How Social Emotional Learning Can Support Happier, Healthier Schools

Visualizing a school operating at its best, most effective level is more than just an exercise for Lauren Puzen of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. She believes it can happen, and that the integration of social emotional learning approaches can play a key part.

Envision “a happy, heathy school building,” she urged an audience of thought leaders at the Sanford Harmony Forum on Social Emotional Learning (SEL)  Nov. 2, held by Sanford Harmony, a social emotional initiative based out of the private, nonprofit National University System San Diego headquarters. Then, she asked them a series of questions: “How do the kids look? How does the staff look? How do they greet you upon your entry? How do the hallways feel? What about the cafeteria? Or the gym? What does it really feel like to be in a happy and healthy school?”

The way to change their lives, Puzen continued, is through the “3 P’s”:  policy, practice, and people – via contact with students. “People, especially kids, should be at the center of our work,” she said. “That’s what drives us.”

Puzen, who serves as the Senior Partnership Manager for Healthier Generation, engaged representatives of school districts, education advocacy groups and youth organizations to discuss how educators can incorporate social emotional health approaches to ensure their wellness policies improve school culture, reduce student trauma and address equity in education. The social emotional learning-themed forum –  held

School districts and schools need strong wellness policies that account for positive social emotional health to best support educators and staff to serve the needs of the whole child. Unfortunately, research shows that just 34 percent of teachers feel qualified to help children with mental health issues, though statistics also indicate that nearly half of all students have faced some type of adverse childhood experience, such as parental separation or divorce, domestic violence and physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. These experiences can impact a child’s ability to effectively learn, build relationships and practice healthy behaviors at school.

In addition to having a wellness policy that supports social emotional health of students, Puzen recommended training for all educators and school staff to respond to trauma, whether situational or in students’ lives. She also emphasized that such training helps forge stronger relationships between teacher and student. These bonds don’t just affect learning in the classroom though. Puzen said educators should look for ways to apply social emotional learning practices in “unexpected places,” including gyms, playgrounds and cafeterias, while also being mindful of staff wellness.

One way for schools to ensure these relationships and approaches are being taken, she said, is as part of a school wellness committee,” Which are common in thousands of schools across country, but often include just one or two staff members focused on physical health. However, the group she envisions could make greater impact by including not just administrators and staff overseeing nutrition and health, but essentially the whole school community, from teachers and counselors to parents and neighborhood leaders. “Positive relationships with kids gives them self-esteem, resilience and helps them to feel safe,” she said. 

Lauren Puzen is the Senior Partnerships Manager for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. For more than a decade, Healthier Generation has worked with schools, youth-serving organizations, businesses, and communities to empower kids to develop lifelong healthy habits by ensuring the environments that surround them provide and promote good health. Its work has impacted up to 28 million kids across the country, including reaching kids in 42,000 schools and 3,500 youth-serving organizations. Make a difference at www.HealthierGeneration.org.