Universal Supports for Social Emotional Well-Being  

March 20, 2017

Educators are becoming accustomed to expectations that they focus on improving the academic achievement of their students. They are gaining confidence in the use of effective instructional practices, research-based interventions, universal screening, and data-based decision making. It seems common sense that solid instruction in core reading or math curriculum comes first as a means of preventing learning difficulties. This is followed by assigning some students to interventions that increase in intensity as their needs increase. Yet, when students struggle with social skills or behavior challenges, educators sometimes throw up their hands and say, “What do we do?” It seems they are less than confident in knowing how to promote students’ social emotional well-being.

A parallel with multi-tiered system of supports for academic development can be made with students’ social emotional and behavior development. In the academic world, educators start with assessments to determine what the students know or do not know, provide solid instruction, apply effective instructional practices, use research-based interventions, monitor progress, and make data-based decisions. In the social emotional behavior realm, effective educators start with assessments to determine what the students know or do not know, provide solid instruction, apply effective instructional practices, use research-based interventions, monitor progress, and make data-based decisions. Educators actually do know what to do to promote students’ social emotional and behavior development, but many have not thought of the parallel with academic instruction and supports. Children learn social behavior in ways similar to the way they learn academic skills; thus, teachers can teach social skills using a similar approach.

To address the concerns related to social and behavior challenges, educators are beginning to take collaborative responsibility for meeting students’ academic and behavior or social needs. Competence in academic skills is important to social emotional development and vice versa. To achieve both competencies, schools are advised to establish universal supports for all students. Individualized supports are then built on those universal practices for students who have greater needs. Most importantly, educators work collaboratively with parents and other professionals (i.e., counselors, behavior specialists, etc.) in response to existing needs.

What universal supports are helpful in promoting both academic and social emotional behavior development? Effective educators start by relating to students. They intentionally work to establish and then to maintain positive relationships with their students. However, when something occurs to damage a relationship, educators consciously and systematically work to restore relationships with their students.

Also, teachers work to create learning environments that increase the probability of student success. They intentionally design the physical arrangement of space and materials to benefit student achievement. In addition, educators develop routines and schedules to maximize the effectiveness of their instruction. Finally, the structure of the learning environment includes physical cues and verbal prompts for student completion of expectations.

Next, effective educators develop clear and positively stated school wide behavioral expectations that are modeled, taught, practiced with guidance, and monitored. When students use and then master these expectations, they are consistently acknowledged. In the same manner, adults teach social competencies suggested by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: self- awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Students unskilled in use of the expectations or competencies are provided with corrective instruction. Students who continue problem behaviors are given systematic and consistent corrective consequences.

Additionally, teachers might consider adjusting instruction when several students have difficulty learning an expectation. Lane, et al., 2015, suggest that student data be used to determine what supports teachers need to differentiate for groups of students. Teachers might intentionally adjust their instruction to use teacher-level strategies that have a greater probability of supporting positive behavioral outcomes. Sometimes altering classroom practices and adopting the use of evidence-based instructional strategies (for example, increasing behavior specific praise, providing pre-correction, or increasing students’ opportunities to respond) result in significant changes in students’ behavior as well as their academic performance.

Supporting the academic and social well-being of students is a full time job. According to Terrance Scott (2017), “We have an ethical responsibility to select the practices, interventions, and procedures that provide the greatest probability for success.” Luckily, educators have the basic knowledge of practices and strategies that will support their universal efforts in promoting student social emotional well-being—they sometimes just lack confidence. Luckily, more and more schools are embracing a systems-level approach to serving all students. It is in this manner that teachers will be supported, develop self-efficacy, and realize their own improved well-being.

-by Patrice Feller, ESU 10 School Psychologist and MTSS Facilitator

• CASEL. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
• Scott, Terrance M. Teaching Behavior: Managing Classrooms through Effective Instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE, 2017. Print. 
• Stormont, Melissa, Timothy J. Lewis, Rebecca Beckner, and Nanci W. Johnson. Implementing positive behavior support systems in early childhood and elementary settings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Print.