Using a Multi-tiered Approach to Support the Social-Emotional Development of All Students

One of my favorite courses to teach in my role as a school counselor educator is social-emotional development. It’s not that other areas of development (e.g., academic or career development) are less important when working with children and adolescents but that social-emotional development plays a central role in shaping how we approach living our lives and the many demands required of us. It consists of a set of behaviors, skills, attitudes, and strategies that are essential to other areas of development, including daily functioning and academic performance.

Social-emotional development helps explain why Raymond has a hard time focusing in his fourth grade class while thinking about how he is going to navigate the soul-crushing loneliness he feels at lunch. In the same class, Kendall is looking forward to lunch because it’s her turn to be a team captain for the same kickball games that Raymond avoids. She can’t stop thinking about who she wants on her team and can hardly be bothered with the tasks in front of her.

Consider the skills that Raymond and Kendall need to more fully engage in their academic learning, to relate to those around them, and to cope with their strong feelings. When I pay attention to helping students improve those social-emotional skills in small ways, they more often than not have fewer difficulties in other areas of their development, even when they are facing challenges in those areas. Raymond, Kendall, and their classmates would likely benefit from social-emotional development because it pays attention to the many noncognitive factors that can help students be more successful in school.

When I pay attention to helping students improve those social-emotional skills in small ways, they more often than not have fewer difficulties in other areas of their development.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), founded to expand Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking work on emotional intelligence in 1995, emphasizes the importance of social-emotional development in its description of social-emotional learning (SEL). CASEL defines SEL as processes through which families, educators, and communities enhance the capacities of children and adults to “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Both Raymond and Kendall could benefit from the ability to understand and manage their emotions. It appears that Raymond might also need some skills to help him establish and maintain positive relationships. And what if Kendall could feel and show empathy for Raymond and encourage him to join her kickball team?

Although this scenario is set in an elementary classroom, there are any number of social/emotional challenges in our schools across all grades. How can we even begin to get a handle on which students need support and what support they need? The more recent attention to multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) in education that is characteristic of approaches like response to intervention (RTI) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) provides some direction to support social-emotional development.

An MTSS approach assumes that all students benefit from some social-emotional supports (tier 1), some students benefit from additional interventions (tier 2), and a few students require intensive interventions (tier 3). In the example of Raymond and Kendall, while Kendall might benefit from skills designed to help her with emotional regulation in the same way any child would, Raymond appears to need something more. Where Kendall does not appear to be struggling with social connections, Raymond does not seem to be thriving in this area.

MTSS provides a useful framework to intentionally address social-emotional development. However, it does not provide social-emotional standards or competencies. Various groups have identified social-emotional development standards. I use the six mindsets and three behavior areas (learning strategies, self-management skills, and social skills) that include twenty-nine skills for a total of thirty-five mindsets and behaviors (see Figure 1). These are identified in literature by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) as skills that foster the social-emotional development of all students (“ASCA Mindsets and Behaviors for Student Success”). In their critical literature review on the role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance, Farrington et al. argue that when students develop these mindsets and behaviors, they are more likely to be successful during their formal schooling and beyond.

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Works Cited

“ASCA Mindsets and Behaviors for Student Success: K–12 College- and Career-Readiness Standards for Every Student.” American School Counselor Association, 2014,

“Back to School Resources: Supporting Emotional Well-Being.” All Belong Center for Inclusive Education, 2020,

CASEL. “Social and Emotional Learning,”, 2020,

Farrington, C. A., M. Roderick, E. Allensworth, J. Nagaoka, T. S. Keyes, D. W. Johnson, and N. O. Beechum. “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners.” University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2012.

Mendoza, Laurie P. “Getting to Know You (with Minute Meetings).” The School Counseling Files, September 14, 2013,

Shawn A. Bultsma currently teaches at Grand Valley State University as a school counselor educator and sees clients in a small practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He began his teaching career at Eastern Christian High School in North Haledon, New Jersey, and also worked as a school counselor at South Christian High School in Byron Center, Michigan. He served as a founding board member and school counselor at Living Stones Academy in Grand Rapids.