Brady started shutting down as a toddler. At an age when other little boys are eager to explore their surroundings, he was reserved, even cautious about learning to walk. In and out of the hospital due to an unrelated illness, Brady continued to withdraw during the phase usually described as the “terrible twos” and increasingly expressed anxiety toward the people around him. By the time he was 3, mom Angie Maher knew something was wrong.
“I felt like as a parent, I was failing him for keeping him in a bubble and wanting to protect him,” says the Fort Worth mom of two. “But we realized we were actually doing him an injustice by keeping him sheltered.”
Maher and her husband decided to enroll Brady at Camp Fire First Texas in hopes that the organization’s child development specialists could help him better learn to navigate his surroundings and ultimately come out of his shell.
The Camp Fire program focuses on social emotional learning, a critical part of a child’s early development that sets the stage for future success in school and in life. When children don’t develop social emotional skills during their formative years—or when that development is interrupted by trauma, like Brady’s hospital stays—they may become withdrawn and fearful or, worse, act out their insecurities with tsunami-like force. In either case, children’s behavior and how they process information has a significant impact on their ability to learn.
“Their academics can be affected greatly because they don’t know how to regulate their emotions or develop positive relationships,” explains Tasha Moore, chief strategy officer for Communities in Schools of North Texas, a nonprofit that works with local schools and families to help at-risk students.
With the new school year just around the corner, teachers, parents and kids are already bracing for the intensive focus on academic performance and standardized testing—after all, the Every Student Succeeds Act (previously known as No Child Left Behind) ties federal funding for school districts to annual test scores in an effort to improve educational equity for lower-income families.
But for the past two decades, such legislative initiatives have made slow strides to close the achievement gap—and have leftmparents and teachers increasingly frustrated with the emphasis on testing in the classroom. Now schools across Dallas-Fort Worth are revisiting a more holistic approach to learning.
Social emotional learning, or SEL, helps children develop five key skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Because learning is intrinsically social and interactive, fostering the ability to collaborate with teachers and peers and manage emotions in the face of challenges ensures that kids are able to fully engage in the classroom. In fact, research indicates that social emotional learning has a far greater impact on a child’s future success than academics alone.
Setting kids up for success in school actually happens before schooling begins. A child’s brain reaches 80 percent of its adult volume by age 3, and the events that transpire during those first years—especially interactions with adults—have a long-term impact on the child’s cognitive, emotional and social abilities.
Social emotional learning leverages this early stage of growth to develop critical skills, like emotional regulation, and to promote attachment, the emotional bond between child and caregivers.
The process of social emotional development can be interrupted by repeated or unresolved trauma—whether from abuse, neglect, poverty, divorce or other circumstance—causing a child’s still-growing brain to essentially misfire. The result is what mental health experts call “emotional dysregulation,” which can manifest in aggressive behavior as the child externalizes his or her pain (think angry outbursts, throwing objects or threats of self-harm), or internalizes the hurt (often indicated by lack of eye contact, refusing to speak, rocking or extreme anxiety).
“If your brain is always on high alert—you’re waiting for somebody to yell at you or you’re left alone and nobody is paying attention to you—your brain is firing in the areas of fight, flight or freeze,” explains Pam Rinn, program director for professional growth at Camp Fire First Texas. “They’re not firing in that frontal lobe, which is your problem-solving lobe, where you do your planning and imagining.”
Instead, all activity is focused on the midbrain, or amygdala, and the child goes into survival mode. The simplest interactions trigger a crisis response, and learning simply can’t happen. Only when the child feels safe and has a strong sense of self can other learning take place.
“Social emotional health precedes academic success,” explains Michelle Kinder, executive director of the Momentous Institute, a Dallas-based nonprofit focused on building social emotional health through its preschool program and therapeutic services.
Although kids from low-income families are disproportionately affected by adverse experiences in early childhood, affluent kids are also at risk of emotional dysregulation, but for different reasons. Kinder explains it could be an overcrowded schedule and heavy expectations, not to mention the trauma caused by divorce or dysfunctional family dynamics. Without a safe outlet for those emotions, the feelings are repressed and ultimately expressed through actions rather than words.
Identifying the Root
In some cases, emotional dysregulation can be related to an underlying cognitive condition. Amanda Wright’s son Carson (not his real name), who will soon turn 7, began to have frequent meltdowns and demonstrate poor impulse control when he was a toddler. On the advice of a mental health professional and because Carson was an August baby, she and her husband chose not to enroll him in kindergarten until he was 6.
“It was a disaster,” recalls the Lewisville mom, who received a call from the school principal only two weeks into the fall semester.
After a comprehensive evaluation of Carson’s abilities, the school concluded that Carson had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a diagnosis confirmed by his psychiatrist—which was hindering his ability to learn in a general education setting.
They placed her son in a behavior intervention class that uses typical SEL strategies. Kids are taught tools like counting when they feel themselves getting upset, and they engage in role-playing and small-group activities to learn cooperation. If things start to go awry, the teacher will step in and talk about other ways to handle the situation.
“The ability to regulate your nervous system and manage your inner world … only happens if children have the experience of mutual regulation,” Kinder says. “If I have a safe adult who is helping me learn to calm down, the next step is that I learn to calm myself down.”
Although the home ideally is the child’s first experience of that safe relationship, any positive interaction with a trusted adult—like a teacher—who models calming behaviors can help kids develop the wherewithal to manage their own emotions.
For Carson, the more structured setting and supportive environment of his new classroom yielded an immediate turnaround in his behavior. Wright says her son’s meltdowns have essentially stopped both in class and at home.
The results are more than anecdotal: A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based SEL programs showed that social emotional learning boosts academic achievement by 11 percentile points and lowers students’ levels of depression and stress.
Organizations like Momentous Institute and Camp Fire are setting the pace for local schools to adopt SEL programs. The Launch program at Momentous Institute addresses the needs of emotionally dysregulated 3- to 5-year-olds through carefully choreographed skill development in a laboratory classroom. Daily routines, including morning greetings, are designed to provide stability as kids stretch their social muscles. Techniques like role-playing and controlled breathing are used to defuse conflict. When a child acts out, therapists readily intervene to give the kind of one-on-one attention that is needed to demonstrate mutual regulation.
“It’s brutal work,” Kinder says. “[The therapists] get hit, they get kicked, they get bit. It’s not easy to help children get back to a place where they can be in a classroom in a safe way, but the cost of not doing it is enormous.”
When children are deprived of the security and the discovery of self that comes with social emotional learning, they not only have poor academic outcomes early on but also a higher risk of dropping out, which in turn has negative employment and lifestyle outcomes, research shows.
By integrating SEL into the early-learning classroom, Momentous Institute is helping turn kids’ lives around, putting them on track to excel academically, pursue their passions and become productive members of society. Ninety-seven percent of Momentous School students graduate high school on time and 84 percent go on to higher education, compared to 57 percent of students in the general population.
Camp Fire’s School Readiness program, which has been implemented at early learning centers across Fort Worth, also shows promising results: According to Camp Fire’s 2016–2017 report, kindergartners at Camp Fire– supported programs had higher literacy scores than kids at other schools and demonstrated continued academic success through third grade.
The School Readiness program uses a social emotional development framework called Conscious Discipline. Classrooms include a “safe space,” where stressed-out kiddos can go to process their emotions and regain a sense of equilibrium. Program administrators ensure that parents are actively involved in their child’s learning, and the instructional techniques translate easily to the home environment.
“Brady will actually go to his safe place at home, like if his sister is bothering him or he’s having an overwhelming emotional day,” says Maher, his mom. “He’ll come out 10 minutes later, and he’s like a whole new kid. He knows he just needs to reset a little bit.”
Practicing these types of SEL techniques in the home has helped to reinforce the social emotional development that her son, now 4, has achieved through the child development program at Camp Fire.
“It has honestly changed Brady drastically,” she says. “He has an undeniable confidence about him that he didn’t have 14 months ago.”
Teaching the Teachers
Ultimately, building kids’ social emotional health is a shared responsibility that requires the ongoing commitment of every adult, at school and at home. Interactions with children provide opportunities to reinforce the positive skills that will set them up for long-term success in their academic career and in life.
“You need to be careful not to label a kid as a disciplinary problem,” says Tasha Moore of Communities in Schools of North Texas, adding that those labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, adults should be vigilant in their interactions with children to provide them the security and positive feedback that help them feel calm and confident.
Local school districts are working to make teachers just that—more mindful of their kids’ emotional needs and how to address them.
“Not only does the teacher need to recognize the brain state of the children with whom they are working, she also needs to be able to recognize and manage her own brain state,” explains Lyn Lucas, chief program officer at Camp Fire.
Only by learning to manage their own emotions and navigate common stressors can adults effectively model mutual regulation and set the standard for achieving balance.
Both Camp Fire and Momentous Institute offer training resources for educators and parents to help them understand how the brain develops and equip them to guide the next generation.
Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs have begun integrating SEL into professional development for teachers and are piloting Conscious Discipline in several preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Fort Worth ISD is also part of the Early Learning Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 local school districts and nonprofits. The organization is pushing to incorporate SEL into preschool instruction and parent education programs to ensure that all children are ready for kindergarten and have the foundational skills that will serve them throughout their academic careers.
Likewise, Denton County schools are allocating funds to support SEL through professional development, including workshops on implementing positive behavioral supports in the classroom, as well as special education resources and psychological support starting in pre-K.
From an economic standpoint, the long-term advantages of investing in children’s social emotional skills are undeniable. A 2015 study by researchers at Columbia University showed an average cost-benefit ratio of 11 to 1—in other words, every dollar invested into SEL programs delivers a return of $11 in the form of higher lifetime earnings, improved mental and physical health, and reduced juvenile crime.
More important, the investment goes toward ensuring that children grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults.
“If you play social emotional health up the development ladder, the end game is that you have created a space for children to be change-makers in their community,” Kinder says.