Here’s What I did When Student Stress and Conflict Rose

As a middle school principal, I’ve seen that sustaining behavioral expectations for my students is harder this year, and I’ve heard the same thing from fellow leaders. When my school started experiencing multiple behavioral conflicts every day, that was new territory, and I have to admit, I didn’t see the path forward right away. I want to share what works for me and my team: We bring together SEL, student voices and student relationships, and we’re transparent about all of it – from the way we work with the student council to the way we work with students receiving tier-two and tier-three support. 

I’ve always believed that social-emotional learning is key to academic learning. And because this is middle school, it’s key for students to develop skills for managing conflicts, taking responsibility for their emotions and promoting respect for their peers. That’s why we begin a new SEL lesson each week and build in time for reflection and role-playing. (If you’re thinking ahead to your SEL plans for next year, I recommend the Second Step curriculum, which is informed by CASEL’s core competencies – I’ve included some details at the end of this post.) But when some of my students showed me they needed more, I realized we leaders need to let all our kids know that if they’re having a harder time than usual, we understand that this is a harder year than usual – and we’ll keep finding ways to support them. That’s why I want to share my approach:

SEL + student voice

When my team and I saw that behavioral incidents were on the rise, I sat down with my student council and said, “Hey, look, it seems like being at school feels harder than usual. I know you’re in the trenches, you’re seeing what your classmates are going through, and you might be going through some of it yourself.” I asked, “What can we do to alleviate some of the tension that kids are feeling in the classroom?” I was so proud of their reply: They leveraged the SEL skills we’ve been working on all year and created a student-led restorative circle process to deescalate conflicts. 

Now, when a conflict arises, a student can say, “Hey, I’d like to have a restorative conversation with this person.” Inspired by our weekly SEL curriculum, the council designed restorative circle protocols that we follow, drafting questions like, “What does each person feel is the issue here? What could resolution look like to each person?” By making everyone feel heard and respected, this practice helps all the students involved feel like even if they can’t agree, they can still reach a meaningful resolution – because instead of having an adult shut the conflict down, they get to own it, address it and resolve it. 

Student voice + school policies

A big part of getting students invested in community expectations is making them feel like school policies don’t exist “just because” and empowering them to drive change. That’s why I make sure our students can see that their voices are a key ingredient in our approach to problem-solving. Our student council holds town halls with grade representatives and Q&A sessions with the student body to bring common problems to light, analyze the causes and brainstorm ways to improve everyone’s experience at school. Earlier this year, my council learned that most of our seventh graders were always late to their first class, so they and their teachers were starting the day with stress and frustration. The council asked the seventh grade reps about it, and they said, “We feel like the adults think we’re wasting time, but we just can’t get from the doors to the lockers to the classrooms fast enough. The building is too big.” The council brought the problem to me and proposed we open the doors three minutes earlier, and we did it. That’s all it took to make sure every student starts the day on the right foot – and to show them that’s what we really care about. 

Student data + relationships

One of my guiding principles is that, whenever we look at any kind of student data, we always look through the lens of student relationships. That means when teachers and assistant principals gather weekly to analyze our school’s data on who is receiving discipline and how often, we’re asking: How can we leverage relationships to support the kids who are having a hard time with behavior? And whether we’re scheduling a student for some informal one-on-one time with a staff member they trust, or moving them into tier-two intervention with our behavior specialist, how can we explain the plan in a way that makes them feel supported, not punished? 

One strategy that came out of this meeting was our “break pass” for students who receive tier-two and tier-three intervention support. During class, these students often don’t know how to say, ”I’m frustrated because I can’t do this activity without help,” or, “I’m distracted because I had a rough morning at home.” When that happens, they can use the break pass to step away, connect with a counselor or admin they trust and reset. Intervention is all about promoting the SEL tools students can use to step back from escalation without stepping out of class, but those tools take time to master, so we use our relationships to provide a tool they can use right away – and it really helps.

SEL + intervention

When students start receiving tier-two or tier-three behavioral support, it’s easy for them to feel like they’re not valued as part of our community – and to start disconnecting from the SEL skills we practice. We try to counter that in specific ways: First, we’re intentional about telling students how much we do value them – that’s why we’re making sure they get everything they need to feel better at school. 

Second, our intervention specialist is intentional about connecting one-on-one intervention time with our whole-school SEL learnings. She shows them how familiar SEL tools, such as role-plays, can help them tackle specific challenges and grow specific skills – like practicing how to say, “I’m frustrated because I can’t do this activity without help,” or, “I’m distracted because I had a rough morning at home.” By connecting individual intervention work to the SEL work we’re all doing as a community, we can promote trust with these students as community members – and that helps them invest in building the skills they need to stay in our school, participating and learning with us. 

Collectively, these approaches have made a significant difference in our school culture. We take every opportunity to bring together student voice, student relationships and schoolwide SEL – and, just as importantly, we take every opportunity to show students we’re doing all this to support them. As a result, we’ve seen behavioral incidents decrease dramatically. I’m not saying my students never feel overwhelmed in class or upset in the hall – they do, because that’s just part of being a middle school kid, especially during a global pandemic. But these days, my students are much better equipped to recognize, express and deescalate their feelings, and they’re much more empowered to support one another. They’re really leveraging the SEL tools and school processes we’ve offered them as empowered individuals and as an empowered community – and I’m so proud to see it. 

Here are a few examples of the resources and strategies we rely on:

A glimpse of our restorative circle protocols. Click on each image to access the full document:

A behavioral intervention PD lesson that my staff and I learned from together. Click on any image to view the full lesson:

The Second Step curriculum we rely on. Click through to explore their elementary, middle and high school curricula:

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