“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we... teach? …punish?”
Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we
do the others?
Tom Herner, 1998.
Like many of you, I have just gotten home after a very tiring but rewarding day at school. I find myself reflecting on the many issues that we face each day that most of us never thought about or were taught about in our preparation as educators. In my 21 years as a School Counselor in Hanover County, I have had the opportunity to support our students in a wide range of issues affecting their education. Like you, I see students coming to school with heavy emotional burdens that affect their academic, emotional and behavioral progress. As you well know, these students can also impact the learning of others and limit our ability to do what we love - teach. Therefore, I believe that the need for social and emotional learning is one of today’s major education issues.
An estimated half of all U.S children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence or other difficult household circumstances; and many of those of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event. After working in all areas of Hanover County during my many years, I can assure you that trauma impacts our students in each and every one of our corridors, and its impact seems to be increasing. Because of the effects of trauma, we simply cannot assume that our students are coming to school with the skills necessary to be able to listen, attend, regulate their emotions and problem solve. In fact, many of them are coming with a set of survival skills that are necessary in their home environments but certainly not conducive to school success.
Furthermore, our children are also facing other types of stressors that nonetheless have the same effect as the traumatic experiences listed above. A child who is traumatized by the stress of perfection due to high expectations and responsibility or one who is a crumbling under the pressures of peers and social media can look very similar to a child who is traumatized by a fear of going home to an abusive situation. Therefore, our primary goal is not necessarily to identify children of trauma (unless they are currently living in an unsafe situation) but to instead teach all children the skills necessary to develop social and emotional competence to deal with these stressors. These skills contribute greatly to children’s resilience regardless of their experiences.
I think that many of us are also beginning to understand that traditional discipline - suspensions and random consequences - don’t seem to be successful with many of our students. We have to do something different if we want to reach and teach our students. Ross Green, in his book Lost At School explains that kids do well when they can. Most kids know what we want them to do and they truly want to do it. If they aren’t, it is often because we are asking them to do something beyond their abilities - beyond what they know how to do. While I understand that some days this can certainly be difficult to believe, we have to remember that these children are very adept at building walls that are seemingly impossible to break down to keep untrusted adults at bay, lest they learn the truth. The truth is that many times our students simply “don’t know how”. Therefore, developing a relationship through which we can begin to understand why a child is challenging is the first and most important step in helping him or her. THEN WE TEACH. As educators we teach - we teach reading, we teach math, we teach science and history, we teach art, music, and physical health, we even teach driving; and, yes, we must teach behavior and social emotional skills as well. We are responsible for teaching the whole child so why would we teach all of these other things and not teach emotional health when it is essential to the well being and success of our students?
Social and emotional learning enables children to apply the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy to others, set and achieve goals, and develop and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. When children can consistently use these skills within the classroom they are better able to access the educational opportunities that we provide for them. This increases their resilience and likelihood for success moving into adulthood. It has been said that social emotional learning is not something extra to be added to a student’s plate - it is the plate. It is the foundation on which all other learning can take place and it ultimately makes our job as educators easier.
However, successful implementation of a social emotional learning curriculum requires changing the mindset of all educators with regards to its importance to academic success. When school division leaders support this shift in mindset, it increases the opportunities for individual schools to develop this facet of learning. Schools can then have access to the teacher training, support, and professional development necessary to integrate social and emotional skills into their school-wide curricula. Division support also enables us to develop purposeful partnerships within our community to help support the social and emotional needs of our students. This may include partnerships with mental health agencies to provide therapeutic interventions within the school setting, collaboration with other community organizations to support a family’s basic needs or to provide student mentors, and opportunities for both support for and engagement with families. Schools are but one piece of the puzzle in meeting the social and emotional needs of our students, and community outreach and support is essential.
As a society we can no longer assume that children come to school with the social and emotional skills necessary for success, but the good news is that these skills can be taught through direct instruction, modeling and practice. Furthermore, school division support and meaningful community partnerships can provide the wrap around services necessary to meet the diverse needs of our students. I believe it is a great privilege and responsibility to be a part of an educational environment that can help create caring, empathetic and emotionally intelligent people who will be empowered to achieve career and interpersonal success. We will also be able to finally say “If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we teach.”
Paula Drumheller has been spent her entire career as school counselor in Hanover County for 21 years. Her first position was at Elmont Elementary and she has worked in several elementary schools as both a part-time and full-time school counselor. She currently works at Henry Clay Elementary with an incredible staff from whom she learns everyday and with children that she loves. When Paula is not working she enjoys spending time with her friends and family - her husband, Davis, and her two children Caroline and Kate. Caroline is currently Freshman at Virginia Tech and her daughter, Kate is a Sophomore at Hanover High School. She enjoys reading and going out to dinner with friends.