When neuroscience is applied within the field of education, we generally see changes in policies and practices which are more conducive to learning and development in children. A prime example of this is the increasing awareness amongst educators and child development experts of the importance of viewing challenging student behaviour through a trauma informed, wellbeing lens. Neuroscience and epigenetics have made significant contributions to this by advancing our understanding of how the human brain develops through its interaction with the environment, which largely consists of social experience. We know that when a child’s social experience consists of persistent adversity (or Adverse Childhood Experiences) that the brain responds by strengthening neural circuits associated with aggressive and anxious tendencies, usually resulting in problematic behaviours and poor academic outcomes.
Therefore, it is becoming more widely accepted that if we want to improve our children’s behaviour and academic learning then we must take a more wholistic approach to their education. This is often referred to as ‘teaching the whole child’ which extends the focus of education beyond academic attainments to developing social emotional and behavioural competencies and enhancing wellbeing. It also represents a move away from pure Skinnerism, the operant conditioning approach of rewards and punishments, with the overarching goal of behavioural compliance.
Where challenging behaviour is addressed primarily through punishment rather than supports for handling adversity, such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL), toxic levels of stress increase reducing the brain’s ability to learn and produce prosocial behaviours. The Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) framework provides a developmentally appropriate approach to school wide behaviour management, recognising that challenging behaviours are indicators of developmental need and skill sets that need to be taught and fostered. Schools can thereby become buffers to stress by promoting supportive adult-child relationships, creating predictable, safe classroom environments and teaching academic, social and emotional skills that build student resilience and self-efficacy.
Schools who are currently using the PBL (Positive Behaviour for Learning) framework or are considering doing so, will be interested to learn that comprehensive Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs such as Second Step, are rapidly becoming a leading component of explicit instruction in many schools. This is particularly evident in the USA where there is an objective to integrate Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports (referred to as PBL in Australia) and SEL within the context of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Against the backdrop of the post pandemic decline in children’s mental health, researchers are also recommending that SEL competencies are taught within a prevention focussed, multitiered public health model.
There are now ever-expanding bodies of research evidencing the positive outcomes on student behaviour and learning from SEL and PBL, as separate entities. For PBL these include reduced problem behaviour and bullying, improved emotional regulation and perceived school climate. Research has shown that SEL can reduce student conduct problems, emotional distress and improve academic scores as well as reduce bullying and improve emotional regulation. Therefore, it is emerging that the union of these two initiatives into a synchronistic multitiered system is likely to leverage their individual efficacy, especially when one considers the significant overlap.
Some of the key commonalities between SEL and PBL:
They both share a focus on a tiered approach to skill mastery that includes all students having equitable access to a universal program, along with progress monitoring and recognition of the need for some students to have provided targeted and/or intensive intervention.
Both require instruction that is sequential, active, focused and explicit to be effective.
PBL and SEL fundamentally hold the belief that children who learn the skills to be more resilient and deal appropriately with toxic stress, perform better at school and life. Therefore, it is important to teach social emotional competencies and positive behaviour proactively. This is sometimes termed ‘front loading’, as this instruction ultimately buys back more time for academic learning, by preventing or reducing disruptive behaviours and emotional dysregulation.
Both support the development of safe, predictable and consistent classrooms and teachers where there are clearly articulated expectations using a common language.
Both recognise the critical role of academic instruction and the participation of all staff, students and families.
Common Practices and Features of PBL and SEL
Part 2 of this article will delve into some key practical approaches to integrating PBL and SEL in the school setting.
Positive Pieces Education is the Australian and New Zealand publisher of the Second Step social-emotional learning program. Learn more