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Defeating Despair Through Social-Emotional Learning Programs

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By Julia Sabrick

America is in the midst of a public health crisis that is disproportionately affecting our young people. The opioid crisis and growing rates of suicide are examples of the rise in so-called "deaths of despair." The statistics are harrowing: deaths from alcohol-induced fatalities, drug overdoses, and suicide have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Deaths from suicide among youth under 18 grew 84 percent in the past decade, and in 2016 alone, more than 1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 had a substance use disorder.

These deaths of despair have touched many of us, with devastating effects on families, communities, and schools. Curbing the epidemic will require a multi-faceted approach. In the recently published Pain in the Nation: Education Brief, Trust for America's Health offers concrete strategies for educators to address this crisis, particularly through incorporating social and emotional learning into their curriculum.

This work starts with understanding the relationship between mental health and academic success: mental health influences students' ability to learn, while learning success influences mental health. Kids come to school with all kinds of stresses, trauma, sadness, and depression that put them at higher risk for not only academic failure, but also substance misuse and suicide. Most young people have not yet developed the capacity to handle these emotions which makes it difficult and--in severe cases--almost impossible for them to learn. Integrating programs throughout the school day that promote positive mental health and social and emotional development for students have been proven to strengthen students' resilience and academic outcomes.

Educators need (and want) training in evidence-based strategies that can help them meet students' mental and academic needs, including social and emotional learning. I'll offer just two of the many examples that make me excited about these strategies.

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The Good Behavior Game (GBG) is a universal classroom prevention intervention for elementary school students where teachers establish classroom expectations and reward students who display positive behaviors. Students develop self-regulation and teamwork skills, and long-term studies have shown that the program reduces alcohol and illicit drug use and suicide ideation. Programs such as GBG have advantageous benefits for teachers, who are able to spend less time redirecting student behavior (as much as 50%) and more time teaching and attending to students' needs.

When Yamhill County schools in Oregon received funding and training to implement GBG in the 2016-17 school year, they noticed an immediate impact. Sixteen teachers from three participating elementary schools underwent GBG classroom training and then implemented the program in their classrooms. One teacher reported that she "has seen a difference in the majority of my students' behavior, making our class a better place." Overall, rates of disruptive behavior diminished, teachers were less likely to report their students as being hyperactive, and the rate of total difficulties in the classroom significantly dropped. Due to the success of the pilot program, the majority of classrooms in the three participating schools implemented the program for the 2017-18 school year.

The LifeSkills Training prevention program for elementary, middle, and high school students promotes healthy student development by teaching drug awareness and resistance alongside self-management skills, and has been shown to reduce student alcohol and drug use by up to 87 percent. In North Quabbin schools in Massachusetts, the program has been well-received by students, teachers, and administrators. One teacher reported that LifeSkills "hits every note of adolescence: decision making, dealing with strong emotions, goal setting, resolving conflicts, and more."

Because of the success of the LifeSkills program in select North Quabbin schools, all local school districts in the area are working on implementing the program in their middle schools. Those schools that have already implemented the middle school program are in the process of adding the elementary school and high school programs to their curriculum.

Investing in these social-emotional programs makes good business sense too. GBG and Life Skills yield as much as $72.07 and $17.35 respectively in benefits for every dollar invested, saving money from K-12 special education and grade repetition, health care, and costs associated with crime.

Teachers can't be expected to implement these proven measures without support. Districts should support professional development that equips teachers with the skills to integrate social-emotional learning strategies effectively within existing classroom curriculum.

Trust for America's Health believes it is time for a national strategy to strengthen resilience, and we call on educators and schools to play a role in addressing the crisis. Incorporating social and emotional development programs will help educators promote students' academic success and mental health, which in turn will support lifelong healthy behaviors - and could save lives.

Julia Sabrick is a co-op student with the Policy Development and Promoting Health and Cost Control in States (PHACCS) teams at Trust for America's Health, a non-profit, non-partisan public health policy, research, and advocacy organization. She is a senior at Northeastern University majoring in Health Science pursuing the pre-medical school track. 

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