MTSS for Social Emotional Behavioral Well-Being  

March 29, 2019
Adults frequently lament “kids aren’t what they used to be.” They share the perception that childhood experiences may be more traumatic these days. In addition, the influence of social media appears to be changing youth patterns of socializing and entertaining. Some would argue that many factors interact negatively with the development of social emotional development and behavioral well-being of our students. It is easy to understand that education suffers when students are affected by these factors.

It is also understandable that these factors influence the career readiness of our children. When asked what skills they value in employees, employers often list “soft skills” as more important than academic skills. The term “soft skills” typically refers to social emotional skills and behaviors. According to The Conference Board report, the top five valued skills are (in order of importance):

1. Professionalism/work ethic
2. Teamwork/collaboration
3. Oral communications
4. Ethics/social responsibility
5. Reading comprehension (in English)

Mental health is synonymous with social emotional and behavioral well-being. ESU 10 MTSS supports both the development of academic and social emotional and behavioral well-being (or mental health). A parallel with multi-tiered system of supports can be made between the two. 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 behavioral 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 behavioral 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.

When our 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. They equate social emotional well-being with mental illness which, understandably, they are not trained to address. While mental health is another way to define social emotional and behavioral well-being, mental illness is only the negative extreme of poor development of mental health, just as a specific learning disability is the negative extreme of poor development of academic achievement.

Some ESU 10 schools are beginning to focus on their multi-tiered system of supports for social emotional and behavioral development. Educators in these schools are beginning to take collaborative responsibility for meeting students’ academic and behavior or social emotional 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. When schools focus on this area of improvement, the teachers’ collective efficacy improves and they begin to learn that they can make a difference in developing students’ mental health.

What universal supports are helpful in promoting both academic and social emotional and behavioral development? Effective educators start by relating to students--intentionally working to establish and then to maintain positive relationships. However, when something occurs to damage a relationship, educators consciously and systematically work to restore relationships with their students. They are informed about the effects of trauma and practices needed to lessen the consequences of adverse childhood experiences. They know that a school’s positive culture and climate can balance the instructional needs of their students.

On one hand, teachers work to create positive behavior supports (PBIS) 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 schoolwide and classroom behavioral expectations that are modeled, taught, practiced with guidance, monitored and corrected as needed. When students use and then master these expectations, they are consistently acknowledged.

On the other hand, adults teach social emotional learning competencies suggested by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: - awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Students who struggle with the use of the expectations or competencies are provided with corrective instruction. Students who continue problem behaviors are given systematic and consistent corrective opportunities to learn.

In a meta-analysis of research conducted to determine the effectiveness of instruction in SEL, the following outcomes have been found: 
•  9% improvement in attitudes about self, others and school
•  23% improvement in social and emotional skills
•  9% improvement in classroom behavior
•  11% improvement in achievement test scores
•  9% decrease in conduct problems
•  10% decrease in emotional distress

It is with a foundation of positive culture and climate and an instructional balance between providing positive behavioral supports and social emotional learning that students’ mental health will be developed.