A rise in social, emotional and behavioral interventions in Easton schools has caught the attention of Board of Education members, and they’re discussing the factors contributing to student stress at the elementary and middle school level.
“The board has widened its lens and is looking at the impact of social media and general stresses and anxiety kids have,” said Jeffrey Parker, Easton’s school board chairman. “It’s far greater than it’s ever been. The world of education is changing. It’s not about how to deliver instruction. Now it’s about the impact of the world around us and how social media plays into the psyche of kids.”
The number of students receiving intervention for social, emotional and behavior issues rose from 22 to 57 over the past three years, according to information provided by Kimberly Fox-Santora, principal of Samuel Staples Elementary School.
Fox-Santora provided graphs and handouts at the Nov. 14 school board meeting.
“There are more kids now who aren’t coping,” she said after the meeting. “We have some kids who are inexperienced and being taught to calm themselves down. The world has changed. Our goal is to change with the times.”
Intervention starts with the classroom teacher, she said, based on goals set for the child by the Student Intervention Team (SIT). The school social worker or psychologist acts as case manager, and the child may participate in “the lunch bunch” group, a small counseling group or, if deemed necessary, individual counseling.
There are interventions also in the areas of math and language arts, and the total percentage of interventions, including social, emotional and behavioral, has jumped from 22.60% of the student population in 2014-15 to 33.58% in 2016-17.
The percentages have increased within a framework of decreasing enrollment, and Fox-Santora said there’s a wide range of reasons for the rising number of interventions.
“Intervention occurs when any student falls short of a benchmark,” she said, and the process starts with the teacher giving extra help and, if needed, an expert who works with the student every day.
“Research shows that the early intervention model works,” she said. “We’re swift in using the right instruments. The tools are picking the right kids. We have successfully closed academic gaps and helped kids be socially competent.”
As do other local educators, Fox-Santora sees technology as embedded in the life of young students, but it’s closely monitored at the elementary level.
At Staples, there’s virtually no cell phone service, but there’s also a “no cell phone use” policy.
If a student wishes to use one of the classroom’s four chromebooks, a type of laptop computer, “the adult in the room has to hand them the device,” she said. Older students work on computer documents in collaborative activities, while younger students use websites that allow them to practice fact-finding.
She views Staples as “a happy place to be. I see a lot of laughter. There is no uptick in absences or discipline.”
At the same time, there are students “who have difficulty being emotionally regulated,” she said.
Social-emotional learning is integrated into the curriculum by the Second Step program in Easton schools.
The program gives the students the language to deal respectfully with challenging situations and teaches them the difference between being aggressive and assertive.
They also learn how to speak up for themselves and become aware of other people’s feelings.
“Students can describe their behavior and can talk about their emotions and what a responsible decision should have been,” Fox-Santora said. The learning takes place in 30-minute weekly sessions through songs, puppets and skits.
“Our kids have benefited,” she said.
“It’s important to give students the skills to be able to label their emotions,” said school board member Cindy Shortt during the school board meeting. “I’m a huge fan of social-emotional learning.”
Shortt, who is a therapist, said she sees the effects of children having access to technology “24-7.”
“We’re not making the kids “ready for the road,” she said, but are instead focusing on making the road ready for them.
“Our youth need to cope,” she said, and some of the fault lies with parents who ask their children to text them immediately when they arrive somewhere.
When Shortt was growing up, “our parents trusted us,” she said. “We weren’t being tracked.”
Today, “kids question their own ability to be self-sufficient,” she said.
“I’m gravely concerned about the ability to connect with each other,” said board member Jenny Chieda, who initiated the discussion about stress at the Oct. 10 school board meeting.
Chieda and other board members commended school administrators for Easton students’ high achievement in the Smarter Balanced assessments, but she worried that the children may be over-tested or pushed too hard academically.
At the November meeting, the discussion centered on the negative impact of technology.
Chieda, who is a teacher, said she’s noticed that when she gives her students a five-minute break, they remain in their seats looking at their phones rather than getting up and walking around.
“None of them look at each other,” she said. “They look at videos and are not socializing. It’s circling back to the inability to remove themselves from their devices.”
Susan Kaplan, principal of Helen Keller Middle School, said that constant exposure to social media is one aspect of the stress her students are experiencing.
“Our feeling is there are more and more students needing guidance and help,” Kaplan said.
“We’re supporting more and more children every year,” she said, in the area of social, emotional and behavioral intervention.
“Students bringing phones to school isn’t a distraction,” she said, because the school’s expectation is for students to turn off their phones when they arrive in the morning and turn them on at the end of the day.
Kaplan sees the problem stemming from another area.
“There have been more and more incidents of students improperly using social media, impacting relationships,” she said. “Guidance counselors have been moderating issues.”
Research shows that there’s a correlation between stress levels and the number of hours a child is on a cell phone, she said
Kaplan and others said children are often texting on their phones at night when they should be sleeping.
“Sleep is critical,” said school board member Dr. David Bindelglass. “Letting a kid have a phone in his bedroom is going to keep him or her from sleeping.”
School Superintendent Dr. Thomas McMorran agrees, and advises parents to remove cell phones and chargers from children’s bedrooms.
“If you let a phone go into the bedroom at night, the child won’t sleep,” he said.
He said parents should impose rules and restrictions on cell phone use, and if they want their children to have a phone in order to make phone calls, a flip phone would be more suitable than a smartphone.
“We all have to learn how to manage the access to the Internet,” he said. “Younger kids have too much access. For example, they can watch real time safaris that aren’t edited for violence.”
McMorran suggests that parents watch television along with younger children in the household.
He sees another reason for the spike in student stress.
“I think there’s a relationship between anxiety and the lack of time to think things through,” he said, including the need to respond immediately to a text message and the immediate access students have to information.
Cell phones don’t appear to be affecting instruction in the classroom, he said, but they divert students away from “the kid across the table.”
School administrators and faculty should have the authority to “decide when technology is safe and educational,” he said, just as chemistry teachers ensure that students are undertaking safe experiments.
McMorran takes an optimistic view of what’s happening in the district’s schools.
“There’s quite a lot that’s really, really good,” he said, and a during a recent walk-through he took at all the schools, he saw “kids laughing, happy and actively engaged.
“I don’t think it’s a pressure cooker,” he said. “You’ll see kids who are safe and engaged with each other and growing.”
Three-year-olds currently entering the school system will graduate from high school in 2032.
“We need them to acquire literacy in technology,” he said. “It’s possible to have rigorous academic expectations and a fun time.”
Parker said the school board will continue to discuss how social media affects students’ educational experience.
“Social media is becoming an integral part of students’ lives,” he said, and bullying that takes place there is “seeping into the school day. Administrators have to deal with that. We have to do some more digging to get to a greater understanding about the rise in interventions.
“We have to make sure we as a board stay vigilant,” he said, regarding the influence of social media and technology on students. “We need to continue to make this a priority.”