SEL Is Invaluable To Improving Behavior and Safety

Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is a large urban district struggling to meet the needs of an economically and ethnically diverse community with a 48 percent youth poverty rate. It is the second largest district in Ohio, serving more than 40,000 students, nearly 68 percent of whom are students of color, and 100 percent of whom qualify for free/reduced-price lunches.

In October 2007, the former Superintendent called for heightened security measures in response to a shooting at one of the district’s 26 high schools. One component of his school safety strategy was a comprehensive evaluation of the conditions for learning, including the status of SEL, in district schools. The evaluation findings listed eight contributing factors to poor school climate and student misbehavior, resulting in unsafe learning environments, including harsh and inconsistent approaches to discipline, poor adult supervision, and a lack of social and emotional role modeling by school staff. In response, CMSD launched its Human Ware initiative in August 2008, in partnership with American Institutes for Research, focused on increasing the safety of the district’s students.

Despite significant financial constraints in the past five years, the district continues to prioritize this work, adding CASEL as one of their key partners to help implement SEL programming systemically throughout the district. CASEL consultants provide technical assistance, coaching and training to district administrators and school leaders on planning, implementation, standards and assessment, and communication.

One of district’s ten strategies to create a positive, safe, and supportive climate is to monitor students’ behavior and intervene at the first sign of difficulties by strengthening social and emotional competencies to prevent future misbehaviors and providing focused and sustained support to those students who have persistent problems. This strategy is markedly different from the prior disciplinary procedure that focused exclusively on punishment. CMSD has transformed its in-school suspension program into a restorative instructional program called The Planning Center. Here, center aides help students learn to understand and manage their emotions, improve behavior, make responsible decisions at school and at home, and build relationships with their peers and teachers. Students use Ripple Effect, a software program that allows them to virtually simulate potential conflicts and evaluate the consequences of various responses. CMSD has also implemented Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), an evidence-based SEL program, in all its elementary schools.

Six years after the Superintendent’s call to action and five years since the SEL initiative began, CMSD has seen several positive student behavioral outcomes including reductions in incidents of disobedient and disruptive behavior (from 132 to 74), fighting and violence (from 55 to 36), harassment and intimidation (from 13 to 6), and serious bodily injury (from 13 to 6). Additionally, the average number of reported suspendable behavioral incidents per school declined from 233.1 to 132.4, and out-of-school suspensions decreased districtwide by 58.8 percent. The current chief executive officer of CMSD, who has been with the district since 2007 and experienced the tremendous growth in SEL programming, insists that we should not forget to “look at the important ongoing needs for social and emotional wellness of children and adults in our communities” when trying to make our schools a safer and more supportive place.