When Yvonne Ford started teaching at P.S. 133, a public elementary school in Brooklyn, her classroom wasn’t an easy place to learn. Students with behavior problems struggled to remain on task. Teasing and name-calling were common. Many students came to school angry and anxious. Ford wasn’t satisfied with how students treated each other or her. “I knew I needed to build a positive community in my classroom,” she recounts, but she didn’t know how. “The things they have to deal with on a daily basis are not things I had to deal with as a child,” Ford says of the students at P.S. 133, about 80 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced price lunch and some of whom live in shelters or foster homes. She worried that she would say or do something that made students’ problems worse.
Ford’s challenges are not uncommon. Rates of problem behaviors and emotional issues among students are high. Over 3 million elementary and secondary school students are suspended a year. Twenty-eight percent of middle and high school students report being bullied at school. A quarter of adolescents have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
For decades, schools have tried to address such challenges with programs that teach students how to understand and express feelings, manage behavior, and solve arguments. These programs, once called character education or conflict resolution, are now often called social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, a term popularized by the Collaborative for Social Emotional and Academic Learning (CASEL), a national nonprofit organization that provides training, research, and advocacy for SEL programs and policies. Schools around the country are using SEL programs — no one knows exactly how many — sometimes to meet requirements of state anti-bullying policies. More than three-quarters of teachers believe that SEL is important for academic success, according to a survey by CASEL, and the U.S. Department of Education recommended SEL in recent guidelines for improving school climate and discipline.