Hard Realities EQ Learning Could Mitigate

Photo: Nadine Heinman

An SEL Teacher and a Wounded Girl in Compton

By Nadine Heinman

There was this incredible 13-year old girl in Compton who was struggling with some real inner demons. She showed up week after week with these gentle, loving eyes that belied what she was really feeling. Then she started opening up to me, sharing her dark thoughts and inner strife. She would tell me about her family issues and the images that haunted her. She told me that she cut herself and showed me all the scars. She would cry and tell me how scared she was. I could see that she was suffering deeply.

Thank heavens for her courage. She kept braving the world she didn’t want to be in. She kept seeking something else and showing up. The volunteers and I would make art with her. We listened and loved her unconditionally. We meditated with her and discussed the important things that bring about our true inner power. We became friends and grew together. She grew in patience, vulnerability, trust, self-love and empathy. She grew through self-expression and creativity. Now, she continues on her path towards compassion and resiliency. Forever growing.

“Before I used to come here,” she told me. “I used to do a lot of drugs. I used to drink and I used to be suicidal. But then when I came to this program everything in me changed and actually became real for the first time. Now I have a family to be thankful for because they helped me. They saved me from a world very dark. And I love them, with everything in me.”

Nadine Heiman is the founder and executive director of True=Connection, a Los Angeles County-based specialty and after-school SEL program that has recently been expanded to full-curricula status.

As already noted, 65% (the average) and 80% of low-income 4th graders score “below proficient” on the NAEP reading test, indicating that they are not able to read at grade level. 

(Image from NAEP)

As schooling continues, the scores improve but remain worryingly low, with 22% of 8th-graders still not demonstrating reading proficiency.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), ranked the U.S. 27th out of 34 most developed countries in math performance and 20th in science performance based on student scores.

Fast-growing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers require both technical skills and, crucially, the ability to persevere, think creatively, and work collaboratively on teams. The demand is high for STEM professionals but the competition is steep.

By equipping children with stronger abilities to manage their own emotions and behavior, have more positive interactions with peers and adults, and by boosting school connectedness, the evidence shows that both achievement and well-being increase across all economic and racial categories.

Given that the relentless focus on student academic achievement in the U.S. has yielded poor to awful results, SEL’s holistic approach looms as the attractive alternative.

In 2012, there were 749,200 nonfatal violent student victimizations recorded by the U.S. government Center for Disease Control (CDC). A 2013 nationally representative sample of youth in grades 9-12 found that:

• 8.1% reported being in a physical fight on school property in the 12 months before the survey.

• 7.1% reported that they did not go to school on one or more days in the 30 days before the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.

• 5.2% reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on school property on one or more days in the 30

days before the survey.

• 6.9% reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times in the 12 months before the survey.

•8% reported being bullied electronically in the 12 months before the survey.

• Among students 12 to 18 years of age, approximately 9% of teachers report that they have been threatened with injury by a student from their school.

•5% of teachers reported that they had been physically attacked by a student from their school.

•In 2011, 18% of students ages 12–18 reported that gangs were present at their school during the school year.

Concluded the CDC: “Not all injuries are visible. Exposure to youth violence and school violence can lead to a wide array of negative health behaviors and outcomes, including alcohol and drug use and suicide. Depression, anxiety, and many other psychological problems, including fear, can result from school violence.” 

Other studies have linked chronic disease and other physical ills to school violence.

When implemented with fidelity, SEL programs have had notable success in reducing violent behavior and bullying in schools. The reduction in violence is attributed to the increased focus SEL programs, practices and policies bring on building student empathy and self-management skills while often galvanizing “bystanders” to report acts of bullying or violence. 

Although the last few years have seen a small decline in drug use among school students nationally, the change is not uniform and by any outside measure drug usage remains a major issue with American youths and schools.

Alcohol and the use of marijuana, which damages teenage and pre-teen cognitive functions on a permanent basis, according to recent research, is especially prevalent. Among senior high school students 58.2% said they drank and 34.9% said they used marijuana during the school year, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Disease Control.

Studies show that early years prevention efforts using SEL programs can have a dramatic effect on reducing later drug use.

SEL-learned skills such as stress-management, responsible decision-making, resisting peer pressure and increasing help-seeking behavior, directly build the capacities needed to avoid drug use.

Summing up the research, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an agency of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, put it this way:

“Prevention programs for elementary school children should target improving academic and social-emotional learning to address risk factors for drug abuse, such as early aggression, academic failure, and school dropout. Education should focus on the following skills:

  • self-control;
  • emotional awareness;
  • communication;
  • social problem-solving; and
  • academic support, especially in reading.”

Even when experienced in later school years, NIDA reports, the positive effects remain strong in inhibiting non-users and in reducing the frequency and amount among those who use drugs.

One reason NIDA cites: Drugs compensate for negative emotional feelings. Hence when those feelings are otherwise managed and dissipated through healthy SEL skills and interactions with others, the appeal of getting high diminishes.

Notably, stress is a major risk factor linked with drug use. Studies reported by The National Center for Biotechnology Information have found that lower levels of stress have been found to correlate with a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ). In fact, students who scored high on an EQ test were found to be better prepared to handle and recover from stress.

By upping their EQ via SEL, students were found to lower their susceptible risk to stress, predicative of lower levels of  drug abuse.

Or as researcher Ken Russell Coelho, in a study for the Psychology Dept. of University of California/Berkely, wrote:

“Emotional Intelligence is not only an indicator of alcohol and other drug abuse, but is linked to emotional competence, social and emotional learning, the development of healthy and life-promoting behavior, and has been proven to reduce some of the risk factors associated with alcohol and other drug abuse in adolescents and adults.

“Having a high degree of EI is associated with healthy life promoting behaviors which make it a great skill to adopt.”

As of 2015, suicide was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for youths ages 10- 14, and the second leading cause of death for ages 15-34, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Multiple youth suicides are continuously being reported. One in every 10 high school students reports having attempted suicide.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “there is no single cause of suicide. It most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.”

Enter Social and Emotional Learning.

Increased mental health, a core factor in averting suicide, has been found to be associated with early exposure to SEL

According to a 2005 survey replicating the National Comorbidity Survey, more than half of all diagnosable mental illnesses begin prior to the age of 14, indicating that early intervention focusing on “protective factors” – skills and coping abilities that become strengths or assets that help young people to maintain mental well-being and be resilient – are beneficial to overall mental health.

Research shows that SEL increases and strengthens protective factors that work specifically towards the prevention of suicide  – and do so over the long term. (Alperstein & Raman, 2003; SPRC, 2012; Wyman, 2014).

The Office of the Surgeon General, which has confirmed that such learning generally has a lifetime positive effect, has encouraged schools, in its words, to implement “policies to prevent abuse, bullying, violence, and social exclusion, build social connectedness, and promote positive mental and emotional health.”

Not surprisingly, the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, published in 2012 by the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, calls for “increased knowledge of the types of interventions that may be most effective for suicide prevention, and an increased recognition of the importance of implementing suicide prevention efforts in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”

Many SEL-oiriented educators aim to achieve this by focusing curricula and activities on strengthening the self-regulation of emotions and behavior in children. According to the Nevada Institute for Children’s Research & Policy, fostering “connectedess and teaching coping and problem solving skills are among the most effective means to reduce suicide attempts.” 

Massachusetts has moved strongly in this direction, including with SEL programs. (See Resources below.)

In fact, across the country, school districts are providing more mental health awareness and suicide prevention training for teachers and school personnel. Some are mandated or encouraged to do so by state law; others are motivated by recent incidents.

Increasingly, however, communities are recognizing that children and youths need to learn about mental health as well. The blessing of SEL as a core element of such teaching is that it demonstrably reduces risk factors and increases protection factors not only for suicide but for violence, bullying, substance abuse and negative health outcomes – themselves contributing factors to suicide.

Ccertain populations of children are more likely to be vulnerable to negative health outcomes such as bullying and suicide than others.

According to The Center for Disease Control, the National Institute for Mental Health, and a number of other research institutions, these include kids who are overweight or obese, those on the autism spectrum, kids who identify or are identified as a sexual minority, those experiencing family disruptions, those who are disadvantaged or in poverty, kids in the juvenile justice system, and those diagnosed with mental illness, conduct disorders, or ADHD

Victims and perpetrators of bullying are also at a significant risk for suicide. While bullying doesn’t directly cause suicide, it does set the stage for suicide among children who are already vulnerable.

Recommendations by these same institutions almost always note that “attack” provoking factors are greatly mitigated in schools that integrate strong SEL programs in which children learn empathetic communication skills and emotional restraint and management.

Bolstering this reality is the fact that programs that provide training for teachers, school staff (and sometimes parents) in SEL skills help to create a safer and healthier overall school environment that can influence family and community environments, reinforcing school-learned skills for youth and adolescents.

It is time to make SEL a national priority.

Some Resources

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts places a high value on suicide prevention, with dedicated line-item funding in the state budget for the Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program. Some of the skill-building and suicide prevention programs in Massachusetts schools are:

  • The PAX Good Behavior Game, which has been introduced by schools in collaboration with the DPH, teaches students self-regulation, self-control, and self-management in order to create an environment that is conducive to learning. (Ages 6-12)
  • The Open Circle program, which strengthens students’ social and emotional learning skills to increase pro-social behaviors and reduce problem behaviors, is utilized by many school districts. (Grades K-5)
  • Whyville utilizes problem-solving and other skills to help kids learn about their emotions in an online computer game. (Teens and pre-teens)
  • SOS Signs of Suicide® focuses on prevention through education by teaching students to identify symptoms of depression, suicidality, and self-injury in themselves and their peers. (Grades 8-12)
  • Break Free from Depression, developed by the Boston Children’s Hospital, focuses on increasing awareness about adolescent depression, how to recognize it, and how to get help. (High school)
  • The blog post “Suicide Among Students Prevention Guide” contains useful information and links for recognizing and responding to suicidal tendencies in yourself and those around you. 

Dozens of other programs that schools can use to promote skills development while fostering students’ mental health and their willingness to seek and accept help for mental health concerns can be found in SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center Best Practices Registry.

For high school students, the SAMHSA Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools has a comprehensive list of programs.

“It was becoming very clear that if we were to close the achievement gap in math, we would need to get the students safely to the table to do math first.”

Kirkwood Elementary School Principal