Help for Students with Social-Emotional Challenges


“Thanks for returning our call, Mrs. Merchant. Yesterday, Ryan let out an ear-piercing scream after slamming her books on the floor. This behavior is unacceptable…she was only asked to present her show and tell item in class. She will surely lose recess for the next three days. Hopefully, Ryan will simply obey the next time she has to present.”


Like many students, Ryan faces social-emotional challenges that are often mistaken for undisciplined, bratty, and/or disrespectful behavior. Unknowingly, teachers and parents pile on the punishments to cease the unwanted acts. Eventually, Ryan and students like her, enter into the cycle of being labeled “problem children.”


It is frightening to know that many K-12 students are not receiving the intervention needed for social-emotional issues. When improperly managed or ignored, social-emotional issues become precursors to long-term incarceration, unstable employment, eating disorders, and other harms to successful living. Here are three steps that parents and teachers can take to achieve success for students with socio-emo issues.


Understanding the Social-Emotional Challenge


Social-emotional challenges are issues people face when determining how to respond to social interaction. After a social encounter—something as simple as a greeting or as complex as a punch—a person instantly begins the mental and physical process of responding. For instance, when a grandparent extends his arms to hug his beloved daughter whom he hasn’t seen in a while, his granddaughter begins responding. Her heartbeat quickens, her face expresses a smile, and her voice locks into a higher pitch. These are physical responses to the social encounter. Mentally, the granddaughter is analyzing the situation and attempting to select the best follow-up actions to display. She decides to warmly embrace him by shouting, “Grandpa,” and running into his arms. The granddaughter could have responded by frowning, hiding behind the leg of her mother, and crying as her grandfather moved in closer. While the above scenario panned out nicely, this is not the recounted fairy tale ending of students with social-emotional issues. Students with these struggles typically choose behaviors that produce higher levels of anxiety, send mixed messages, and/or create conflicts between others.


What to Do!


  1. In order to begin managing socio-emo challenges, identify them. These challenges go by many names: anxiety attacks, tantrums, identity crisis, and aggression, to name a few. The type of challenge your student faces is sometimes hard to pinpoint and might be best named after noting the triggers (causes of the unwarranted behaviors). To identify triggers, speak with the student. Ask the student, “Why did you display this behavior?”
  2. Listen. Be sure to have an open heart and mind, so that you can digest the way of thinking that lays within the student. Your goal is not necessarily to punish the behavior, but instead to comprehend the student’s reasoning.
  3. Investigate. Note your own observations and those of others who are often in contact with the student. Ask your school to conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). The more “notetakers” and observation-makers that you have, the thicker your study becomes. Seek professional medical assistance. Most importantly, do not delay in taking action.


As parents and educators, we cannot lazily label bad behavior. Improve your students’ social-emotional health by taking a closer look into their hearts and minds.


Written by Dana H., Novastar Prep Subject Coach


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