Today’s students have weathered a storm of collective trauma unlike anything we’ve recently experienced. The isolation and unknown of the COVID-19 pandemic disconnected them from their friends, stunted their social development, and erased important milestones in their young lives.
Even as students returned to the classroom full-time this fall, the emotional pain they endured still impacts their daily lives. In a report released by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy this December, researchers found that depression and anxiety among youth doubled during the pandemic.
As districts race to fill educational gaps caused by disrupted schooling and accelerate learning to help students catch up to their grade level, social-emotional learning (SEL) needs to stay in the spotlight. If kids are struggling with mental health crises, socio-economic issues, and ongoing trauma, addressing learning loss is just a piece of the pandemic recovery puzzle we’re all trying to solve.
The need for SEL is so crucial, one school administrator in Chicago told TODAY, “In my mind, if I ruled the world, I would make 80% to 90% of all education right now social-emotional learning. We can get to the math, science, reading, writing a little bit later, but right now, we need to start with the foundations of kindness, of conflict resolution, of time management, of building a concern and a care and compassion."
To strengthen a child’s resiliency and confidence, schools, teachers, and parents must work together as an unwavering support system. Here are six ways districts can get all stakeholders on board to provide a solid foundation moving forward.
- Opt for digital curricula that include SEL components. With a growing mountain of learning platforms to choose from, districts need to narrow their selections to ones that already have SEL tools built in. Apex Learning, for instance, offers BASE Education, evidence-based, self-directed curriculum rooted in wellness principles. BASE includes more than 100 SEL courses that help students regulate emotions, learn coping strategies, and develop social skills – all while providing teachers with the tools to monitor their progress along the way.
- Be transparent with SEL terminology and program elements. In today’s politically-charged environment, SEL has become the new CRT (Critical Race Theory) among parents who may be unfamiliar with the methodology and how it fits into a child’s education and development. Yet, when parents hear terms such as responsible decision-making, relationship-building, and goal-setting, they are supportive of the programming.
Schools need to clearly explain to parents what SEL includes, why it is needed, and how they can be part of the process at home.
- View behavioral issues through the eyes of the child. Isolation and shifting educational experiences have contributed to greater behavioral challenges among youth. In the past, when a child acted up at school, there would be an immediate disciplinary action. Today, says child psychiatrists, teachers and administrators need to press pause before implementing a detention or suspension – especially if it would lead to additional learning disruptions – and work with school social workers, counselors, and parents to determine the pain behind the behavior.
- Encourage parents and staff to listen, then respond. As adults, we want to solve our students’ problems when we see them hurting so we overwhelm them with questions. Instead, we need to give kids space, be active listeners, and validate their feelings. One psychiatrist explained that the number one thing she hears from students is they just need someone to listen to them.
Dr. Vanessa Jensen of The Cleveland Clinic shared that the best way to connect with kids is through the raindrop theory – “You just put the little raindrops out there by saying, ‘You know, I’m around,’ or ‘I’m going to be in my study if you want to talk.’ You put those little hints out there, and kids will reach out when they feel comfortable.”
- Establish intentional routines. Although they would tell you differently, children thrive when they have a daily routine. Routine provides them with a sense of safety and security, especially if they’ve experienced a trauma. Because the unpredictability and uncertainty of COVID-19 threw all of our schedules out of whack, it’s important to rebuild structure at school and home with set times for learning, relaxation, and socialization.
- Ensure teachers and staff are taking care of themselves. When schools prioritize their teachers’ wellness, educators can, in turn, better respond to their students’ struggles. By establishing multidimensional educator wellness programs that address each person’s physical, emotional, and mental needs, districts create a healthier school climate for everyone.