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Social-emotional learning: Teach students to cope with stress

North Carolina district uses assessments to identify distressed students

In the mountains of western North Carolina, administrators in Buncombe County Schools have seen a steady rise in the number of its 25,500 students who are homeless, food-insecure and involved in domestic violence.

The need for increased mental health care has led the district to adopt social-emotional learning models designed to help students at its 42 schools cope with trauma and chronic stress, says David Thompson, Buncombe’s director of student services.

“If core instruction is what’s important for kids to know to be successful in college and career, it’s important for them to know how to manage stress and problem-solve when they’re under stress,” Thompson says.

At the beginning of the school year, the district conducts assessments to identify distressed students who need to learn social-emotional skills or who require more intensive counseling. The district partners with outside organizations that can provide students with physical and mental health care in and outside school.

In the classroom, social-emotional learning means teaching students to “self-regulate”—or to calm themselves down when they feel anxious. Students are given time to reboot their brain so they can return to learning, he says. “When that stress level is going up the brain is not available to process that cognitive information that’s presented in instruction,” Thompson says. “Students cannot access new learning.”

Some teachers begin their days with a “morning meeting” to, among other things, spot students who are feeling stressed and allow them to go to a quieter part of the classroom so they can calm down using a sensory tool like a puzzle. Students may also be sent out for a walk around the school with a counselor or even referred for more intensive, regularly scheduled counseling sessions.

To help students transition between subjects, Buncombe teachers also lead students through short yoga-like breathing or movement exercises. One school even has students rate their emotional state throughout the day on a color-coded scale of 1 to 10.

“We have to recognize that many of our students bring experiences into the classroom that happen within their family lives,” Thompson says, “that inhibit their ability to get their cognition engaged and to benefit from the good instruction that’s being provided.”