How a New Job Description and a Family Model Can Increase Social Emotional Learning, Promote Inclusion, Improve Academics and Unify the School Culture
DR. BECKY BAILEY
We often think academics are schools’ primary purpose. Any social-emotional learning (SEL) that takes place is a secondary concern handled in targeted weekly or monthly lessons. In thinking about your own life—perhaps even in your own day today—how much of your success and fulfillment has been due to “hard skills” such as academic learning, and how much can be attributed to “soft skills” such as social and emotional intelligence?
Hard and soft skills are inseparably woven together in the tapestry of life-long success and fulfillment. Similarly, in Conscious Discipline, academic and social-emotional learning are inseparably woven together in the School Family approach. There are no separate lessons for social-emotional development; the “lessons” are built into the classroom structure and management. A school’s day-to-day culture will teach students social-emotional skills and life values whether we create it consciously or not, so we would be wise to deliberately build an inclusive, SEL-positive learning environment that addresses the whole child’s needs in brain-compatible and developmentally-appropriate ways.
School – Factory or Family?
Historically, we’ve organized schools around a reward and punishment-based factory model that works against current neurodevelopmental knowledge, creates a culture of “us” vs. “them” separation and values individual achievement above the community’s wellbeing. The School Family is instead based on a healthy family model of connection, compassion and inclusion. It achieves success through intrinsic motivation (not external rewards), creates opportunities for each member to contribute to the whole, inspires members to encourage each other’s successes, values all members as worthy and spurs members to view others as worthy in return.
A healthy family is a powerful microcosm that provides a model schools can use to benefit all members. A healthy family imparts an invisible package of assets described as “family privilege” to those within it (Seita & Brendtro, 2002). These assets create an internal blueprint that serves as a foundation for lifelong success, and include safety, a sense of belonging, unconditional love, a set of values that guide decision-making and other protective features. Those who experience family privilege are often unaware of its impact, but those who lack it often experience difficulty in relationships, executive skill functions, and long-term physical and mental health.
As many families struggle to navigate a complicated modern world of financial, emotional, social, academic, religious, political and bias concerns, the school community is in the unique position to help fill possible gaps in family-based assets by adopting a healthy family model to guide both school culture and classroom structure. In this manner, schools can help ensure all children develop the inner resources necessary for healthy academic, physical, social and emotional development.
Creating the School Family
The first step in the journey to create a School Family is to redefine the adult’s role. Traditional educational models tend to see the adult’s primary job as “making children behave well and learn a prescribed set of academic skills,” and the student’s job is essentially to accept the academic skills and conform. In a Conscious Discipline School Family, we ask the entire school to shift to a safety job description. Every adult’s primary job becomes that of a Safekeeper—someone whose first priority is the physical and emotional safety of all. This shift means reward-based and exclusionary systems (names on the board, catching them being good, treasure boxes, etc.) must fall to the wayside in favor of brain-friendly, inclusive practices. The student’s primary job becomes one of helpfulness; they help keep the learning environment physically and emotionally safe. This shift means moving away from competition, cliques and “being the best” to cooperating and utilizing their individual gifts to help each other succeed.
Perhaps you can already see how the School Family cultural model creates a poor soil for isolation, bullying and the outsider mentality that so often ends in violence (to self or others). Instead, the School Family creates a soil rich in three components essential for optimal neural development—safety, connection and problem solving. The shift from factory model to family model is significant, and the results are significant as well.
Conscious Discipline, with its 20+ year history, is one of a growing body of methodologies seeking to create neurodevelopmentally sound social-emotional reform in schools. The value of these methodologies is well researched via two meta-analyses (Durlak et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2017), which focused on student outcomes in six domains: social and emotional skills, attitudes toward self and others, positive social behavior, conduct problems, emotional distress and academic performance. Similarly, research specific to Conscious Discipline (including the creation of a School Family and adherence to the Safekeeper mental shift) has measured decreased discipline referrals, increases in academic achievement, school-wide improvement in connection, school climate and collegiality, and the acquisition of healthier social-emotional skills by both adults and students. Blending quality social-emotional learning and academic best practices creates a learning environment in which all students thrive and succeed.
Conscious Discipline’s trauma-informed, evidence-based approach suggests one of the greatest shifts you can make is for adults to redefine their primary role as that of a Safekeeper. The Safekeeper job description is essential because change in the world we see outside our door requires change inside each of us. The Safekeeper job asks school leadership and educational staff to commit to examining their own belief systems in order to change their perceptions and skill sets where warranted. For example, we cannot create an emotionally-safe, inclusive learning environment if we see some children as being good or deserving, and other children as being bad or undeserving. Nor do we create safety when we rely on subtle manipulation like “please me” language (“I like how Rose is sitting”) and reward systems. Nor do we create safety by humiliating children and singling them out with names scrawled on the board and green-yellow-red card systems. These fear-based strategies actually impede the higher-order brain function we, as educators, hope to encourage. The brain functions optimally when it feels safe, with a balance of novelty and routine (Jensen, 2005; Goldberg, 2002). The Safekeeper job description asks us to provide exactly that.
Looking through the lens of creating physical and emotional safety will naturally lead you to additional changes supported by Conscious Discipline, including corrective strategies that teach instead of punish, personal composure, clear routines, connecting rituals, authentic praise, assertive language, meaningful student jobs and problem solving opportunities.
Let’s look at an extremely common phrase mentioned earlier: “I like the way Rose is sitting.” We may say it nonchalantly in hopes of inspiring more students to sit, but we’re essentially saying, “I judge you to be worthy and likeable when you are sitting obediently; everyone who is not sitting is unworthy of my affection.” It uses the manipulation of affection as a way to obtain cooperation, creating an undercurrent of fear (the teacher doesn’t like me, my value comes from pleasing others, I’m only worthy when I obey). It also unconsciously divides the classroom into two groups—those who are good/worthy/obedient and those who are bad/unworthy/trouble. One unconscious statement like this isn’t a great impediment to learning; however, statements like these may be a symptom of a factory and fear-based approach to classroom management that will impede learning and offer none of the protective features that a safe, connected family model would.
A Safekeeper, with a focus on physical and emotional safety, would start by posting a clear visual routine long before Rose ever chose to sit in her seat. The visual routine would show students transitioning between subjects and then sitting in their seats in order to help them create a clear mental model of the expectation. A Safekeeper would offer an assertive command, “Return to your table and sit in your seat,” and refer to the visual routine as a reminder. And if Rose was in fact sitting in her seat, a Safekeeper might use the skill of noticing, “Rose, you’re sitting in your seat with your pencil in hand, ready to begin the lesson. That is helpful.” Noticing describes the child’s actions without judging and is sometimes related to the welfare of the group or followed by a behavioral label (helpful, kind, supportive). The Safekeeper approach is clear, assertive and non-judgmental. It prepares the brain for learning rather than leaving it in an uncertain state that will interfere with learning.
Schools that shift from factory models to family models and from separation to inclusion position themselves to create lasting positive change that extends far beyond the boundaries of the school itself. Children who possess the assets and protective features of family privilege grow into adults who are more successful, fulfilled and resilient. Schools can —and must— step into the space created by the challenges of modern home life to help ensure all children experience the benefits of family privilege, acquire both hard and soft skills, and feel safe enough, valued enough and connected enough to learn.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. and Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82: 405-432. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x
Goldberg, E. (2002) The executive brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. New York:
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Jensen, E. (2000) Brain–based learning: The new science of teaching & learning.
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Seita, J.R., & Brendtro, L.K. (2002) Kids who outwit adults? Longmont, CO: Sopris West.
Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E. , Durlak, J. A. and Weissberg, R. P. (2017), Promoting Positive Youth Development Through School-Based Social and Emotional Learning Interventions: A Meta-Analysis of Follow-Up Effects. Child Dev, 88: 1156-1171. doi:10.1111/cdev.12864
Dr. Becky Bailey is the award-winning author of 25+ books and curricula, a renowned educator, and an internationally recognized expert in childhood education and developmental psychology. She is the creator of Conscious Discipline, a research-backed methodology practiced in 47+ countries, with resource materials offered in 22+ languages. Find her @ Conscious Discipline on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, and on www.ConsciousDiscipline.com.