Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
The events of the last year have reawakened schools to their responsibility to cultivate mental health alongside the academic growth of their students. Over the past several years, the pressure to perform well in school combined with various social anxieties, often made worse by social media, have caused cases of anxiety and depression to steadily rise among students. In response, there has been ongoing momentum behind the development of specialized curricula specifically designed to encourage social-emotional learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning define SEL 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.”
Lending credence to the idea, is an ever-growing body of research supporting the positive correlation between SEL and academic achievement. A 2008 report of 317 studies involving over 300,000 K–8 students showed that properly implemented and executed SEL programming “improved students’ achievement test scores by 11 to 17 percentage points.”Furthermore, developing social-emotional skills among students has proven to lower conduct (i.e., behavioral) problems and emotional distress. (Bailey, Stickle, Brion-Meisels, & Jones, 2019; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; O’Conner, De Feyter, Carr, Luo, & Romm, 2017.)
Unfortunately, 2020 was a year of tremendous emotional distress. Coping with the isolation, confusion, unrest, and managing academic responsibilities has only reinforced the demand for SEL curricula and resources to address mental health concerns. When the pandemic forced school campuses to close in 2020, providing traditional in-person SEL support to students was also closed to educators. Even before the sudden transition to emergency remote learning, sustainable and integrated SEL instruction proved difficult for most teachers and schools. A recent survey found that 59 percent of teachers felt there was not enough time to fully integrate SEL into the daily curriculum. Furthermore, 55 percent felt there are not enough SEL curricula or programs available. The need for SEL is abundantly clear to educators, parents, and students, yet how to incorporate this need into the educational experience remains elusive.
With teachers lacking confidence in adding social-emotional learning to their daily instruction, the responsibility for supporting the mental health and well-being of students is most often being pushed to school counselors. In fact, the American School Counselor Association recommends that schools maintain a ratio of 250 students per counselor. However, in a 2019 report, the national average across all schools was roughly 456:1 and 311:1 specifically in high schools. Recognizing this trend to be unsustainable, the mission then becomes equipping teachers with the tools and time necessary to weave SEL opportunities into the daily experience so that students receive appropriate and meaningful support.
Like so many times in the past, we can turn to technology to resolve these challenges. Digital education solutions exist to streamline, facilitate and expand the impact teachers have on their students. But, at first glance, digitizing a curriculum rooted in managing emotions, cultivating empathy, and developing caring relationships seems counterintuitive. So, to start, educators need to first reconsider their perception of an SEL curriculum. Specifically, how digital SEL can work alongside, rather than compete with, academic instruction.
By combining the extensive body of SEL research and best practices from accredited organizations with rich media, a digital solution to SEL offers an innovative and flexible resource to facilitate social-emotional growth. Furthermore, a comprehensive, fully digital, social-emotional curriculum not only reduces the burden to implement SEL, but the inherent flexibility of a digital solution means social-emotional learning becomes more accessible and personalized for students. However, simply delivering an SEL curriculum is like asking a hammer to build a house on its own; the hammer is only useful when paired with an experienced builder. Likewise, a digital SEL curriculum is only impactful when in the hands of a teacher.
Combining day-to-day expertise and observations with data provided by a comprehensive digital resource, teachers can deliver timely and personalized SEL content. Digital self-assessments and surveys, as well as real-time data collected when activities are completed, help teachers provide relevant SEL support based on the needs of the whole class, groups, or the individual. Using the right technology, lessons can even be triggered automatically based on student engagement data. And with a majority of teachers noting there isn’t enough time to address mental health during daily instruction, a digital SEL solution offers teachers the flexibility to deliver asynchronous social-emotional learning without adding to their workload. In any scenario, teachers remain integral in identifying social-emotional learning opportunities but also have the option to provide responsive support and supplement academic instruction.
Preparing students to be successful in college or career requires that learning extends beyond a traditional school curriculum. Whether or not students are coping with social and emotional stress because of the pandemic, civil unrest, or something more deeply personal at home, teachers must work to educate students academically while also stewarding their mental, social, and emotional wellbeing. However, most students will wrestle with anxiety, stress, and depression outside of the classroom and away from the encouraging presence of a teacher or school counselor. But a lack of face-to-face interaction in the classroom does not mean SEL is a lost cause. To overcome the barriers of time and resources, educators must not be afraid to broaden their perception of SEL and how it can be incorporated alongside core curricula. Leveraging a teacher’s expertise and asynchronous support to create a hybrid SEL experience can be the solution to ensure students have the foundational social-emotion skills they need to thrive, now and in the future.