SEL: Schools & Distressed Students

Lisa Wright Author Blog
July 25, 2019

Earlier this week, the news story broke that Florida schools will require at least five hours of mental health classes per week for all students in grades 6-12 when it goes into effect, the timeline of which is not yet known. It is quite understandable why the state of Florida is moving this direction. The Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018, killed 17 and injured 17 more. This spring two more Parkland students died by suicide. Across the U.S., states and school districts continue to grapple with student mental health and school safety.

The online reaction to the Florida measure was immediate and, as with most important (and sometimes very unimportant) posts, varied and strong. The overwhelming reaction from teachers included fears about

*feeling overwhelmed with their already long list of duties as well as

*not feeling equipped, either through their educational backgrounds as teachers or emotionally, to take on this new requirement.

Some teachers voiced that they felt this was a mental health expert’s job—whether a school counselor or licensed psychologist.

An Education Week article addressing teachers and SEL—Social Emotional Learning—that also came out this week seconded teachers’ concerns but showed that many teachers agree it is part of their job to teach social-emotional learning:

*78% agreed it was part of a teacher’s job to help students develop strong social and emotional skills

*40% felt they had adequate solutions and strategies to use when students do not have strong social and emotional skills

*48% felt somewhat confident in their readiness to deal with students’ mental-health needs

*57% completely agree that teaching social and emotional skills to students will improve school safety

*29% felt that their biggest challenge in supporting students’ social and emotional development was time in that their (required) focus on academic content left too little time to support kids’ social and emotional development.

As a high school counselor, I work with students, parents, and fellow educators daily to address mental health needs of my students, but also of others in their families. When a student needs mental health intervention that is beyond the scope of a school counselor, school counselors work to connect kids and families with appropriate resources, services, and help. I was a longtime teacher and am now a school counselor. I support SEL initiatives in that we must, as educators, meet kids where they are, and many of our kids are struggling. Many need mental health intervention, ranging from mild to very serious, requiring hospitalization. The research supports it, and educators can verify it as they live it every day. This blog post, however, isn’t about debating whether or not we “need” SEL initiatives.

When we combine the ever-increasing needs of students—emotionally and academically (documented by data and not just personal opinion)—with the trickle-down effect of adding “one more thing” to educators’ proverbial plates that are already overflowing with educational mandates and too often large class sizes and/or caseloads, every initiative, no matter how important, stretches already loaded-down schools—teachers, counselors, administrators, school security officers—even more. As educators scramble to “do it all,” we must take a realistic look at what is behind the increasing numbers of kids who need elevated levels of mental health intervention, and we must look for accountability and help outside the school.

Educators want to help kids, and they knock themselves out trying to do just that, but with every additional initiative placed upon schools, educators are stretched more and more thin—an unintended negative consequence to well-intentioned initiatives. The reality is that schools are overwhelmed with student need, and teachers, counselors and administrators in all states have over-filled plates as we experience budget and staffing cuts and are tasked with doing more with less at a time when the need for school safety and intervention is at an all-time high. Teaching/working as an educator is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs, hands down. But because it involves working with humans, as a general rule it is also one of the most stressful, leaving some educators working in overwhelming situations at times with increased mental health needs themselves.

Ultimately, when it comes to truly addressing the issues that are the driving force behind SEL initiatives and increased student emotional needs, schools cannot do it alone.

And schools cannot do it all. From Pre-K through 12th grade, the age of the student is irrelevant. Schools cannot do it all, and they cannot do it alone.

As educators, we look at data when evaluating reading skills. We look at data when evaluating math skills. We use data in so many areas of education, searching for root causes and ways to proactively address them. As an example, in education we work on kids’ reading skills early, and we promote and encourage parents to read to and with their young kids because we know that will help kids’ reading skills (and other areas as well) throughout their lives. Doing so will help address the very real, very documented problem of readers who struggle in middle school and high school and, of course, after high school in the “real world.” We also know and acknowledge that struggling readers in school are often still struggling readers when they enter the workforce, and we know we are all impacted by that.

We need to also know that kids who struggle emotionally in school often still struggle emotionally when they leave school, and again, we are all impacted as a society. As the numbers of kids (future adults) who need elevated emotional intervention continues to rise, without addressing root causes as much as they can be addressed, the cycle will continue, and the numbers will continue to increase.

In July 2016 then-Dallas police chief David Brown spoke to a group of journalists, and I happened to see it live on television. His words about the expectations put upon police officers hit close to home for me as a longtime educator because in many ways they also apply to the expectations put upon schools in today’s world.

"What we're doing, what we're trying to accomplish here is above challenging. It is -- we're asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We're just asking us to do too much," Chief Brown said.

"Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve…That's too much to ask," a stressed Brown said.

"Policing was never meant to solve all of those problems," Brown said to reporters. "I just ask for other parts of our democracy, along with the free press, to help us. To help us and not put that burden all on law enforcement to resolve. So, again, I'm just being pretty honest with you. You know, I have raw feelings about all of what we do. And don't ask me if you don't want the answer."

—former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, July 2016

Over the past three decades, through a variety of ways that I cover more extensively in my book (The Age of Outrage: Strategies for Parents and Educators, schools, out of a sense of needing to do what needs to be done to help kids, have taken on more and more responsibility, and yet the numbers reflect back at us the reality that kids are still struggling, and verify that we cannot “fix” it all, not alone. This is true in school safety as well because, in its simplest form, it is all connected. Our kids’ social emotional skills are directly related to school safety—from mild disagreements to very serious acts of violence and aggression. SEL and school safety go hand-in-hand, and schools, despite their best effort, cannot go it alone.

I posted something recently on social media related to education, and one respondent said something along the lines of “Oh, sure, let’s blame the parents.” To be clear, nothing I say is ever meant to blame parents. In fact, it is just the opposite. Parents are educators’ greatest ally. I work with and advocate for parents every day and know firsthand their struggle. I see their tears and frustration as they try to help their kids. I know that even “absentee” parents—those whom we struggle to reach by phone and who seemingly “don’t care” are often overwhelmed with their own struggles and are very often doing the best they can. Others lack the expertise to know what to do and instead leave it to educators—the professionals—to educate their kids as they see fit. There are always exceptions—with parents and with educators—because, again, we are all human. No, I am not blaming parents. But I am pointing out the need for schools and parents to work together. The level of need is often too much for schools to handle alone and for educators to handle on their own.

And this is where we all need to take action.

Schools must work with parents and promote any way we can of engaging parents in the educational process, including working on and addressing social emotional skills. I know from experience that we as educators have our hands tied when it comes to working with kids without having parents on board. The success of any school initiative will be limited if parents are not on board and working alongside educators. Just as we want to work with our students’ parents on getting our kids to be better readers, we must also work with our students’ parents on getting our kids to be better able to manage their emotions at school and at home, whether that requires professional mental health intervention or just an understanding and reinforcing of a mindset that supports and fosters resilience. The key is that schools need to stop going it alone when it comes to kids’ emotions and coping skills.

And just as we research and proactively address root causes related to reading and other academic skills, we must take the same approach in looking at and addressing the root causes of the ever-increasing need for SEL interventions in school. We know that not all reasons for increased SEL interventions are under educators’ or parents’ control—childhood trauma, for example—but we must intervene and address the root causes that are under our control as educators and parents,

*whether that is the overuse of technology and the resulting emotional and cognitive impact on kids,

*or school policies and educational mandates themselves that unwittingly reinforce poor coping skills and increase student anxiety—from limited recess/play to overtesting,

*or the potential impacts of parenting styles,

*or the need for normalizing emotions for kids,

*or something else.

The research is there and continues to be there. We as educators must connect the dots and begin to address the root causes of struggles affecting the whole child, and we must do it alongside parents. Most parents are eager to help because, after all, we are working with their kids. By working together to address areas that are within our control, we can build kids better able to manage their emotions without getting derailed and in the process provide more time and mental energy for educators and mental health professionals to address the needs of students who need the most help. In taking these steps, we will also be working with parents to improve school safety for all.

Without actively working to address the root causes of kids’ increased need for mental health intervention and lack of coping skills, we are applying a much-needed and possibly temporary band-aid to get us through, but we are not always working to address the core issues. It is the root causes of our kids’ struggles that have gotten us where we are today, and without addressing the root causes at home and at school, in tandem, we risk wearing out the educational system and those on whom we rely the most for educational change—the educators themselves.


Lisa Wright is the author of The Age of Outrage: Strategies for Parents and Educators (Amazon).

Wright is a Texas public high school counselor whose career in education began almost three decades ago and includes twenty years as a middle school/junior high and high school teacher. Wright has observed the changes in students and the educational system brought about by the advent of technology and cell phones, by educational mandates designed to help kids, and by evolving parenting styles, all of which were well-intentioned but have at times resulted in unintended negative consequences.

Wright has witnessed the evolution of schools and the educational system as school shootings have happened again and again. Wright’s experience over three decades of a changing educational landscape and her research bring a unique perspective to her discussion of modern student and school issues. She addresses those issues head-on while including ways both parents and educators can help their kids/students.

Wright promotes open discussion so that educators and parents can unite to work together to make our schools and our world safer places and our kids more resilient future adults.