Sumner, WA

Behavioral Turnaround with Social-Emotional Learning

“They’re not even the same kids anymore.” That’s what Sumner (WA) School District’s Comprehensive Guidance Coordinator Jeannie Larberg says about a group of third-graders after just a few weeks of social-emotional learning (SEL) in the form of the Second Step program.

Some of these third-graders had limited SEL skills—and that was putting it mildly. “These kids had difficulty even sitting in a chair,” says Larberg. Most lacked skills in self-regulation, problem-solving, attention, empathy, and emotion management, and used a lot of negative self-talk. In fact, in the first month, many of them were so unable to handle unstructured time that they couldn’t go out to recess.

Modeling and Reinforcement

Mrs. Larberg taught the class SEL lessons emphasizing executive function and was careful to model the skills as well. And because the class’s teacher co-taught the lessons with her, she could reinforce and model the skills throughout the day.

Soon, Mrs. Larberg was seeing improvements: “They could handle problems in the moment, rather than after the fact. Having a step system, rather than being told by an adult—that way it’s not about them. They don’t take it personally. It’s like having an owner’s manual for yourself.”

“You Can Do This!”

The students’ self-talk started improving as well. In fact, with no prompting from Mrs. Larberg, they began helping each other: “When another kid melted down, they would do the self-talk for them: ‘You can do this! It’s going to be fine!’ They’d coach their classmates through tough times—even though I never told them to do it with their peers!”

The Learning Skills They Need

Perhaps most important of all, the third-graders’ classroom teacher saw academic improvements because students could pay attention in class or became less defiant and were able to follow directions. “And they could complete work independently,” says Mrs. Larberg. “That was the most important skill. By the time they got to fourth grade, they had the learning skills they needed.”