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Expanding social emotional learning is key

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This month marks one year since widespread lockdowns shuttered school buildings across the country and forced the rapid transition to remote learning for millions of students, educators, staff and school leaders. 

Today, schools are scattered across a wide spectrum of “openness,” but students and educators everywhere are continuing to confront the trauma inflicted — and, in some cases, worsened — by the pandemic. On the second annual international Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Day, it’s more important than ever that policymakers and educators embrace educational approaches that not only account for academic learning loss but prioritize the social and emotional needs of all students and educators to ensure a more effective and equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

SEL is broadly defined as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities; manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals; feel and show empathy for others; establish and maintain supportive relationships; and make responsible and caring decisions.” Existing educational systems that prioritize narrow definitions of student success — tied almost exclusively to academic performance — do not reflect the prevailing scientific understanding of learning as a holistic, engaging endeavor. Healthy learning and development is impossible without safe environments, strong relationships and the capacity of students to confront difficult challenges.   

This is especially true in the face of significant, prolonged trauma. For millions of students — especially those from historically marginalized communities — trauma existed long before the onset of COVID-19. Persistent poverty, hunger, homelessness and other factors have disproportionately impacted these communities. Inequities experienced by low-income communities and communities of color have only worsened due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has also ignited new traumas; across the country, students and educators alike have lost loved ones, they’ve seen parents or caregivers lose jobs (or lost jobs themselves), experienced deep uncertainty about the future and struggled with the realities of remote learning. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that “mental health emergencies for children skyrocketed after COVID-19 hit.” In Nevada, the state’s largest school district saw twice the number of student suicides in the first nine months of school closures as it had the entirety of the previous year. Eighty percent of U.S. college students have reported that the pandemic has “impacted their lives through increased isolation, loneliness, stress, and sadness.” The trauma students and educators are experiencing has real and immediate ramifications for how our education system (and our society as a whole) responds to this crisis. 

Today, too many curricular frameworks, assessment systems and pedagogical approaches fail to meaningfully integrate SEL and thereby neglect the development of the breadth of cognitive, physical, social, creative and emotional skills all students need to thrive. This lack of emphasis on SEL has contributed to the inequities in our education system, which have only been exacerbated over the past year. A response to the pandemic that aspires to “return to normal” will only further bake in existing disparities. Instead, we must focus on approaches that we know will help students, educators and families recover in the short-term and build greater equity and resilience in the long run.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has added renewed urgency to the work of providing students, educators and school communities with the capacity to process and respond to trauma. Ensuring a healthy recovery requires that students and educators can support the whole child with access to safe school environments, supportive relationships and the kind of engaging learning experiences (and the tools to create them) that emphasize key social emotional competencies: self-reflection, empathy, communication and more.  

We know that young people with strong social and emotional skills are better equipped to cope with challenges, overcome trauma and engage academically. We also know that educators with strong social and emotional skills are best able to navigate stressors and foster the positive learning environments that create the foundation for healthy learning and development. We know that social and emotional learning can be effectively integrated into schools and youth-serving organizations through classroom instruction, both in-person and virtually, and other school-wide activities. And we have current examples of measurable, effective SEL models that have improved outcomes for students, teachers, families and entire communities.  

Although the last year has been challenging, the future offers educators, district and state leaders and policymakers an opportunity to reimagine our education system. Each stakeholder — at every level — has a responsibility to create the policy and instructional frameworks and devote the resources necessary to scale effective approaches that can deeply embed social and emotional learning in education systems across the country. If they do, it will play an outsize role in helping students and educators recover from this pandemic and will demonstrate a commitment to seizing this moment to meaningfully address historic gaps in opportunities, access and outcomes. If they don’t, we risk reverting to a “normal” that has become even more inequitable, neglects key elements of healthy learning and development, and leaves millions of students behind.

David Adams is the CEO of The Urban Assembly. Nithya Joseph is the advocacy director at America Forward. Jordan Posamentier is the director of policy and advocacy at Committee for Children. Nick Yoder is the director of Strategic Initiatives at Harmony. Stephen Kostyo is the policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute 

Tags COVID-19 Education racial disparity Social Emotional Learning virtual learning

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