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If Students Could Behave, They Would!

Each day in America children are impacted by abuse or neglect, die by suicide, witness violent crimes, experience family separation by divorce, are born into poverty, are placed in group and foster homes, face debilitating health issue of self or family members and even are displaced from their home country as refugees. All students arrive in our classrooms with an expectation to academically climb Bloom’s Taxonomy yet many of our students haven’t even met Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs. A deficiency in appropriate social and emotional development in our students in America is morphing at such a rate that an educational disruption is vital for redefining the purpose of schools altogether. Social emotional learning is not merely looking through the lens of mental health needs, but rather the developmental stages that students must adequately progress through socially, emotionally and academically to live a good life. We must come to a therapeutic understanding that if our students could behave most of the time, then they would. Especially in our classrooms!

“Research on childhood trauma shows that everyday relationships with teachers, caregivers, and friends often have the most restorative effect.”

Thriving Journal: Brendtro, Long, Fecser

Social Emotional Learning Leads to Living a Good Life

As educators we notice that poverty, anxiety and depression are all on the rise and student behavior and safety continue to make headlines. Social emotional learning (SEL) is trending on social media, full issues are dedicated to the topic in our educational journals, and sessions on “students of trauma” are filled beyond capacity at educational conferences. We are hearing and seeing the words, social emotional learning trending like never in the past. In a response to these changing demographics many districts have established SEL initiatives following in the footsteps of this educational trend that is sweeping the nation. Whether supporters of SEL initiatives or not, for many educators, implementing the programs and strategies may not be a choice. SEL is trending and we see anti-anxiety strategies like tapping, fidget tools, self-regulation techniques meditation, yoga and sensory diets all supporting student behavior.

The questions we might consider asking are, do we as educators embrace social emotional learning because SEL is the next trend that is a buzz? Are we scrambling because of student safety, the number of office referrals are increasing or the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch is on the rise? Or is there a deeper humanity driven reason for our pursuit of teaching the whole child?

Recently I spoke with Dr. Erin Raab via Google Hangout after interacting on Twitter for several weeks. She is the co-founder of and is leading a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We experienced this magnetic attraction because of our common passion to advocate for student voice and ultimately lead students to success. Throughout our conversation she asked me three very pointed questions that are the foundation of her movement:

1. What makes a good life?

2. What are our shared dreams for our children?

3. What is the role of school in achieving these?

At first, I was a little caught off guard by these questions. Even though I consider myself a social justice warrior for kids advocating for student voice and positive school experiences, her questions drew me in wanting to synthesize her questions with greater thought. Anyone that knows me fully, understands that I am all-in for kids. Her questions stopped me dead in my tracks that day and were difficult for me to answer because I realized I currently had a limited view of my purpose as an educator even though I was “all-in”. I was only looking through my lens of purpose as an educational leader. I realized I was limiting a greater purpose for a positive school experience because I was viewing the ultimate mark of success as a college degree, white picket fence and a cliché version of a successful work life transition. But if you really listen to the voices of the 10,000 students she has interviewed from varying backgrounds, their perception of what makes a good life is not necessarily my own perception of a good life. I experienced a cognitive shift as I now perceive the greatest educational purpose I have is to lead students to a good life. Their version.

Dr. Raab’s questions are the tough questions we must wrestle with and strive to understand as educational leaders. The moment we understand that our role is more vital than any other adult that may be present in their lives is the point that implementing social emotional learning will transform kids! Without understanding this premise of why we must embrace SEL, it could easily become the next fad that comes and goes without standing the test of time. The ultimate human goal is to set restorative measures in place to help students achieve their goals so that they can live THEIR version of a good life and thrive as humans.

We Can Create a Living System Where Children Thrive

As leaders in education we must not only learn the complexity of social emotional learning, but begin creating supports to reach every student. Teaching the whole child gives our role as educators a greater purpose and shared vision for creating an environment where students can thrive. The irony is that a belief in SEL is not enough to make it happen. Being equipped with the knowledge, framework and strategies for serving kids doesn’t come natural. It isn’t taught and as educators we may never have learned these frameworks and strategies unless we were in a clinician setting or took additional coursework that may have applied to another degree. Or are lucky enough to be in an SEL driven school setting dedicated to thriving relationships.

“There’s never been a more chaotic and tenuous time in our nation’s educational story. Learning is the most natural thing human beings do. Yet, it seems the “harder” we work in schools helping our students to acquire the learning they need, the academic performances stay stagnant or lessen. Schools are not machines. Schools are a network of human beings who feel, think, behave, and function within a human system that is alive and never static. Schools are living systems! This system is wired to thrive, even through difficult times.”

Unwritten, The Story of a Living System, Lori Desautels and Michael McKnight

When we view schools as living systems then we can begin framing a multi-tiered system of support for positively supporting students. If you don’t already have Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and systems in place you may want to consider the work of Dr. Angel Jannasch-Pennell, CEO and research director of KOI Education. KOI Education offers research, training and services to build the capacity of schools and districts to thrive. Another national trainer and consultant is Kimberli Breen author of Check-In, Check-Out. Her professional training videos illustrates key components on how personnel and parents can quickly and effectively support positive behavior throughout the day. I would encourage you to learn more about multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and positive behavior interventions and support (PBIS) frameworks if you aren’t already familiar. Understanding a MTSS and PBIS framework is a great place to start in building capacity with a committee of stakeholders to initiate a living system where students thrive.

The intricacies of SEL are interwoven and require leadership and vision with strong system supports in place. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the known clearinghouse for research, evaluating programs, trends and initiatives for all things SEL. This is the first place I would recommend starting your SEL learning journey. Other organizations such as The Wallace Foundation has released NAVIGATING SEL FROM THE INSIDE OUT research findings and resources analyzing the top 25 SEL programs. Jump right in and begin networking with experienced educational leaders learn how to best support the students in your school community that can’t behave right now that can learn to live a thriving good life.

We Can Quadruplicate Our Happy Brain Chemicals

In the meantime, you can start hacking into your happy chemicals! There are four happy chemicals produced by our brains that can positively manifest into positive motivation, productivity and well-being. This works for Us and THEM! I must warn you up front so you can be cautious. Hacking these chemicals can produce an immediate positive response that may result in relationships that matter thus creating a trusting learning environment.

One of my favorite info-graphics I found on The Utopian Life written by Thai Nguyen. He shares simple ways to hack these four brain chemicals:

Hack #1 Consider breaking down big goals into little pieces so you can create a series of little finish-lines which release dopamine. Dopamine motivates you to take action toward your goals, desires, and needs, and gives you a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them.

Hack #2 Create new goals before achieving your current one. That ensures a consistent pattern for experiencing dopamine.

Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important.

Hack #3 Gratitude practices can help you remind that you’re valued and significant.

Hack #4 Although too much ultraviolet light isn’t good, some daily sun exposure is healthy for boosting your serotonin levels.

Oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and strengthens relationships.

Hack #5 Often referred to as “the cuddle hormone”, a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug.

Hack #6 Giving someone a gift will also cause their oxytocin levels to rise. Endorphins are released in response to acute pain and stress, to help alleviate anxiety and depression.

Hack #7 Along with exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release.

Hack #8 Keep some scented oils and dark chocolate at your desk for a quick endorphin boost.

Teaching kids to “behave” is much more complicated than punishments and rewards. It is all about creating a living system where students can experience restorative redirection and habits that nurture the whole child. If we want our students to learn to behave then we must meet them where they are and teach them how to thrive and live a good life.

Amazing Leaders, Organizations & Initiatives to Follow

ReEnvisioned: Dr. Erin Raab

14,000 Hours



Koi Education :Dr. Angel Pannasch-Pennell

Kimberli Breen

Michael McNight

Revelations in Education: Lori Desautels

North Star Paths: Kristen Wiens

Elise Gravel

Centre for Justice & Reconciliation: Restorative Justice

Conscious Discipline

Everyone Matters

Patty McClain

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