Three Ways District Leaders Can Improve Social, Emotional & Behavioral Supports

4-minute read

Superintendents and district leaders should do these three things this school year to improve supports for students with social-emotional needs and challenging behaviors.


In conversation after conversation with school and district leaders, improving and expanding social, emotional, and behavioral supports for students is at the top of this school year's to-do list.

This is both surprising and yet not surprising. The surprising part is that this focus seems to have heightened urgency, even though nearly every school in the country has made major efforts in this area over the last five years. Despite much past effort, the need and desire to improve and expand social-emotional learning and to better address behavioral challenges has grown, not diminished.

The not-surprising part stems from the many hundreds of conversations with teachers who, despite their district's sincere efforts to address the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students, tell us that much more is needed. It seems the challenges in the classroom are still pushing teachers to their limits, and more (or different) efforts are required.

As superintendents and district leaders continue to focus on improving supports, these three actions can make a big impact this school year and beyond.

  1. Measure effectiveness. Know what is working and what needs to be tweaked.
  2. Before starting a new effort, program or initiative, put in place a system to assess the success of past efforts. In some cases, this means getting candid feedback from students. Are advisory periods making kids feel more connected to an adult in their school? Did that relationship-building series of professional development workshops increase the connection and trust between students and teachers? Just ask the kids; they will tell you. One warning: be sure to collect baseline data and segment the results by race, gender, and other key variables.

    Another impactful measure is where an effort is working and where it is not. Sometimes, a great effort shines in one school but not in others or in one classroom but not another. For example, one school felt that their new approach to preventing behavioral outbursts had failed to gain traction when, in fact, just a few teachers accounted for 60% of office referrals, and recess accounted for most of the rest. Much success was had elsewhere in the school. There was no need to abandon or add a new program but rather focus on a few remaining challenges.

  3. Don't conflate social-emotional learning competencies with behavior challenges.
  4. While social-emotional learning competencies like grit and empathy are critical components of developing a complete child, it is important not to conflate these with addressing behavior challenges. Both are equally important, and they overlap as well, but for many teachers, getting help addressing classroom outbursts and extreme behaviors is priority number one. Teacher stress over the growing intensity of problematic behaviors is forcing too many out of the profession.

    Their frustration grows to anger when social-emotional efforts are launched without clarity of focus. Social-emotional learning is a wide brush covering many topics. Too often, front-line staff assume these efforts will address problematic Tier 3 behaviors when that wasn't the primary focus at all.

  5. Embrace partnerships. It's a big job. Fortunately, community partners can help.
  6. With a concerted effort, districts can augment their social-emotional support staff with highly skilled practitioners from local agencies. Best of all, these highly skilled professionals can often be free or low-cost to the district. Community-based mental health counselors, substance abuse specialists, therapists, and social workers can partner with your schools. These talented folks work for clinics, nonprofits, universities, hospitals, or private practice. They may be funded by donations, state and town government, or insurance, thus greatly offsetting the cost.

    The key is to make the schools a great place to partner, and this often takes a dedicated full- or part-time director to recruit, manage, and problem-solve with community partners. A small investment can yield a great deal of added services.

Improving social, emotional, and behavioral supports for students is an extremely challenging task of enormous proportions. While much work remains, the above three actions can help you make an immediate positive impact for students this school year while also positioning your district for future success.


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