Social-Emotional Learning Strategies to Improve Student Behavior


teacher classroom management blog


Better Solve Behavior Problems with

Strategies for Students’
Social and Emotional Learning



teacher classroom management helpIf you’re a teacher and you’re not using social-emotional learning strategies all day long in your classroom, you may be able to really ramp up your academic results if you begin to incorporate that type of methods when working with students who present behavior problems.

Sometimes some students’ behavior can seem incomprehensible. Some students can seem to almost randomly act out with a cycle or pattern of the students being acceptably behaved for a long time, then poorly behaved for no obvious reason. Misbehavior that appears to be random, usually has causes that a teacher may not be able to readily see or even know about. Often, the student has problems at home, in the community, with their family, their mental health, substance abuse, or their functioning that are not readily discernible– even to the adult who may spend the most time with them during the week. But, if you could see into your students’ homes and lives outside of school, you would have all the answers you need to understand what is going on to prompt the problem behavior.

In this issue, we’ll take you behind the scenes as best we can, then load you up with both preventative and intervention strategies. This article is in keeping with the recent national attention being given to social and emotional learning, as well as the use of trauma-informed interventions in schools and classrooms. Here, we’re going to focus on students’ social and emotional problems, as well as the trauma that some youngsters have to cope with. Since most educators get very little mental health training to cope with the serious social and emotional problems today’s students present, this article will hopefully be exactly the help you better identify, understand and manage students’ social and emotional problems.

Hello from Youth Change Workshops’ Director Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I’m a mental health professional and I am going to be giving you some key mental health strategies to help you better manage your students’ social and emotional problems. Student social and emotional problems seem to be on the rise right now, so this article is well-timed to help you best help your students.


social emotional learning methodsStrategies for
Students’ Social and Emotional Problems

Here are some classic behavioral concerns that teachers often encounter with students– and the underlying truth about the powerful social and emotional causes that can be the cause of the evident behavior problem. After reviewing these scenarios, my hope is that you will stay mindful that today’s teachers have to always be stopping to look for the social and emotional causes of students’ behavior problems. It may be futile or quite difficult to try to resolve many common, everyday student behavioral problems without addressing the social and emotional issues that cause and sustain the behavioral concerns. Conventional training for teachers does not necessarily include thoroughly preparing educators to spot and manage students’ social and emotional issues, further complicating the situation.


“They’re Not Doing What They’re Supposed to Do”

It is really easy for an overworked teacher to focus on the obvious, things like missing school supplies, tardiness or disinterest. It is also really easy for teachers to come to view some students as just “not doing what they’re supposed to do.” The truth is that sometimes this type of ordinary, everyday problems– like having no pencil– are sometimes the manifestation of an overarching, larger issue that is having serious deleterious impact on a student’s functioning in the classroom and school. What teacher hasn’t chided a student for having no pencil? We’ve all done that countless times. Yet when a student’s social and emotional circumstances are not given sufficient heed, that ordinary intervention of chiding a child for having no pencil can create new problems in the student.

In the example below, the student sounds like he is becoming more angry, discouraged, frustrated and sad. The poem reproduced below, will take you behind the scenes and become a reminder for you that sometimes the real problem isn’t the missing pencil. Sometimes the real problem is what happened at home before the student even left for school. As you read this short poem, notice how focusing on the pencil will never help this student.

Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil

by Joshua T. Dickerson

I woke myself up

Because we ain’t got an alarm clock

Dug in the dirty clothes basket,

Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform

Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,

Cause the lights ain’t on

Even got my baby sister ready,

Cause my mama wasn’t home.

Got us both to school on time,

To eat us a good breakfast.

Then when I got to class the teacher fussed

Cause I ain’t got no pencil


“They’re Too Distracted”

It’s true that the typical classroom includes many distracted students. But for many of these youngsters, the biggest problem isn’t their difficulty focusing. For many of these students, the bigger problem is likely to be something that the teacher can’t readily see or be aware of. In one of the schools near our office, there was a 10 year-old who kept complaining of a stomach ache nearly every day just around noon, and he would ask to go home. Understandably, the teacher was concerned about the daily distraction from academics and school. The teacher tried all the conventional strategies to address the somatic complaint:  Sometimes she would send him to the school nurse, sometimes she told him to just put his head down, other times she asked if he had eaten. Eventually, she sent him to the school guidance counselor who tried more of the same type of interventions, all focusing on the distraction of the tummy ache. After conventional interventions that focused on the distraction had all repeatedly failed, the counselor began to ask the boy if something was wrong, if something was troubling him. After a few times of being asked, eventually the boy did reply: “Yes, there is something wrong. There is something terribly wrong. My family is being evicted and I’m scared that if I don’t get home right away, that by the time I get there, the sheriff will come and my family will leave town without me and I’ll end up being an orphan.”

The interventions that focused on the apparent problem could never had engendered any improvement. By switching to an intervention that focused on possible social and emotional issues, the problem could be readily solved. The counselor had the parents explain to their offspring that they would never leave town without him, and the stomach aches stopped permanently. When you look past the apparent presenting problem to consider any possible social and emotional factors, often you can solve the original problem faster and far more effectively. This story is the perfect reminder to stop focusing on just the pencil or tummy ache, and start focusing on the unknown social and emotional concerns that may be the much bigger force behind a students in-school and classroom behavior.

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social emotional learning“They’re Lazy”

It’s easy to begin to see some underperforming students as lazy. Certainly, based on their work completion and quality, these students can appear to simply be uninterested and unwilling to put in the requisite effort needed to succeed in the classroom and school. A teacher came up to me at one of the workshops I was teaching and looking a bit embarrassed, she told me about one of her students, a girl who had begun to do very little work in school. The teacher had been really “on her case”– to use the teacher’s words– to do more of her school work and homework. Then the teacher headed into the teachers’ lounge and while there, she overheard the school guidance counselor talking. The guidance counselor was letting the school faculty know that the reason the girl had been doing so little in school was that the girl’s father hadn’t come home in a month and his absence was causing the family to be swamped with fear and grief. After hearing that, the teacher said “If I’d only known what the student was going through, of course I wouldn’t have added to her misery.” Make this teacher’s confession your guide to always taking the time to check in with struggling students to see if there are any significant social or emotional problems that could be interfering with their performance in your classroom.

“They’re Slow Learners”

It’s hard to imagine the scary, sad or lonely home life that some students face. For some students, their neighborhoods and communities are the setting for a brutal childhood that most of us can’t even begin to conceptualize. Especially if you were blessed to grow up in a home and community that were safe and nurturing, it can be tough to picture and remain sensitive to the grueling circumstances that some of today’s children and teens face.

The reality of our contemporary time is that the teacher may be the only sane, safe, sober adult in some students’ universe. That grossly magnifies the impact of the teacher’s behavior on these emotionally fragile students. When a teacher is not addressing potential social and emotional factors when selecting interventions, that delicate bond between the student and teacher can be quickly damaged. Conversely, when a teacher does factor social and emotional issues into the choice of intervention strategies, the bond between student and teacher can become really strong. That strong bond can create an environment where even traumatized, emotionally disturbed and troubled students attempt to work as hard as they can on days they are able– and that is the perfect goal for working with deeply impaired students.

You must strike a balance between the horrors that a child is living with, and your mission to provide education. The world still requires everyone to have adequate skills and education in order to function, with no exceptions given for people who had rough childhoods. So, by balancing the child’s pain with their need for a complete education, you are being sensitive to difficult circumstances that the child is facing, but you never abandon your mission to educate them. If you prioritize education over their suffering, you tend to lose ground with the child. If you prioritize their suffering over education, you tend to produce a child with limited education and skills. By attending to both priorities, you are still giving this troubled child an education, but without adding to the child’s already heavy load. The excerpt below will cement in this point so you can stay mindful of it in your classroom. The passage is taken from John Seryak’s book, “Dear Teacher.”

Gestures that some teachers make and may consider routine, might be the rays of hope a traumatized child sees shining through the bleakness.  I can’t multiply or divide without a calculator, but more  important, I know how to add and subtract because of a 1st grade teacher who gave me little plastic cars to count as I stood with my classmates who knew the answers off the tops of their heads.  A teacher offered me tools that giving up was not the solution.  Making adjustments and discovering the choices available was the lesson I was guided towards understanding.  Teachers may be lifelines for children in crisis.  All that I had left was school, my saving grace:  I want you to know about me, the traumatized child, who, somehow, survived…I’m not certain that the nature of trauma a child experiences is hidden.  I think, more often, it’s overlooked.


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About Ruth Herman Wells

Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. In 2011, Ruth was rated as a Top 10 U.S. K-12 educational and motivational speaker by Speakerwiki and Speakermix. She is the author of several book series, a columnist, adjunct professor for two universities, and a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Ruth's dozens of books includes Temper and Tantrum Tamers and Turn On the Turned-Off Student.