Preventing Conflict Starts in the Classroom

First graders in Maria Simon’s first grade class took part in a mindfulness meditation at Birch Meadow School in Reading. Photo by: Jessica Rinaldi, Boston Globe
First graders in Maria Simon’s first grade class took part in a mindfulness meditation at Birch Meadow School in Reading. Photo by: Jessica Rinaldi, Boston Globe

Read any news story today and you’ll likely get the sense that we are a nation becoming increasingly divided along political, racial, religious, and income lines. Perhaps related, many of our large cities are experiencing a recent increase in violence. In Milwaukee the number of murders increased by 76% between 2014 and 2015. The most common motive was not robbery or gang rivalries, but an argument between people who knew each other. Now, perhaps more than ever, there is a need to develop young people’s skills to manage emotions and navigate conflict.


Developing children’s social and emotional skills can prevent future violence. A meta-analysis of school-based social and emotional learning programs in elementary, middle and high schools found program participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, and behavior. Additionally, program participants’ academic performance improved. The largest effect size was for skills that enable children to effectively deal with conflict and every day challenges, including emotions recognition, stress-management, empathy, problem-solving, and decision-making. These skills are just as important as academic lessons if we expect children to grow up to navigate life successfully as adults. Although school days are already jam packed with lessons to prepare students for common core testing (which is a whole other blog post), teachers reported that they were able to easily incorporate social-emotional learning into the regular curriculum.


Massachusetts schools are already devoting part of the school day to social-emotional learning after a gun-control law was enacted last year that called for creating “safe and supportive schools.” The law encourages schools to integrate such initiatives as bullying prevention, trauma sensitivity, dropout prevention, and truancy reduction into the curriculum. Educators recognize that a lack of these skills can lead to outcomes such as suicides, drug abuse and overdoses, and even school shootings.


Social-emotional learning is also important to young adults’ success in higher education. In a time when college campuses are grappling with a growing mental health crisis, social emotional learning can help students cope. Those with less developed emotional skills are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, engage in violent behaviors such as bullying, use drugs and alcohol, have destructive relationships, and have poor academic performance. A 2015 meta-analysis of high education programs found programs that teach social-emotional skills had a positive role in preventing various types of emotional distress and adjustment problems, and promoting students’ academic performance.


Several programs that integrate social-emotional skills learning in the classroom have been recognized as effective. Positive Action and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) both affect a number of outcomes, including depression, bullying, anxiety, emotional regulation and academic performance, among others.


At a time when the President leaves a seat open at his State of the Union Address for victims of gun violence, we need to start looking for ways to prevent such violence. Social-emotional learning is certainly not enough, but it’s a good start.

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