Now’s the time to make ‘Social Emotional Learning’ a national priority

The bad times came full force this spring at P.S. 89 in Queens, N.Y., once the nation’s Coronavirus epicenter. Serving roughly 1,500 mostly low-income Hispanic and Asian American children, dozens of students reported that the virus had killed or sickened family members. The school and the community quickly created a coping network. Staff learned grief-counseling protocols. School officials held weekly student support groups with guidance counselors and parenting workshops for surviving parents. Volunteers provided food for families.

Now, as we re-open schools, we must grapple with far more than debates over remote versus in-person learning or best practices for social distancing. P.S. 89 is just one of many places where school communities are also taking on pandemic trauma, brought on by a perfect storm of illness, isolation, unemployment, death, domestic woes and a mental health crisis.

As we navigate the pandemic’s fallout among our children, we need more than ever to make Social Emotional Learning (SEL) a cornerstone of America’s education system. SEL is a proven approach to teaching students how to identify and process emotions, build relationships, work in groups and resolve conflicts. They role-play, learn peer mediation skills and how to set personal goals — all of which help foster resilience. Extensive research demonstrates how SEL increases school attendance and participation, with strong evidence for improved academic performance and increased positive social behavior.

SEL is not just for this moment. Post-pandemic and into adulthood, young people will find social-emotional learning skills valuable for relationships, work, and life’s challenges. We can and must teach those skills in the same way we teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

We are both passionate advocates for mental health reform. One of us is the First Lady of New York City and the founder of ThriveNYC, the nation’s most comprehensive mental health plan. The other is represents Ohio’s 13th District and is the sponsor of the Social and Emotional Learning for Families (SELF) Act, which provides federal funding to support the instruction of research-based social and emotional skills, professional development for teachers, and emphasizes the role parents can play in helping children learn social and emotional skills.

We understand first-hand the importance of a holistic approach to education. That is why we urgently call for a national strategy and federal investment to make SEL initiatives uniform across pre-K to grade 12.

Last year, New York City introduced the nation’s most comprehensive SEL program in the nation’s largest school district. This academic year, our “Bridge to School” plan calls for proactive communication to assess student social-emotional and mental wellness. We also secured foundation funding to give school-based staff citywide trauma-informed training, high quality resources and ongoing support.

In the Warren, Ohio, City Schools — in Rep. Ryan’s district — the SEL program has made a tremendous difference in student behavior. For example, over five years the out-of-school suspensions went from over 200 a year to 14 a year.

Just as the federal government is missing-in-action when it comes to behavioral health care, schools are figuring out SEL on their own. Some places rely on a few classes in a few grades, while others offer a complete curriculum.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) published a State Scan based on its 2018 assessment of competencies, standards, and guidelines for SEL pre-K through high school in all 50 states. It gives a sense of the widely varied practices. CASEL’s 2019 Ready to Lead report measured school implementation of SEL against specific benchmarks, using a nationally representative survey of 710 kindergarten to high school principals. Seven in ten principals (71 percent) have at least developed and partially implemented a plan for teaching SEL skills, the report found.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has released standards for the use of SEL and mental health interventions in schools, but those standards are voluntary. We urge the Department of Education to require that schools meet SAMHSA standards when implementing SEL.

We need a standardized, national approach to SEL, which would require federal incentives and partnerships with organized labor groups like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and bodies like the Common Core State Standards Initiative, National Governors Association, and National Council for Behavioral Health. SEL advocates can surely make the case for the involvement and leadership of those constituencies.

The time is now for a bold investment in education and mental health that will benefit the entire country. We stand in confidence that a commitment to SEL will help students, families and whole communities find their way amid the tumult of these days. The rewards will last long after this pandemic is behind us.

Chirlane McCray is First Lady of New York City; her husband is Mayor Bill deBlasio. McCray created ThriveNYC. She also spearheads the Cities Thrive Coalition, with more than 200 mayors, county officials and thought leaders from all 50 states. She was named to TIME Magazine’s 50 Most Influential People in Health Care for 2018. Follow her on Twitter @NYCFirstLady

Rep. Tim Ryan represents Ohio’s 13th District.

Tags childhood trauma coronavirus pandemic Education Education policy Health learning strategies Mental health New York New York City Ohio School counselor Social Emotional Learning Tim Ryan

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