional and behavioral wellness of their students.

Increasing Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs in Education

According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (2015), approximately one in five children currently have or will experience a severe mental disorder. However, due to an array of reasons, only 40 percent of individuals with mental disorders receive treatment in any year. For people who do experience mental health disorders, most experience their first symptoms before young adulthood (half with onset of symptoms by age 14). It is further reported that close to half of these students will likely drop out of school. A little over one in five (22.2 percent) adolescents between the ages of 13-18 experience a mental Even more alarming is that the median age of the onset of anxiety disorders (one of the most common disorders that appear during childhood) is seven years of age (National Institutes of Mental Health, 2014). Substance abuse or dependence is the most commonly diagnosed disorder for young people, followed by anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Depression, like other mental health disorders, appears on the rise in school-age students. According to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (2016), the rate of adolescents reporting a recent experience with depression has grown by 37 percent over the past decade, with one in six girls reporting an episode of clinical depression within the past twelve months (Mojtabai, Olfson, and Han, 2016).

Further alarming is the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013). Given the amount of time children and adolescents spend in school, coupled with the proportion of students that have mental health challenges, it is not surprising that educators (and in particular teachers) are on the front line to notice challenges, and, in turn, implement evidence-based prevention and intervention programs. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that can have negative, long-lasting effects on learning, health, and well-being over the lifespan. Trauma, in particular, is commonly viewed as one of the most powerful risk factors associated with mental health disorders and is directly linked to suicide risk (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2015). Looking further into the prevalence of specific mental health disorders associated with (at least in part) childhood trauma, the data is compelling as it pertains to the importance of educators receiving training in trauma informed approaches to instruction.

Alignment with Pennsylvania’s Act 71 (Suicide Prevention)

The previously noted prevalence data further highlight the important role that educators play in supporting social, emotional, and behavioral wellness in students. Students with mental disorders such as, but not limited to, depression are at greater risk for a variety of unhealthy behaviors when compared with their developmental peers. Students with depression are less likely to participate in school activities, are more likely to skip class or miss time away from school, disrupt classroom activities, and engage in risky behavior such as using controlled substances, and are at greater risk to attempt suicide.

This becomes further complicated in that many youth also experience co-occurring mental health disorders. For example, a youth with an anxiety disorder may also develop depression, or a student who is depressed may abuse alcohol or other drugs perhaps in an effort to self-medicate.

The increasing presence of such mental health disorders in tandem with the rising rates of youth suicide in the Commonwealth was publicly acknowledged in 2014 and prompted the passage of Act 71 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly that same year.

Act 71 codified school-based suicide prevention in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Commencing in the 2015-16 school year, the following requirements were in effect.

Responsible Entity Requirements of Act 71
Each Local Educational Agency (LEA) 1) SHALL adopt an age-appropriate youth suicide awareness and prevention policy.
2) SHALL include 4 hours of training in youth suicide awareness and prevention every 5 years for professional educators in grades 6 – 12.
3) MUST incorporate a youth suicide awareness and prevention curriculum into its existing instructional programs.
State Department of Education 1) SHALL develop a model youth suicide awareness and prevention policy, in consultation with a youth suicide prevention organization.
2) SHALL develop a model youth suicide awareness and prevention curriculum and make it available to all school entities.
3) SHALL compile, develop, and post on its publicly accessible Internet website guidelines and materials for training of educators and resources and age-appropriate educational material.

Alignment with Pennsylvania Career Ready Skills

The PA Career Ready Skills: PA CRS (2018) illustrate the requisite skills that promote success in school, the workplace, and life. Such skills include goal setting, self-managing behavior, building positive relationships, communicating clearly, and resolving conflicts effectively. Research indicates that programs and policies designed to promote employability skill development among children and youth result in students’ improved academic achievement, resiliency, and improved behavior and mental health. The long-term cost benefit for the application of employability skills is documented in the literature.

The PA CRS provide a target for instruction for all educators, stakeholders, families, and communities. The skills alone do not comprise a curriculum; nor are the skills meant to be approached as an isolated instructional content area. The PA CRS should be promoted, infused, and modeled in every aspect of a student’s day. The PA CRS complement existing standards and practices, including the Career Education and Work Standards. These skills are also reflected within the PA Academic Standards.

The PA CRS Pre-Kindergarten – 12th grade continuum frames the skills into three categories:

  • Self-Awareness and Self-Management—skills to understand and manage behavior, including the abilities to set goals, recognize feelings, and respond effectively to challenges.
  • Establishing and Maintaining Relationships—skills that support healthy relationships, including awareness and respect of diversity, and the abilities to communicate and resolve conflicts effectively.
  • Social Problem Solving—skills that support students to understand social norms, make responsible choices, and engage effectively in diverse contexts.