Rebecca Karabus

Suspension rates have dropped at several New Haven Public Schools, NHPS officials reported Monday at a Board of Education Teaching and Learning Committee meeting. Administrators present cited the Social and Emotional Learning curricula, launched in 2011, as a leading cause of the decline.

SEL, which aims to help students understand their emotions, foster healthy relationships and make responsible decisions, was officially added to the New Haven Public School System curriculum in 2011 after officials reviewed city behavioral standards data and realized behavior needed to improve, Truman Elementary School Principal Roy Araujo said. Typhanie Jackson, director of student services for NHPS, said students are offered behavioral support through SEL at one of three levels of intensity, depending on their behavior. All students are taught self-management skills including de-escalation strategies for conflict situations. The third tier of intensity, which supports children with significant behavioral problems, offers students individual counseling and access to support agencies in the community.

Jamie Coady, an administrative intern at John S. Martinez Magnet School, said SEL has contributed to the 90 percent decrease in suspensions at the school since 2011. Araujo, whose elementary school has seen a roughly 85 percent drop in suspensions since 2013, also credits SEL for the improvement.

“[SEL] is paramount to improving student attitudes and beliefs about self, others and school,” Jackson said during her Monday presentation.

Araujo said SEL is improving the education of students from all parts of the behavioral spectrum. Araujo said 211 fewer students were sent to his office last year than there were in 2013, and lessons are interrupted less frequently by disrupted behavior.

Jackson said SEL gives students and teachers a common language they can use to set clear expectations for behavior. She cited Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports — an element of SEL that aims to foster a positive school climate by rewarding good behavior — as an example of a tool that improves communication.

Mayor Toni Harp, president of the Board of Education, told meeting attendees that bad behavior in schools is often caused by trauma. She said children struggle to talk about their emotions, especially after a traumatic event, adding that some students who are suffering do not necessarily show it by acting out.

“The kids that internalize [trauma] may actually do well enough in school, but they’re … causing personal damage. It impacts their physical health,” Harp said, adding that those who externalize trauma often end up suspended or expelled.

Alice Forrester, executive director of Clifford Beers Clinic — a mental health clinic serving children and families in Greater New Haven — said 65 percent of NHPS children have been exposed to adversity, including parental incarceration, community violence or bereavement.

Harp said schools should provide students with social and emotional support so they do not carry the burden of family or community trauma with them to the classroom.

While the Board was impressed by the SEL statistics Jackson and school leaders presented, Coral Ortiz — a junior at Hillhouse High School and one of the Board’s two non-voting student members — said she hopes SEL will play a more prominent role in high schools as the program expands.

Eighty New Haven public students were expelled in 2013, according to a Connecticut Voices for Children report.