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10 Best Practices for Improving and Expanding Social, Emotional and Behavioral Supports

Student Services

While there is much debate about why an increasing number of children come to school with significant social, emotional and behavioral (S, E & B) needs, nearly all districts report the number of children with these challenges is on the rise.

In order for students to meet developmental milestones, learn, grow and lead productive lives, it is critical that their social, emotional and behavioral issues be addressed. Research indicates that children and youth with mental health problems have lower educational achievement and greater involvement with the criminal justice system [1]. Improving and expanding S, E & B supports not only helps the students who have these challenges but can benefit nearly every student and adult in a school.

All schools — urban, suburban and rural; large and small; and regardless of socioeconomics — have students with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. However, in some of these communities, students receive the counseling they need, classroom routines promote positive behavior, and most strikingly, students with problematic behavior are able to stay in class and seldom disrupt their peers. What is the difference between these schools and typical schools? The distinctions can be hard to notice because the difference isn’t in the amount they spend, the programs they bought, or the dedication of their staff. The people, tools and talents themselves aren’t all that different but the way in which staff work and deliver intervention is different — the more effective districts have created a coherent, collaborative plan grounded in a systems-thinking approach and incorporating best practices.

Here, we focus on 10 key, interconnected best practices to help you and your team effectively and comprehensively create a system to meet the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. These practices fall into three major categories: Leveraging the talents of current staff, focusing on prevention and supporting local partnerships.

Leverage the Talents of Current Staff

1. Streamline meetings and paperwork to increase the time staff can spend with students.

Process mapping, reviewing who attends which meetings and setting guidelines for desired time with students can often significantly increase the services provided to students by current staff.

2. Allow staff to play to their strengths; assign roles based on strengths, not titles.

Identify staff’s unique skills and match job responsibilities to these areas of expertise. For example, some psychologists may have expertise in behavior management while others may have expertise in assessment and case management.

3. Facilitate teamwork with common planning time.

A wide array of people in a variety of roles are often involved in supporting the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. Allow them to come together weekly to review student progress and adjust support strategies.

4. Support classroom teachers with in-the-classroom support from staff skilled in behavior management.

In-the-moment coaching, in-the-classroom observations and specific recommendations from behavior specialists can help classroom teachers meet the needs of their students.

Focus on Prevention

5. Focus on prevention by identifying and managing behavioral triggers.

Identify why a student acts out and develop specific strategies for averting these triggers to prevent outbursts before they happen.

6. Increase access to staff with expertise in behavior management.

To effectively focus on prevention, schools need access to experts trained in identifying and reducing behavioral triggers. Given tight budgets, seek to hire staff with expertise in behavior management when doing replacement hiring and/or seek to build a centralized behavior team that can provide support across many schools.

7. Align discipline policies to support a commitment to prevention.

It is important that the discipline code has the flexibility to support a focus on prevention, that loss of learning time is minimized, that suspensions are avoided for nonviolent infractions and that unconscious bias is mitigated.

8. Stay focused on academic achievement.

Many “behavior programs” seem to undervalue the importance of academic learning and student achievement. Core content is often taught by special education teachers instead of subject expert teachers, and curriculum is sometimes watered down; lowered expectations can exacerbate troubling behaviors.

Support Local Partnerships

9. Seek local partnerships.

Often, local mental health agencies, nearby nonprofit counseling services, universities and sometimes even for-profit practitioners can provide social and emotional services at little or no out-of-pocket costs to students or the district.

10. Actively support local partnerships.

Local partners can provide much-needed services, so it is worth making an investment in managing and facilitating these relationships to ensure their success.

Working Together to Improve Your School’s Behavioral Climate

With social, emotional and behavioral issues posing a growing challenge for schools, and with budgets tight for the foreseeable future, schools will need a new and comprehensive approach to meet the needs of students. While neither easy nor quick, these best practices can help to better serve students. This work, however, will need leadership from the top, systems thinking, support for teachers and principals and perseverance. If parents, staff, school leadership and district leaders work and plan together, much progress can be made in addressing this difficult challenge.

Read the full District Management Journal article “10 Best Practices for Improving and Expanding Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Supports.” 


1 “Children’s Mental Health: Facts for Policymakers,” National Center for Children in Poverty, November 2006, http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_687.html

When re-validating your school’s approach to meeting the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students, consider how having a common digital system for managing RTI/MTSS and special education programs can provide greater visibility into the whole child while reducing the paperwork burden for staff.

Nathan Levenson - PRESIDENT - District Management GroupNathan Levenson

Nathan Levenson is a noted subject matter expert in the areas of special education and of resource use in public school districts. Nate’s experience as a superintendent, school board member, and private sector CEO allows him to bring a unique perspective to his work in education leadership. As Managing Director at District Management Group, Nate works closely with superintendents and their leadership teams to create practical solutions to pressing challenges. He has authored numerous books including A Better Way to Budget: Building Support for Bold, Student-Centered Change in Public Schools, as well as many articles and case studies, which can be accessed via DMGroup’s resource library.