The seven characteristics of a socially and emotionally intelligent school

Photo credit: Espen Faugstad (Creative Commons). 

The next time a kid tells you that they don’t like their school, it is worth asking yourself whether you would like it either. Schools have personalities, which explains why students use adjectives to describe them that usually are applied to people e.g. fun, full of drama, boring, stressful, or mean. 

No Bully has partnered with two hundred schools across the United States and internationally. Some of these are independent, some parochial and some are public schools Often we are sought out because the leadership is seeking support in building a culture in which every student can flourish academically, socially and emotionally.  Schools are complex eco-systems and it can take an outside agency to help create the systemic impact needed to shift the culture.  

We were brought in by Stockton School District in California to help turnaround seven economically disadvantaged schools and ended up staying with them for three years and being a big part of the change. They asked for the long term partnership because No Bully was integral to their philosophy for a thriving campus.  

At the other end of the spectrum our higher SES partner schools are often freighted by the weight of parental pressure to produce perfect students with perfect scores. This is a different type of cultural problem generated by narratives of competition, exclusivity and academic excellence.  It too requires systemic change that engages compassion to meet students where they are at and accept them for who they are.

How do you build a socially and emotionally intelligent school?  Over the thirteen years that we have worked to end bullying we have seen that the schools which succeed in advancing the social and emotional well-being of students have invested in a culture that shares seven core characteristics.  

  1. Social vision statement.  Every school needs a clear vision of the type of community that it seeks to be which answers this essential question: what do we stand for?  Too often schools skip this stage through the mistaken belief that they do not have the time.  Often change only comes with a new vision of what the school stands for.  A powerful vision statement is central to developing a a strong and positive culture.  It unifies the community around a “story of us” that distinguishes the scbool’s uniqueness.  When schools engage their community of staff, teachers and parents in developing the vision statement it becomes the guiding philosophy for all the school’s initiatives around student social and emotional wellbeing and safety. 
  2. Commitment to compassion.   The core skill of social intelligence is compassion (active empathy).  For teachers and educators compassion is critical to building relationships with students and parents so that they feel seen by you and valued for whom they are.  Teachers who take the time to acknowledge what a student is likely feeling and to let them know that they get it (often this requires just a few seconds) find that their students trust them with their problems and that they learn better.  They also find that they have easier and deeper interactions with parents and with their colleagues.  Socially and emotionally intelligent schools make compassion the guiding principle for all their interactions.  The members of the school community – teachers, administrative staff, parents and students – take the time to step in to the shoes of others and to see the world through their eyes.  Karen Armstrong, in her writing on compassion, describes it as dethroning yourself from the center of your world and recognizing that we share a common humanity of fears and joys, insecurity and longing.  Adolescence is a time of self-absorption and identity formation, which lends particular urgency to resolving the dialectic of self versus other. 
  3. Inclusiveness.  Schools often bring together people with very different abilities, body sizes, races, religions, classes, gender identities and sexual orientations.  In more traditionally structured schools these differences can be pronounced and become the basis upon which students are marginalized.  Socially and Emotionally Intelligent Schools value inclusiveness, which works in the opposite direction to flatten power structures and widen the circle of community.  In 2015 No Bully was invited to a city in Rhode Island where a school district was being sued in three separate bullying cases. We brought the school department together with the Mayor’s office, local police and a corporate sponsor to create a unified No Bully initiative and encouraged them to view bullying as far more than a school issue.  If they failed to address it, the entire city would suffer. Increased truancy and school dropouts were burdening city police. Drug and alcohol abuse, violence and criminality were on the increase in city streets and parks.  Diverse and immigrant families were being marginalized and local health services were burdened to treat the physical and mental health impacts effects.  Student suicides has darkened the entire community.  Inclusiveness is achieved when every teacher, staff member and student feels part of the school community and valued for who they are.   Inclusiveness brings with it a generosity of spirit. It requires schools to take an honest look at who holds power and who is marginalized. In parallel with creating flatter hierarchies and widening the circle of community comes empowering youth to find their own voice and values. Socially and Emotionally Intelligent Schools encourage youth voice as part of their development as engaged citizens.
  4. Bully-Free Campus.  Approximately one-third of adolescents around the world are the target of face to face or online bullying and no school is immune.  Increasingly schools are recognizing the need to integrate an effective anti-bullying system to prevent the harm caused to student lives and the damage to school culture and enrollment when bullying and cyberbullying occur.  Socially and Emotionally Intelligent Schools have institutionalized systems such as the No Bully System® in parallel with the other changes described in this article.
  5. Social and Emotional Learning.  A well-matched social and emotional learning curriculum (“SEL”) is a powerful antidote to bullying.  It is also critical to a successful learning environment: an average student enrolled in a social and emotional learning program ranks 11 percentage points higher on achievement tests than students who do not participate.  In this age of digital connectivity, it is important for any SEL curriculum adopted by a school to include skill building in digital citizenship and media literacy. The most effective way for a school to implement SEL is for lessons to be delivered to students by their classroom teachers. This in turn requires teachers and staff to build their own social and emotional intelligence and model this in their interactions with students, parents and each other. 
  6. Comprehensive safeguarding systems.  Socially and Emotionally Intelligent Schools watch for students who are at risk and have created an effective safety net for the students who are referred for help.  They maintain an index of referral resources including school counselors, volunteer mentors and outside mental health resources to get these students and their families the help that they need.  
  7. Alternatives to suspension.  Schools that succeed in building a positive culture engage non-punitive interventions and keep suspensions to a minimum as part of their commitment to social justice and equal access to education for all.  This can mean a significant change of philosophy for teachers staff who were trained in the traditional escalating responses of consequences, suspension, and expulsion.  We live in an increasingly punitive society and this is reflected in US schools where suspension rates have doubled in the last three decades.  This approach was based on the belief that students lack innate capacity for moral action and that their behavior is best redirected by the infliction of shame and pain. The cumulative effect of these practices in US public schools was to disproportionately target students of color, create harsh school environments that often cause increases in student aggression, and to contribute to a school to prison pipeline.  Examples of alternatives to suspension are using restorative justice and Solution Teams® to reverse bullying situations, which in place of punishing the bullying students, engage them – and their peers – through leveraging their empathy – to create solutions.

Building a socially and emotionally intelligent school is critical to a successful learning environment.  Students thrive academically when their social and emotional needs are met, when they are recognized and accepted for who they are, when they feel welcomed and heard. Compassionate action is central to a school’s ability to create a caring and inclusive culture and climate, to nurture a strong moral compass in those who walk through its doors, and to invite deep participation and learning. What is more, compassionate action is foundational to effective collaboration, and to advancing the common good – attributes that in today’s increasingly connected world are central to success.