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Taking Off The Handcuffs: Impact Of Social Emotional Learning

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

What is the problem again?

While the school-to-prison pipeline is caused by many variables, Jason P. Nance from The University of Florida Levin College of Law has identified a few main contributing factors:

• Zero tolerance policies

• Federal and state statutory mandatory reporting requirements to law enforcement

• Students’ limited constitutional protections

• High-stakes testing laws

• Exclusionary mindset of some educators

• Increased presence of law enforcement officers in schools


So what? What can I do to help?

Here are some things to consider as possible solutions:

1) Vote

Register to vote in local and national elections for candidates that support ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Research candidates thoroughly before voting and see what ways they wish to impact the education system and the justice system.

Some questions to ask yourself:

What is this candidate's view on education?

What is this candidate's view on the justice system?

What age is considered a "juvenile" in the state you are voting in?

Does the candidate support any of the factors above contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline?

What is the candidate going to do in terms of the criminal justice budget?

What is the candidate going to do in terms of the education budget?

Who does the candidate support or endorse?

What has the candidate done in the past with the education and criminal justice systems?

What current legislation is in place regarding the criminal justice system and education?

How does the candidate feel about the role of standardized tests in the education system?

How does the candidate feel about police and police in schools?

What other options are available besides prisons for juveniles in the area in which you are voting?

Feel free to comment with more questions to consider!

2) Social Emotional Learning

The main solution I want to focus on is Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL has many parts and aspects that students, educators, guardians, and everyday citizens can learn from. SEL is a research-based practice that is proven to help students with behaviors and attitudes in school.

What is SEL?

As the video mentions, students that participate in SEL are more likely to:

-Graduate from high school

-Have a full-time job by age 25

-Perform better academically

-Have more friends

-Have better attitudes

-Make responsible decisions and much more.

An example of an SEL lesson in high school:

Key points for educators from the SEL video:

-Building relationships with students

-Removing student from the group at times

-Letting the student talk through their thinking (Why did I do that? What did I do?)

-Separating behavior from the student (Are you having a bad day?)

-Recognizing the whole student

The last point of recognizing the whole student is the most important, especially when talking about the school-to-prison pipeline. An educator can only influence so much that is happening in a student's life. Therefore, an educator needs to build relationships with every student and get to know them in and outside the classroom. Educators should give out personal surveys and encourage students to participate in extracurricular activities. Not every student will have a strong support system at home, but a teacher can give students the mindset to stay motivated.

When working with SEL strategies, the teacher asked the student if he was having a bad day and acknowledged that the behavior wasn’t how the student usually acted. The student came to terms with his mistake, regrouped mentally away from the class, and got ready to start his day over. His behavior did not define who he was as an overall student or as a person. This helped him improve his behavior, and he was given a second chance. Yet, in our society do we label people as "criminal" for their behavior and do we give them a second chance? Do we give criminal students a chance to explain themselves? Did the student think through what they did or said? (Note that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain that controls reasoning is not fully developed in children .)

What Can Teachers Do In Their Own Classrooms With SEL:

Coping Skills

When faced with emotions and frustrations, students at a young age may not be able to say how exactly they feel. To help with that process, teachers can offer students coping skills that they can use when they are upset or need a break during class. Expectations and rules will need to be enforced so that students do not take advantage of the coping skills available. A break for a student should be no more than five minutes at a given point. Below is an activity to help establish appropriate coping skills for a classroom. Coping skill sheets can then be personalized for each student.

Calming Corners

Calming corners are a place where students can go to calm down when they are frustrated. Often calming corners also contain coping skills (like stress balls or soft chairs) where students can take their break safely. Often a change of seating during the day helps students and getting up and moving around helps them have better focus later.

Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset is changing the way some students think about life. Instead of thinking "I cannot" or "I am not a math person" with a fixed mindset, students learn to use a mindset that encourages growth. "I cannot do this yet" and "If I practice more I can learn from my mistakes" are both growth mindset phrases. Teachers, parents, and mentors need to let children know that mistakes are okay, but they need to learn from them for next time. Positive thinking by using growth mindset is a research-based practice like SEL that has been proven to improve student learning, attitudes, and behaviors at school. Growth mindset will help students have a more positive life perspective outside of the classroom as well.


Grit is a character trait that the most successful people in their fields like Albert Einstein or Angela Duckworth (she spoke at Elon University's Convocation recently) have developed within themselves. Grit is forming stamina and hard-working habits over time. Grit has to do with working towards long term goals and needs to be combined with other characteristics like good judgement. Grit is more predictive than IQ in determining success and has to do with effort rather than a given talent. Students in tough situations need to focus on developing goals and working towards an interest they will be passionate over a long period of time.


Contrary to what most people may think, self-talk is more than just a confidence booster. Self-talk is a research-based practice that actually changes the neuron connections within the brain beyond just thinking about feelings. Self-talk is often used in math and reading to help students see how they should be thinking through a problem or passage. Teachers saying aloud what they are thinking helps model for students how they should think before they do things themselves. This practice of meta-cognition helps students develop reasoning and critical thinking skills. In math and reading, some skills that can additionally form are self-correction, self-monitoring, and self-regulation while doing work. In terms of self-esteem and mindset, positive self-talk can help students control their behaviors and set goals. They are less likely to act on impulse and will try to further better themselves.

Importance of Parents/Guardians for Social Emotional Learning

Teachers can only go so far with educating students about SEL practices. This is why it is important to address that whomever influences a student's life needs to hear about and implement SEL. Teachers and schools should offer interactive training about these strategies for them and their student to participate in. Within a school district, coaches, counselors, and other staff should all be trained on SEL strategies as well. If people are hesitant, show them the facts. SEL is a proven, research-based practice that helps students stay in school and develop skills they will need for future jobs.


That will cost more money for taxpayers, right?

Click here to learn more about this graph

Actually...currently the United States spends much more money on inmates than education per student. Even if some money from the inmate budget was used in education, it would still be significantly cheaper than what the United States is spending on inmates. Also, SEL training and programs are proven to decrease high school dropouts (most juveniles in detention drop out of school), and therefore, decrease the incarceration rate, saving even more money overall.


Overall, some possible solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline problem are to vote for candidates that support ending the issue as well as implementing SEL. Even though not everyone is a teacher and can implement SEL lessons, mentors of students can encourage components of SEL in almost any setting. Increasing the education budget in the United States to cover SEL programs would be an investment that would end up saving the United States even more money. Too often, policy and legislation makers push practices that are not research-based. However, research proves that SEL and the components listed above can help improve the lives of students to stay in school and become lifelong learners, rather than criminals.

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