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Success Stories

From “Tough Love” to “Love Tough”: How El Paso ISD Took a Relational Approach to Behavior and Saw a 25% Sustained Reduction in Referrals

Ray Lozano
Ray Lozano
From “Tough Love” to “Love Tough”: How El Paso ISD Took a Relational Approach to Behavior and Saw a 25% Sustained Reduction in Referrals




“I believe in tough love. If you are a leader, manager, coach, teacher, or parent, caring about someone often requires you to challenge and push them to improve, grow, and reach their full potential… But for tough love to work, love must come first. We must love tough to bring out the best in those we lead.” — Jon Gordon

I love this concept of “love tough” from Jon Gordon. Students have to feel that you love them.  Only then will they give you permission to be tough and have the difficult conversations needed to address issues in the classroom like behavior.

In the 2015-16 school year, our team at El Paso Independent School District (TX) was confronted with some alarming data. We had a significant number of disciplinary referrals, which results in lost instructional time and opportunities. Additionally, we had a significant number of students placed in alternative education settings offsite, for mandatory and discretionary reasons.

We knew our students were just as capable as students anywhere else. It was clear that we needed to reevaluate our district’s approach to student discipline, improve our culture and climate, and provide a systemic solution.

In my role as Executive Director of Student and Family Empowerment at El Paso ISD, I lead the department responsible for rolling out social-emotional learning (SEL) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) across 83 campuses serving 50,769 students. Through this work, we changed our approach to behavior from “transactional” to “relational,” and saw a 25% sustained reduction in behavior referrals since introducing SEL in 2016-17.

Here are the steps we took to get there, in partnership with Panorama, to build positive relationships district-wide by implementing PBIS and SEL. 


A 3-Phase Model for Rethinking Culture and Climate at El Paso ISD

When we began this work, we always looked at it as a three-phase model: PBIS, social-emotional learning, and restorative practices. We began with a cohort of around 40 schools the first year implementing PBIS, and added 40 schools the next. During that second year, we began SEL implementation with seven pilot elementary schools. 

Each school sent a climate and culture team, composed of administrators, counselors, instructional coaches, and teachers, to several trainings during the year. We partnered with CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) to implement an SEL framework. These teams were trained on a series of strategies, like mindfulness practices or community circles. 

Throughout the year, our district team would visit classrooms and provide feedback. We were able to highlight things that they were doing well and provide them with feedback that helped them advance their implementation.


el paso climate and culture team

Example of School Climate and Culture Team Rubric from El Paso ISD


Partnering with Panorama to Elevate Student Voice

Eventually, we found that we needed the ability to look at data besides discipline and attendance. That's where our partnership with Panorama for SEL became really critical. Looking at student voice data helped us understand how our SEL implementation was impacting our students and identify opportunities for supporting our schools throughout the process. By adding SEL data to our existing attendance and discipline data, we were able to more clearly see the link between social-emotional learning and behavior. 

We chose to survey students on the social-emotional topics of Social Awareness, Self-Management, Growth Mindset, and Emotional Regulation in alignment with the CASEL framework. If our Panorama data indicated a need for support in a specific area, we would make that a focal point of our educator training and offer strategies for strengthening that competency with students.

Our high school students have also been participating in conversations about Panorama data. We have a Student SEL Leadership Group who, based on our survey results, elevated a need to strengthen teacher-student relationships after the return to in-person learning. Students have brainstormed ways to built positive relationships with their teachers and to advocate for themselves. We encourage students to speak up when they feel like more work can be done in any areas related to SEL.

Sample Panorama Results from Grades 3-5 and 6-12

El Paso 3-5

Pictured Above: Baseline results from El Paso’s Panorama SEL survey of students in grades 3-5


El Paso 6-12
Pictured Above: Baseline results from El Paso’s Panorama SEL survey of students in grades 6-12

Elevate student voice with the open-source Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey.


Building Adult Capacity to Support Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

When we began this work, there was a phrase we used all the time: “changing hearts and minds.” If we wanted to change our system, we needed to change the way we—as adults—were interacting with our students.

Through focus groups, we learned that our students were yearning for a deeper connection with their teachers. Many students felt invisible and disconnected from their teachers and their peers. For them, the school experience was transactional as opposed to relational. 

Our staff began a deep emphasis on adult social-emotional learning. We talked about the neuroscience of behavior, and helped teachers understand that very often, student behavior is biological, not personal. We dove into understanding our own social-emotional competencies and committed to working on those areas ourselves.

We also outlined specific strategies for building community and positive relationships with students. Accountability still exists in positive student-teacher relationships, but it's accountability with care. I’ve seen many secondary schools focused on a “tough love” approach to discipline. We need to flip that into a “love tough” approach: Students have to feel that you care. Only then will they give you permission to have difficult conversations.

When we shift our mindsets from transactional to relational, we move from dealing with behaviors in a mechanical way to building relationships that allow for emotional safety and connection in their schools. We seek to understand why students are presenting certain behaviors, and work through it together with students to help them make better decisions in the future.

Explore Panorama Behavior Logging & Analytics to collect and act on essential student behavior data.


After SEL Implementation, a 25% Sustained Reduction in Disciplinary Referrals 

After our first year of implementing SEL in 2016-2017, I was amazed to see a 33% reduction in disciplinary referrals in those seven pilot schools. In one elementary school, they went from 100 referrals per semester down to less than 10 after SEL implementation.

In the following years, as we’ve brought on more schools for SEL implementation, we’ve been able to sustain a 25% reduction in behavior incidents across the district. 


Next Steps for El Paso

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have missed out on some opportunities for socialization. We've seen an uptick in inappropriate physical contact and disrespectful behavior. We’ve also had students share about feeling lonely and disconnected during the pandemic. This has led us to return to our roots and reinvest in PBIS, social-emotional learning, and restorative practices.

We can't take it for granted that students come to school knowing what these behaviors look like. Just like we would teach a math or science lesson, behavior skills can be taught. Educators can do this work in partnership with students by creating opportunities for them to share their perspectives. 

Ray Lozano is the Executive Director of Student and Family Empowerment at El Paso ISD. 

Explore resources to help your PBIS team develop tiered intervention systems.


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