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Schools Giving More Attention to 'Soft Skills' as a Way to Head Off Behavior Problems

NEW PORT RICHEY — Deer Park Elementary had a problem.

Its discipline referrals and warnings were on the rise, with 433 incidents last year for 574 students, which didn't bode well for the school's academic performance.

"There is a direct correlation between disruptions in the classroom and how well students learn," said principal Margie Polen, who pointed to the Pasco County school's C grade from the state, just shy of a B.

"A lot of our (behavior) problems were in fifth grade," she said, "and that's where our low scores were."

Her faculty decided to tackle the issue with a new social-emotional learning system. Their goal: Decrease disruptions and referrals by 10 percent.

The approach, called "Discipline Without Stress, Punishment or Rewards" by Marvin Marshall, nearly flopped on entry. Parents saw posters with catch phrases in their children's classrooms before getting any information, and several raised concerns.

They particularly bristled at a poster that seemed to suggest a student who "conforms to peer pressure" is a good student. "How Orwellian," one dissenter suggested in a feisty Facebook thread.

Polen quickly agreed to revise the language, and make it more approachable.

But nearly lost in the flap was the role such programs are playing on a larger scale. Across the Tampa Bay area, Florida and the nation, a movement is rising to counter years of slavish attention to test performance.

"During that focus on scores, what you lost sight of was the focus on other life skills," said Karen Bierman, director of The Pennsylvania State University's Child Study Center.

Those include the ability to work through conflict and persist when frustrated. "Schools are saying they see students need help with those skills," Bierman said.

But it's not just schools. Even the federal government, which has insisted for years on test-based accountability, mandated in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act that non-academic aspects of a school's climate be included in new improvement plans.

For the first time in years, the social and emotional would share footing with the academic as a required indicator of success.

The move in that direction had long been coming, said Michael Krezmien, associate professor of student development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Schools are using ideas that originated in special education and grew into wider use. Their inclusion in law has driven researchers to seek methods that work not only for unsuccessful children, but for all, Krezmien said.

If teachers can prevent the need for additional services later by attacking behavior issues early, he said, they can pay more attention to academics. Many times, he noted, children are not behind because they are unable to perform, but rather because they have not learned what to do.

That holds true for behavior as much as reading, Krezmien said.

The programs are in schools all over the Tampa Bay area. Many in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas use some form of "Positive Behavior Support," a project based at the University of South Florida.

Some layer other ideas on top of that system, or tailor more specific guidelines, to give them a more local flavor.

Hillsborough County recently added Botvin LifeSkills Training to its middle schools, with a goal of providing the "soft skills" that people need beyond school — things like setting goals and meeting deadlines.

Too often, people assume children learn these behaviors from home or elsewhere, said Julia Sarmiento, Hillsborough's social-emotional learning coordinator. "We decided, let's stop the assuming and let's ensure it."

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