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Behavior policies

04/05/07 12:00AM By Charles Johnson
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(HOST) Commentator Charles Johnson says there's a new approach to helping children learn social and emotional skills that can be an effective weapon against bullying and other forms of undesirable behavior in school.

(JOHNSON) When Oprah Winfrey hosts the authors of a bestseller entitled "The Secret", thousands of viewers suddenly demand more information about the book. I think that's a good illustration of the saying "energy flows where attention goes." That means life attracts whatever is the focus of our attention, both the "good" and the "bad."

As Safe Schools Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education, I'm often called to assist in dealing with urgent matters of conflict throughout the State.

In one recent incident, the principal, teachers, and staff of a school spent nearly an hour outlining for me the various activities and programs they were using to address a "bad" series of racial harassment incidents.

I said as they finished, "you've told me a lot about what you DON'T want - more bullying, harassment, and mean behavior among students. Let's talk, now, about what you DO want."

They didn't have much to say in response. And I've found that's typical of many Vermont schools. Policies and procedures addressing bullying and harassment focus almost entirely on "bad" behaviors.

If "energy flows where attention goes," can it be that we're getting more of "what we DON'T want" by the attention we're giving to it? We have angry school-community confrontations regarding discussions of sexual orientation. Cybernet bullying is presented as a tool of aggression among students, and even the cause of suicidal behavior. Racial slurs have closed down communication, sometimes leading to physical assault among students. The current Vermont anti-bullying and harassment legislation is useful in these matters, but provides little guidance regarding "what we DO want" versus "what we DON'T."

We talk about being a "good worker," or a "good citizen." But what do we have to say in public schools about being a "good person?"

Evidence-based research suggests that the key to "what we want" is a proactive, comprehensive program that helps children develope socially and emotionally. The concept is called "SEL" - for social and emotional learning standards. It is designed to develop self-awareness, self-management and social awareness; as well as interpersonal, and decision-making skills. Children who become competent with SEL do better academically and most often avoid bad behavior problems.

Comprehensive SEL programs are based on the understanding that many different kinds of problem behaviors are caused by the same risk factors, and that the best learning emerges from supportive and challenging relationships.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spearheaded legislation adopted by the state of Illinois in 2003 to ensure that schools regard social and emotional learning as integral to their mission and a critical component of student academic readiness and school success. The state of New York has enacted similar legislation.

This moves away from what schools "DON'T want" toward what they "DO want." If "energy flows where attention goes" perhaps this shift in focus merits further consideration by schools in Vermont.

Charles Johnson is Safe Schools Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education and former secretary of education for Massachusetts.

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