An illustration of a green field at night with a bunch of yellow and white stars in the sky. In the field, on the left side is a cartoon brain holding the hands of a cartoon heart.
Social-emotional learning is a method used in early education to help students understand and connect their social skills with emotions that is represented through the brain and heart. Illustration by Jadelynn Lind.

Student behavioral issues are nothing new to teachers, especially in an elementary classroom. However, Nebraska public records show increased classroom disruptions in some Nebraska school districts, causing more teachers to implement innovative ways to combat this issue. 

Cicely Pickel is a first-year art teacher at Brownell Talbot College Preparatory School in Omaha. She said she sometimes encounters students who struggle to pay attention and listen in class. 

“I think a lot of behaviors are related to COVID because a lot of elementary school kids haven’t been in a real school environment for most of their school life,” she said. 

Adjusting to new protocols following the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult process, especially in elementary schools. Pickel said one of the most beneficial methods Brownell created appeals to social and emotional learning.

“We focus on social-emotional learning, which focuses on helping kids learn how to control their emotions and how to understand any big emotions they may have,” she said. 

California elementary schools discovered catering to forming social-emotional connections with teachers and students produced higher performance rates on testing and overall behavior. 

Pickel uses social-emotional approaches to form closer connections with students and credits their positive behavior to this learning method. 

“If the kids feel comfortable, respected and seen, it is harder for them to act out because their needs are being met,” she said. “Also, because they have formed that relationship with you, so they want to make you feel comfortable, respected and heard in return.” 

Students’ respect for teachers makes a significant impact on classroom behavior. 

Monserrat Rendon is a second-grade student teacher at Lakeview Elementary School in Lincoln. She said forming positive relationships helped her students see her as a person, not just a teacher. 

“Students do well with teachers they like because they just want to please them,” she said. “Getting to know them deep down and having them get to know you as a person helps with their learning and makes your job as their teacher easier.”

Rendon also said Lakeview teachers make an active effort to use social-emotional approaches to make these connections. 

“They just seem to make the relationships between the teacher and student stronger to where the classroom becomes a place where they feel comfortable and safe,” she said. 

Lincoln Public Schools utilizes social-emotional learning throughout their curriculum, especially in preschool through seventh grade. One of the programs often used is called the Second Step Program.

According to LPS, the Second Step Program is a classroom-based social-emotional learning program that promotes empathy, emotional management and skill building.

LPS elementary social worker Carrie Erks said the program benefits students and teachers socially and academically.

“We know when kids have fewer behaviors and good relationships, they perform better on academic things,” she said. 

This curriculum is used in every school throughout LPS that also includes lessons on bullying prevention, goal setting and growth mindset. 

“We see the importance of positive interactions and relationships, and being able to have good problem-solving skills, be empathetic and manage your emotions all lead to more positive skills in every area of life,” she said. 

Omaha Public Schools use similar social-emotional learning methods that help teachers manage behavior issues.

Keara Compton is a first-year third-grade teacher at Springville Elementary in North Omaha. She explained her relationships with students help her manage classroom behavior by setting ground rules on what is expected. 

“My relationships with my students are my main form of behavior management as it allows me to connect with them,” she said. “My relationships can also pull a student away from most undesirable behavior.”

Being socially and emotionally connected with her third-grade students is of the utmost importance to Compton as it provides safety and comfort to her students. 

“The better I know my students, the more I am able to connect with them and help them,” she said. “It also allows for more rewarding moments.” 

Kaylee Brodd is a senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.