GSE Faculty Create Supportive Learning Environments

November 14, 2017

Developing skills to manage emotions, fostering strong connections with peers and trusted adults, and nurturing mental health, are all functions of education that often get lost or ignored in the quest for student academic success. Consequently, only 29% of students in grades 6 through 12 feel that their school provides a learning environment that is supportive of their social, emotional, and mental well being (American Psychological Association). GSE Assistant Professor, Judith R. Harrison, says the first step in addressing this shortcoming is acknowledgment.  “Education professionals need to start acknowledging the behavioral aspect of education; we need to start teaching students to understand their emotions and the emotions of others, and to manage them in a way that’s positive and constructive,” Harrison explains. “Without giving them these skills to function and maintain a healthy mental lifestyle, it will be extremely hard for them to find happiness and success, regardless of whether it’s in the classroom or in their day to day life.”

Harrison’s interest in the behavioral aspect of education stems from her early professional experience as a special education teacher. While she greatly enjoyed working in this position, Harrison felt her impact was limited and saw academic research as the vehicle for driving true change. Thus, she returned to school and received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Special Education from Texas A&M University. Since then, Harrison has published multiple studies that involve identifying and addressing the social and emotional barriers to academic success.  This work has led to breakthrough findings in areas such as accommodation, screening, and intervention. In the upcoming spring semester, Harrison will be teaching a new special topics course at the GSE, titled “School Mental Health.” The course is designed to prepare future teachers and school counselors to collaboratively teach social emotional skills and implement school-based mental services.  The class curriculum provides a foundation for school mental health services by exploring the history and future of school mental health services and teaching best practices and intervention techniques to address difficulties that interfere with learning in schools and classrooms. 

GSE Associate Professor, Caroline S. Clauss-Ehlers has also spent much of her career embodying the GSE’s mission of Advancing Excellence and Equity in Education through the lens of mental health and social, emotional, and behavioral learning. Clauss-Ehlers served as editor for the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (JMCD) for 6 years before stepping down from her role this past August. During her time as editor, Clauss-Ehlers led numerous efforts to help ensure classrooms around the country are supportive for all students.  She was committed to having journal articles focus on topics that addressed student concerns underrepresented in the literature.  For instance, JMCD published a study by Kevin Cokley and colleagues titled, “An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students.” This study was cited by ABC news in light of Oscar winner Viola Davis sharing her experiences of “impostor syndrome.” In other efforts, Clauss-Ehlers and colleagues work to mentor future school counselors through the GSE’s master’s in school counseling program. The school counseling program is committed to mentoring graduate students to work with elementary, middle, and high school students and their families in diverse community contexts. In an interview with Clauss-Ehlers, she emphasized the importance of this work, explaining that stigma has been an ongoing barrier to the access and utilization of mental health services. “While it seems that the stigma surrounding mental health issues is lifting, we still have a long way to go in terms of providing access and utilization of mental health services in diverse community contexts. School-based mental health services are one way to reach children in their daily environments and promote social-emotional learning.”

The current work of GSE Associate Professor, Matthew Mayer, also serves to address the multifaceted and complex challenge of building supportive and inclusive classrooms in all communities. Mayer believes that leveraging both preventative and promotional approaches of support is essential to cultivating learning environments that are healthy and helpful for positive youth development.  He illustrates this concept to students at the GSE in his class, “Classroom Organization for Inclusive and Special Classrooms.” The course, now a requirement for all 5-year teacher preparation students, offers students the foundational knowledge, issue framing perspectives, and real-world problem-solving skills they need to be successful when they start their careers as educators.  Students learn how to establish a positive and productive learning environment, facilitate positive relationship building, systematically organize and manage the classroom, and proactively employ data-based assessment and management strategies to respond to behavioral issues. They also develop the skills necessary to prevent and identify instances of bullying, and respond to and de-escalate crisis situations. Mayer stressed how fostering a blended understanding of social-emotional learning and positive behavioral support is increasingly important today, especially for educators in urban classrooms. “A lot of research today indicates that educators who aren’t well-prepared regarding classroom organization and classroom management tend to engage in more harsh and punitive disciplinary approaches, disproportionally affecting students of color and students from lower socioeconomic groups,” Mayer explains. This class serves to address that issue head-on.

Mayer’s personal academic pursuits also serve to inform his instruction and class curriculum. Backed with the support of the American Psychological Association (APA), Mayer has recently joined forces with University of Santa Barbara Professor and School Psychology Quarterly International Editor, Shane Jimerson, to develop an expert team to write a book about school violence, prevention, and safety promotion. Titled “School Safety and Violence Prevention: Science, Practice, and Policy Driving Change,” the book looks at past, present, and forthcoming research, and positions itself as a new breakthrough resource to help make schools safer and more supportive. The book’s intended audience isn’t limited to academics alone, and includes state and national policymakers and practitioners as well. “Unfortunately, education policy is often disconnected with research and practice,” Mayer explains. “This book serves to bridge the gap between these areas.”  The book is currently in the production phase, and Mayer hopes that it can make a big impact in the field when it is released next year.

Who to contact:
Elizabeth Boyle