For school children, every social interaction is a learning experience. Civil Eats

The tragic 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School changed our lives and our consciousness in innumerable ways. In the months that followed, much was said about the need for tougher gun control measures and for systemic changes in how we view those with mental illness and meet their needs.

Michael P. Alfano

Stricter gun measures were passed in Connecticut, but little changed nationally. One would think the mass murder of innocent children and their teachers would stimulate ongoing, passionate discussion about dealing with societal, emotional and behavioral health challenges, but that bar remains tragically low as well.

Since that day in Newtown, there have been many more school shootings across the country. With the ongoing failure of Congress to take meaningful steps to protect our children, the mantle of opportunity for longer-lasting change has passed to the educational and behavioral health communities.

In 2015, three members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation championed legislation to include teacher and principal training addressing the social and emotional learning needs of students. These were included among activities funded under the federal Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting Fund program. Training includes classroom instruction and school-wide initiatives that help students acquire the knowledge, attitudes and skills most conducive to social and emotional competency. Called the Jesse Lewis Empowering Educators Act, it was named after one of the young Sandy Hook victims.

This legislation acknowledged that our schools are under-prepared to deal with the underlying social and emotional learning needs of students. Social Emotional Learning is how children (and adults) learn to understand and manage their emotions. The SEL learning process includes setting and achieving positive goals, showing empathy for others, building positive social relationships and making responsible decisions. It is the bedrock upon which one’s ability to survive and flourish in society is based.

Every social interaction is a learning experience. We can’t assume that children come to school knowing how to recognize their emotions, let alone how to work with them safely and skillfully. Without direct SEL instruction, some children will move through adolescence and into adulthood avoiding their emotions. Maladaptive behaviors, such as addiction, overworking, overeating, anger and isolation can result. A lack of healthy social and emotional skills can leave students disconnected and depressed, without the ability to develop into adults who are happy, well-adjusted and productive.

Without healthy emotional intelligence, children grow up unable to solve problems or interact effectively with peers. They struggle at school, in the workplace and in their personal relationships. When we don’t ignore our emotions and the physical responses they bring, we can heal from traumas we have experienced.

It’s critical that we move from a reactive to a proactive mindset, and address entire learning ecosystems. We never can assume that school administrators, however well-educated and well-intentioned, are completely tuned to the emotional and behavioral signs and issues inherent to their specific community. Traditional principal and superintendent preparation simply has not focused on this.

Efforts are underway at Sacred Heart University to comprehensively train the next generation of school administrators and leaders in SEL advances. Working with state educational leaders and respected academic professionals, Sacred Heart has created one of the nation’s first SEL-focused doctoral degrees. The Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership has a curricular focus on Social, Emotional and Academic Leadership. It is designed to help academic leaders in primary and secondary school systems learn to create and sustain communities of learning that value the whole child.

These skills can proactively help prevent or limit traumatic events and empower teachers, children and community members to develop healthier SEL ecosystems.  Emotionally healthy communities lead to higher academic achievement and better overall student outcomes.

Traumatic events such as school shootings, suicides and bullying are painful, gut-wrenching and potentially avoidable. Training teachers and administrators to recognize and properly deal with patterns and behavior on the social/emotional spectrum may help prevent or limit future tragedies. But as importantly, we can improve the overall health and productivity of our schools and communities.

Michael P. Alfano is dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University.

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