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How Supporting #EducatorFirst SEL Can Help Reverse Declining Teacher Optimism

How Supporting #EducatorFirst SEL Can Help Reverse Declining Teacher Optimism

In looking at the 5th Annual Teacher Confidence Report from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) released recently, only 34 percent of teachers surveyed say they feel optimistic about the state of the profession. This is down from the 50 percent reported in 2018. At the same time, 75 percent of these teachers agree that stressors from the educational environment make it difficult for them to be at their best in the classroom. In addition, the report indicates that 96 percent of these same teachers find that students increasingly need more social and emotional support, reinforcing the message that social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential in our schools.

The report goes on to show that there are specific SEL skills that teachers want addressed: 66 percent want SEL initiatives to develop student self-discipline and self-motivation; 48 percent self-regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors; 38 percent on responsible decision-making and 34 percent on feeling and showing empathy for others. While teachers state they want more self-discipline, they also want to see SEL “reduce emotional distress and increase positive attitudes.” This final statement indicates the need to prioritize understanding of emotional self-regulation over self-motivation, which is more of an accurate reflection of how the brain learns.


What might this data really mean?  

The report results suggest that teachers are understandably overwhelmed with behavioral needs and that they want to decrease those needs. They recognize that a focus on SEL can support this goal but lack the resources or know-how to apply such strategies. When faced with a dysregulated student, a common response to the behavior is often one rooted in the idea that behavior is willful or chosen. The response may include words like “stop” or “cut it out.” Directives like these imply that a student CAN stop in that moment. It is not always true that behavior is willful, and discerning the root of the behavior helps further our understanding of its origin. When behavior is seen through the lens of choice, the concept of motivation (cognitive) is often used to create change, rather than focusing on regulation (emotional).

So how does the brain work when dysregulated?

Remember a time when you felt an emotion very strongly, like fear? Imagine being faced with something you fear (e.g., a shark in the ocean, a stranger in an alley, or an angry/aggressive student). You may be highly motivated to survive or avoid injury, but the human brain routes responses through the brain stem and limbic system before becoming rational. This means that instinct and emotions rule over motivation, which does not always lead to the most constructive response. This might trigger a freeze response when flight is needed or, in the case of an aggressive student, a fight response when we need to be nonreactive. Specifically, cortisol, produced by the stress of the event, interferes with executive function, inhibiting the ability to respond effectively. Children and adults in stressful situations can live in this state constantly, or they can be easily triggered into it, so stress management becomes an essential first step to learning. In Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, a research study by Clancy Blair is referenced where Galinsky surmises:

Children’s ability to control their emotional response to a slightly challenging situation . . . is linked to their ability to remember the rule, follow it, and inhibit their natural tendency to copy what the experimenter is doing. Thus one aspect of maintaining focus and self-control involves the ability to manage stress. (p. 37)

Attending to issues that interfere with self-regulation first using empathy (modeling awareness) actually allows children to manage their stress and reach the goal of self-discipline. In order to do this well, we need to begin by creating settings that allow all to feel safe. That happens by caring for educators first.

What is the impact of low self-regulation on teachers?

Creating school settings where everyone feels safe is a challenge. The realities of the world we live in have a profound impact on our schools. Students with low self-regulation skills can be impulsive; often, this can lead to more reactive and aggressive behavior. For others, managing their fear and anxiety is a challenge. The traumas students bring from outside such as physical and sexual abuse, hunger, violence, anxiety, and suicide affect the educators who interact with them daily.

Often schools have few resources in the way of social workers and counselors, and even when they do, those people are frequently overwhelmed. As a result, teachers are on the front line for all of this, which can lead to both direct and secondary trauma. Think of a student who enters the classroom late, without their homework. When asked for the work the student reacts angerly stating they don’t have it. When asked to take their seat, they tip a chair. That student is now asked to leave. As a teacher, you are impacted but the potential danger of that student response. It might be traumatic. Now let’s say, after class, when you talk to that student, they explain that they were locked out of the house the night before and had to sleep on the cold porch. They had no access to the resources that would have allowed them to complete their homework, among other things. The impact of learning about this situation is possible trauma for you as their teacher.

This type of trauma has numerous names: secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious trauma, and/or compassion fatigue. In order to move forward in dealing with student needs, the very real trauma and SEL needs of teachers must first be addressed. This requires administrators to lead with compassion/empathy, modeling what teachers are asked to do for students. Only then can the desire to focus on self-discipline be addressed.

In a September 26, 2018, article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the effects of secondary traumatic stress on educators are further explored:

The very acknowledgement by school leaders that teachers might be experiencing STS is a step in the right direction. Too often, teachers feel that they are working alone. For teachers experiencing STS, this can be particularly dangerous, as it can easily exacerbate feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless.

School leadership should consider ways to appreciate staff both publicly and privately—not just by recognizing great work, but also by acknowledging that the work is difficult. Schools should connect school staff who might be experiencing STS with resources and make clear that symptoms are not a sign of weakness, but an indicator that they might need support because they work in a challenging profession.

What tools and resources are available to support educators?

The adverse childhood experience scale or ACEs can be used with adults to get a better understanding of their historical trauma. Additionally, the Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL) is a tool that helps to differentiate between secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout in ourselves and staff, specifically related to the work setting.

The ProQol is a free self-measure that can be used in either a supervision relationship or a larger professional development with voluntary report out and individual follow-up. In addition to the ACEs, the ProQOL gives a baseline for the health of those serving students. From these data, administrators have the information needed to know the impact of student need on their most valuable assets, educators. This #EducatorFirst approach, combined with compassion, allows for the creation of an environment that cares for the SEL needs of all and, ideally, increases both skill sets and optimism.

Want more information about understanding how to support students who have experienced trauma? Check out this blog post on student trauma and the effects on executive functioning and SEL.

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.