Toppenish, WA

PBIS Team Embraces Social-Emotional Learning

“It was becoming very clear that if we were to close the achievement gap in math, we would need to get the students safely to the table to do math first,” says Kirkwood Elementary School Principal Shelby Robins. The school, whose 700-student population is largely Native American and Hispanic with 99 percent free and reduced lunches, also has an achievement gap in social skills and needed to curb physical aggression and defiance in the classroom. The school determined that these seemingly unrelated problems might all have the same main solution: social-emotional learning (SEL).

Kirkwood’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) team realized that the students’ inability to calm down and solve problems, combined with the teachers’ lack of resources to teach such critical skills, was contributing greatly to the school’s distressingly high office referral rate. So Robins and her staff expanded their implementation of the Second Step SEL program beyond sessions with counselors to include in-class instruction by teachers—and it turned out to be a popular decision. “Kindergarten teachers were begging for it,” recalls Robins.

“All Schools Need This”

“We’ve made it a priority this year that we get the kids all the social skills they need so that they can be successful academically,” says Robins. “I really see all schools need this—it’s a need for all public schools, not just Title 1 or high-poverty schools.”

The PBIS team predicts that fewer students will resort to physical aggression if they have the skills to problem solve, calm down, and self-advocate. In addition to teaching SEL skills in every classroom, teacher leaders and support staff look at Kirkwood’s discipline data every two weeks and action plan to lower the referrals—and it looks like their efforts are paying off. The incidence of major disciplinary issues has dropped dramatically, from about seven per day during the first few months of the school year to between two and three per day—in fact, Kirkwood’s referral rate is below the national norm for PBIS schools. Additionally, its attendance rate has jumped from a five-year average of 93 percent to a staggering 96 percent.

“Glad Our Kids Are Getting These Skills”

Johnson-O’Malley tribal organization parent leader Laura Day says, “Kids need to learn how to respect each other, and a lot of kids don’t have the support they need at home.” Day, whose children attend Kirkwood, adds that she’s “one of those parents who believes that it all starts at home, and we need to get parents involved with building social skills. But it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we’re glad our kids are getting these skills at school.”