10 Best Practices for Improving and Expanding Social, Emotional & Behavioral Supports

8-minute read

Superintendents and district leaders can better meet the growing needs of students despite tight budgets by implementing these best practices.


All schools—urban, suburban, and rural; large and small; and regardless of socioeconomics— have students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, and in many districts, such needs are growing. But in some of these schools and districts, students receive the counseling they need, classroom routines promote positive behavior, and most strikingly, students with problematic behavior are able to stay in class and seldom disrupt their peers.

What is the difference between these schools and typical schools? The difference isn’t in the amount they spend, the programs they bought, or the dedication of their staff. The people, tools, and talents themselves aren’t all that different, but the way in which these people work and deliver intervention is different. The more effective districts have created a coherent, collaborative plan grounded in a systems-thinking approach and incorporating best practices.

DMGroup has been researching how to improve and expand social, emotional, and behavioral supports for students. We have reviewed published literature, including academic studies, the What Works Clearinghouse, and the writings of experts like Ross Greene, Jessica Minahan, and Nancy Rappaport. In the course of our work in over a hundred districts across the country, we have solicited input through interviews and focus groups from roughly 10,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, and parents. We reviewed the schedules of more than 35,000 special education and other intervention staff members. We have heard the frustrations involved in trying to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students, but perhaps most importantly, we have heard from and witnessed firsthand schools and principals that are successfully meeting these challenges.

Based on this research, we have identified ten best practices to support schools and districts in improving and expanding social, emotional, and behavioral supports for students. 


More effectively draw upon the talent, expertise, and time of current staff

As the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students have increased, districts have responded by adding staff such as behavior specialists, school psychologists, social workers, and paraprofessionals. Despite these increases, most principals feel that even more staff are needed, but tight budgets often make these requests go unanswered.

Before adding additional staff, schools and districts can first take steps to ensure that special education teachers, psychologists, social workers, behaviorists, counselors, and others are able to effectively use their talents and time to do the most good for the most children. In interviews across the country, staff have shared with us their frustrations: meetings and paperwork take time away from being with students, roles are sometimes not assigned to play to staff’s strengths, and there is seldom time to meet and plan as a team, which undermines the effectiveness of their separate efforts.

These four best practices can help schools and districts do more and better for students without adding staff and without further burdening already hard-working staff by making the most of the existing staff’s time and talents.

  1. Streamline meetings and paperwork to increase time staff can spend with students.
  2. Process mapping, reviewing who attends which meetings, and setting guidelines for desired time with students can often significantly increase the services provided to students by current staff.

  3. Allow staff to play to their strengths; assign roles based on strengths, not titles.
  4. Identify the staff’s unique skills and match job responsibilities to these areas of expertise. For example, some psychologists may have expertise in behavior management while others may have expertise in assessment and case management.

  5. Facilitate teamwork with common planning time.
  6. A wide array of people in a variety of roles are often involved in supporting the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students. Allow them to come together weekly to review student progress and adjust support strategies.

  7. Support classroom teachers with in-the-classroom support from staff skilled in behavior management.
  8. In-the-moment coaching, in-the-classroom observations, and specific recommendations from behavior specialists can help classroom teachers meet the needs of their students.


Focus on prevention, not after-the-fact reaction

Best practices 5 through 8 can have an even more profound impact on meeting the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students. These ideas are so powerful because they shift the focus from dealing with behavioral outbursts to preventing problems before they occur. Too often, behavior management plans focus on what to do during a problematic event (calming by a paraprofessional, removal from the room, and so on) or what to do afterward (such as consideration of more restrictive placement, meeting with parents, or discipline). The What Works Clearinghouse and other research show how schools can prevent student outbursts in the first place.

  1. Focus on prevention by identifying and managing behavioral triggers.
  2. Process mapping, reviewing who attends which meetings, and setting guidelines for desired time with students can often significantly increase the services provided to students by current staff.

  3. Increase access to staff with expertise in behavior management.
  4. To effectively focus on prevention, schools need access to experts trained in identifying and reducing behavioral triggers. Given tight budgets, seek to hire staff with expertise in behavior management when doing replacement hiring and/or seek to build a centralized behavior team that can provide support across many schools.

  5. Align discipline policies to support a commitment to prevention.
  6. It is important that the discipline code has the flexibility to support a focus on prevention, that loss of learning time is minimized, that suspensions are avoided for nonviolent infractions, and that unconscious bias is mitigated.

  7. Build trust with students.
  8. While all teachers care deeply about their students, not all students feel that their teachers care about them. Creating advisory periods and the like isn't always sufficient. Developing systematic ways for teachers to get to know their students, such as small group lunches, creating advisory groups based on similar hobbies rather than homeroom, and modifying class assignments to shed light on a student's life, can help.


Seek and support outside partnerships

Better meeting the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students is hard work and requires highly skilled and specialized staff, but many districts cannot fully fund or even access enough people with the required training and expertise. Even districts with a sizable cadre of social workers, counselors, school psychologists, and special education staff often report that more of these staff are needed to meet the ever-growing needs of students. 

Fortunately, schools needn’t go it alone but can augment their in-house efforts by strategically collaborating with outside partners to expand and enhance services.

  1. Seek local partnerships.
  2. Often, local mental health agencies, nearby nonprofit counseling services, universities, and sometimes even for-profit practitioners can provide social and emotional services at little or no out-of-pocket costs to students or the district.

  3. Actively support local partnerships.
  4. Local partners can provide much-needed services, so it is worth making an investment in managing and facilitating these relationships to ensure their success.

Better meet the growing needs of your students

With social, emotional, and behavioral issues posing a growing challenge for school districts, and with budgets tight for the foreseeable future, schools and districts will need a new and comprehensive approach to meet the needs of their students. This work will need leadership from the top, systems thinking, support for teachers and principals, and perseverance. Using these 10 best practices, schools and districts can more effectively and comprehensively create a system to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students.


Want more strategies for effectively improving social-emotional learning and addressing behavioral challenges? Check out these resources: