JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The state’s top educators hope to curb bad behavior in the classroom by offering social-emotional learning resources for schools.

For the past few months, a group of teachers, school counselors and mental health experts have been researching what would help improve student behavior in the classroom. The reason behind this study is to not only help with teacher recruitment and retention but also to have an effect on the business community.

While the initial goal was to implement social-emotional learning standards statewide for all districts, the final decision of the State Board of Education on Tuesday was to instead make them optional.

“What we were trying to do by bringing together and unifying an approach that we all support has had the opposite effect,” Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said. “It’s created a bit more divisiveness than we would like to see.”

But it’s not only educators feeling the effects of the current culture and climate inside the classroom; it’s also Missouri’s workforce.

“I remember like it was yesterday, a teacher says, ‘Yeah, you need to fix the pay, but if you were dealing with what I’m dealing with every day, you would come to the conclusion that money is not the object. There’s not enough money to pay me to deal with what I’m dealing with every day and the level of behavior in the classroom,'” State Board of Education President Charlie Shields said Tuesday.

Earlier this year, DESE formed a working group to create “social-emotional learning standards.” Back in May, the group presented its draft to the State Board of Education. Then, in August, group members presented the proposed standards during the board’s monthly meeting.

The proposal included 15 standards, known as the “MO CORE Skills.” CORE stands for Competencies of Relationship-building Education by setting expectations in three categories: me, we and others.

Under the “Me” category, “Students will demonstrate a healthy sense of self…”

  • Ability to process and manage one’s own thoughts and behaviors to regulate emotions in a healthy manner
  • Ability to examine one’s own behavior, take ownership, and be accountable for one’s actions
  • Awareness and beliefs in one’s own strengths, interests, skills and areas for growth, trusting in their abilities
  • Ability to set, monitor, and achieve attainable goals with perseverance
  • Advocacy for self to promote health, safety, and personal needs

Under the “We” category, “Students will demonstrate relationship-building skills that are critical to employment and life success…”

  • Effective teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation.
  • Constructive decision-making, problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Awareness of and respect for others, different and similar to self
  • Understanding that different settings require different behavior and the ability to adjust to those settings
  • Effective communication, including self-expression and active listening

Under the “Others” category, “Students will demonstrate prosocial skills that have a positive effect on those around them and improve their communities…”

  • Understanding others’ feelings or emotions accurately
  • Empathy and compassion for others, including concern for how one’s behavior affects others
  • Respect and treat others with kindness, civility and dignity
  • Fair, equitable and just treatment of others
  • Advocacy for others as individuals or communities

Those standards were then out for public commendation in August and September. Nearly 2,000 people left feedback on the proposals. Some of the recurring support feedback said the standards are timely and needed; teaching these skills to students will give them a foundation to grow into well-rounded adults and the standards collectively prepare students to navigate social interactions and relationships effectively, communication skills, teamwork and conflict resolution abilities.

The recurring unsupportive feedback said that SEL will mandate teachers to utilize psychological interventions, encouraging teachers to practice psychology without a license, who decides what feelings and emotions are acceptable, and this is the role of the parent, not the school.

“Many of the comments said we want our teachers to concentrate on teaching, not this,” State Board of Education Vice President Carol Hallquist said. “Well, guess what, they cannot concentrate on teaching until they have a class under control and kids that understand.”

The board decided late Tuesday to change the word “standards” to “framework,” allowing school districts the option to utilize the social-emotional learning resource, instead of requiring implementation.

“I think we need to stop talking about SEL and social-emotional learning and just call it what it is,” State Board of Education member Kerry Casey said. “We need to address the behavior in the classroom.”

Members also decided there needs to be more discussion about student behaviors and classroom management because many are hearing from educators, and that’s why they are leaving the classroom.

“I think teachers are asking us for some level of expectation about the classroom environment about what is appropriate, and I think we have to make a statement,” Shields said. “You know there are appropriate behaviors in the classroom. Controversy doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to move forward and moving, I think at this level, is absolutely appropriate.”