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.
Covid-19 has caused a serious disruption in our families, schools, and communities, and will continue to impact the educational experiences for our students well into the future. As a result, the need for social and emotional learning supports has never been more urgent. As we’ve witnessed our country grapple with this worldwide pandemic, we simultaneously reckon with the severe racial inequities that are ever-present in our society. These pervasive inequities are felt severely and painfully by students and educators of color in our public school systems.
These twin pandemics—Covid-19 and racism—have exacerbated the amount of trauma, stress, and mental health issues present in our communities, especially our communities of color. Schools and districts must be prepared to provide educators, students, and their families SEL support long term. While the twin pandemics have caused an increase in stress and trauma, these issues are not new to our society. Many school districts are becoming aware of the importance of SEL education. A study conducted by the EdWeekResearch Center in February 2020 found that 74 percent of district leaders, school leaders, and teachers either partly agreed or completely agreed that a formal curricula for SEL is important (EdWeek, 2020).
As educators and students prepare to face the deficits that will surely be present academically, we must ask ourselves how can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of these twin pandemics without shortchanging academic instruction? How are districts planning to support educators to take on academic, emotional, and social deficiencies in their classroom?
Schools and educators can best address their students’ mental health needs by first addressing their own and establishing a robust framework for social and emotional learning that supports both students and educators. Promoting academic excellence, emotional well-being, and social connectedness for students is only possible if educators first have the necessary tools and structures in order to support themselves. By first addressing the SEL needs of our educators, schools and districts will be better positioned to successfully and sustainably establish instructional strategies and a culture that benefits all students.
According to CASEL (2020), for students, the benefits of SEL awareness are numerous and include increased academic achievement, improved behavior, increased graduation rates, and improved student attendance (CASEL, 2020). In order for students to achieve a greater sense of emotional intelligence and SEL awareness, educators must be able to model these expectations. We must be effective role models as adult SEL practitioners by cultivating our own social and emotional competencies to lead social and emotional learning initiatives within our schools and lives along with our students. According to Woolf (2020), SEL for adults can provide the ability to model appropriate social behaviors, label emotions, exhibit empathy, maintain positive relationships, practice social awareness, and demonstrate self-awareness to students (Woolf, 2020). Additionally, stress-coping and emotion-management techniques help reduce stress and improve teaching quality, and fewer teachers reported burnout rates when they cultivated and practiced their own SEL skills and felt more valued, empowered, and backed (Woolfe, 2020).
Implementing an effective SEL professional learning framework ensures that school staff understand SEL and how to implement it throughout the district (CASEL, 2020). A strong, explicit foundation of adult SEL learning and systems is a key first step in the process of integrating SEL districtwide, and ultimately having a significant impact on the SEL needs of students. So how can districts ensure that they are taking the appropriate measures to ensure that their staff and students feel taken care of?
In our work with our school and district partners, we have witnessed both the professional and personal impacts of providing an effective SEL professional learning framework to educators. Key aspects of an effective SEL framework include providing a structured place to process stress and trauma, creating a common language regarding SEL, trauma informed practices, and self-care, and equipping educators with concrete strategies for successfully navigating the constant challenges and unexpected new demands of the current educational landscape. These aspects work together to support educators in their roles, which provides them the ability to better support their students and model SEL practices.
Structured place to process
For many, life as an educator during this pandemic has been very isolating. The majority of educators were teaching virtually from their homes alone or alongside family members who were also trying to attend work or school virtually. In addition to professional challenges and isolation, many have experienced trauma through the Covid-19 pandemic, economic struggles, and racism. When people are physically isolated, it is natural to feel emotionally isolated. Before we can expect teachers to meet the needs of students, we need to address their wellbeing and help meet their basic needs. Creating opportunities for people to process their experiences are essential for creating a sense of community and ensuring that educators feel supported by their peers, school, and district. Professional learning communities that bring together people in similar roles can be a powerful method to provide spaces for educators to process and make connections that impact students. At one of Insight’s district partner schools, we worked with school-based counselors to train them around issues regarding trauma, stress, and self-care. We equipped them with the tools and resources to support their school-based teams, while also having a place to process and collaborate with others who are in similar roles. This created opportunities for more teachers and staff to be able to participate in the trainings and receive the support and resources they need.
A structured space gives people an opportunity to grieve, connect, and lift each other up. For some, it’s one of few opportunities to connect with others whose experiences align with their own. A structured space nurtures a sense of hope and reinforces the idea that they are not alone. One of the most common pieces of feedback that our partners have shared is that they have been able to authentically connect with someone who has provided ongoing support. Also, educators have shared that the reflection process has made them more mindful of how they are interacting with students and families.
While tackling challenging and sensitive topics, it is important to ensure that everyone is operating with a common language. As many have experienced, there are many perceptions of what words like social emotional learning, trauma, and self-care mean. Through the development of common language, the stigma around certain words has also been broken down. During workshops, some educators have come to terms with the fact that they have faced traumatic events that they previously didn’t feel comfortable admitting to themselves because they assumed “trauma” meant they were weak or broken. Understanding what it means helps them process for themselves and better understand and empathize with others. Self-care is another word that can hold different meanings among different people and cultures. Some educators shared that they viewed it as indulgent or something extra, but that a holistic understanding of the word has helped them take an individualized approach for themselves.
In addition to building supportive communities and developing shared language, educators and students need to be equipped with concrete strategies for successfully navigating the constant challenges this year has brought. Most teachers needed to create nurturing and engaging learning environments virtually, which is a huge challenge when most have never been a part of one themselves. This makes it critical for school leaders to ensure that adults are participating in professional learning that models and enforces meaningful learning, collaboration, and opportunities for interaction. Additionally, as educators, students, and families are experiencing adverse events, now more than ever they need to have the tools to teach and interact with others in a trauma informed manner. Professional learning and ongoing coaching should provide teachers with the skills and opportunities to practice fostering interactions virtually, embedding SEL across the content areas, and utilizing trauma informed practices.
As schools and districts grapple with multiple obstacles as they begin to plan for the 2021–22 school year and beyond, we must be prepared to embrace the unique challenges that have overcome our educational system in the last year. With proper structures, a common language, and concrete strategies, schools and districts can actively incorporate conversations around SEL in regular professional development, check-ins, and evaluation processes. SEL goals must also be prioritized in strategic planning and include a specific curriculum for successful, district-wide implementation. These broader SEL efforts must put students’ mental health and academic achievement at the forefront, while simultaneously giving educators the systems, structures, and tools that they need in order to better support themselves, and in turn better support their students.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020). SEL Impact. Retrieved from https://measuringsel.casel.org/adult-sel-fully-measuring-the-impact-of-…
Education Week (EdWeek). (2020). Dos and Don’t When Choosing Social-Emotional Learning Curricula. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/08/dos-and-donts-when-choosi…
Minke, Kathleen. (2020). The Pandemic Is Causing Widespread Emotional Trauma. Schools Must Be Ready to Help. EdWeek. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-the-pandemic-is-causing-wides…
Woolf, N. (2020). A Comprehensive Guide to Adult SEL. Panorama. Retrieved from https://www.panoramaed.com/blog/comprehensive-guide-adult-sel