HEART-Centered Discipline

It is not uncommon for educators to question if Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and holding students accountable for their behaviors can coexist. Some teachers may think that when schools implement SEL, they are coddling children, being too permissive, or ignoring students’ misbehavior.

SEL doesn’t advocate for ignoring inappropriate behavior or avoiding consequences. It emphasizes a balanced approach that combines teaching social and emotional skills with setting clear expectations and appropriate consequences. Even in schools with a planned and systemic SEL focus, you will find students who make poor choices!

The difference lies in how schools respond to these behaviors. The choices that schools make regarding their discipline policies and behavior protocols can significantly impact the school’s climate and students’ perception of the use and need to develop social and emotional skills. 

For example, suppose students receive explicit instruction to develop HEART skills but are sent to the principal’s office at the first sign of troubling behavior. What message is this school sending to their students?

  • Mixed signals. Students would probably be confused about the importance of HEART skills. On one hand, they are explicitly told to develop these skills, indicating that their emotional and social development is valued. On the other hand, they are immediately punished when they exhibit troubling behavior, without the opportunity to apply or practice the SEL skills they’ve been taught.
  • Resentment and disengagement. Continuously resorting to punitive measures without providing students with the tools and guidance to improve their behavior can lead to feelings of resentment and disengagement. Students may become disheartened and disinterested in SEL lessons if they perceive them as irrelevant to their actual experiences.
  • Limited skill application. Students may struggle to apply HEART skills in real-life situations if they are not given opportunities to practice them. The first sign of troubling behavior is often when students need these skills the most. By not allowing them to navigate these situations with guidance, you miss the chance to reinforce their HEART learning.

In addition, research shows that students of color face a disproportionate number of disciplinary actions in U.S. public schools. When schools have policies that are open to interpretation, staff is more likely to act on their implicit bias, which leads to inequities and the reduction of educational opportunities for minority students.

To ensure the effectiveness of our SEL initiatives, it is essential to integrate SEL principles and practices into a comprehensive approach to behavior management and school discipline. Otherwise, it will not only undermine the impact of our efforts but can also have unintended consequences for our students. For more information, check out this post on 3 misconceptions about SEL.

In order to develop a HEART-centered discipline, that is to say, an approach to behavior management that is grounded on building relationships and takes into account the social and emotional needs of our students, educators and school leaders should:

Explore the mindsets and beliefs that are behind the policies and practices that the school has currently in place. This means asking difficult questions about how and if the school is creating the social and emotional conditions for students to feel safe and supported, and reflecting on educators’ values regarding discipline and punishment.

Consider the practices and steps that staff is required to take to respond to behavior incidents. Are these practices aligned with the school’s SEL plan? Are teachers intentionally using their HEART skills when addressing behavior challenges? How are students involved in developing these practices? Reflecting on these questions may highlight some areas where teams need to do further reflection and/or develop alternative practices.

Establish clear procedures that eliminate subjective rules and include a process for collecting and analyzing data on a regular basis to understand if inconsistencies exist. These procedures should reflect the school’s commitment to developing healthy, regulated, and purposeful students AND educators who seek to understand student behavior with empathy and care.

To get you started, take a look at the following suggestions:

  • Conflict Resolution: Teach students how to resolve conflicts and manage emotions effectively as part of your explicit SEL instruction. Remind them to use these skills in situations when you observe troubling behavior arising. These skills should help them solve real challenges! You can create a peace area to help students solve these conflicts on their own.
  • Restorative Practices: Implement restorative practices that focus on repairing harm, restoring relationships, and holding students accountable for their actions in a constructive and empathetic way. This is a great resource from CASEL and the International Institute for Restorative Practices to help you understand the connections between restorative practice and SEL, and how to get these practices started at your school.
  • Progressive Discipline: Consider a progressive discipline approach that seeks to understand the root cause of the problem and provides consequences in proportion to the severity and frequency of the behavior, giving students opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
  • Ongoing Mentoring and Guidance: As part of the school’s behavior management system, offer students opportunities to receive mentoring, counseling, and guidance from trained staff who can help them apply HEART skills to real-life situations and address underlying issues. This guidance should take place as a preventive measure, not only when students are faced with discipline issues.

For additional resources, check out how to establish discipline policies that promote SEL from CASEL’s school guide.

By applying an SEL lens to the overall approach to behavior management and discipline, schools and educators can help students develop and apply these HEART skills in meaningful ways, fostering a more supportive and relationship-centered school environment.

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