We’ve asked our children to be incredibly resilient over the past few years as they’ve dealt with learning disruptions and the rapid adoption of technology. And despite these challenging circumstances, they’ve persevered.
That’s not to say that they’ve made it through unscathed, though. Mental health had been declining in high school students before the pandemic, but it’s been getting worse: A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 44% of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in the past year, a 10% increase since the data was last reported in 2019.
The report did note that students who felt connectedness were less likely to experience these feelings: “Findings also highlight that a sense of being cared for, supported and belonging at school—called ‘school connectedness’—had an important effect on students during a time of severe disruption.” So how do we help students feel connected at school? It goes beyond the textbook: It’s called social-emotional learning (SEL).
What Is Social-Emotional Learning?
Social-emotional learning has been described as a lot of things, but its goal is simple. SEL is a behavioral framework that can be used to help children cultivate their interpersonal skills and manage their own emotions. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading authority on SEL, there are five competencies that are distinct from but integral to academic learning. They are:
- social awareness
- relationship skills
- responsible decision-making
SEL isn’t a designated subject like science or math, nor is it restricted to the classroom. It places a strong emphasis on developing the core competencies across four key settings—in classrooms, in schools, in the community and with families and caregivers.
Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important?
While SEL is known to have many benefits, it’s best employed as part of a holistic system of supports for learners that also includes mental health services. For students to have the best chance possible at learning despite the numerous communal and personal traumas they have endured, we must create resilient systems of holistic support in schools. Those systems will play a critical role in instilling in children the social and emotional skills necessary to persevere—not only from the pandemic but also to persevere through the many challenges life presents. The new learning models and technology that we have become so familiar with throughout the pandemic can and should be used as tools to support student social-emotional learning and mental health.
To accomplish this goal, we will need to prioritize time and financial resources to SEL and mental health curriculum, support and interventions. Schools across North America are facing local funding challenges at a time when student need is incredibly high—federal funding should be used to support these pursuits.
How States Can Support Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom
Knowing that students need social-emotional learning is one thing; actually implementing it is another. Below are three steps that states can take to support SEL in K-12 classrooms.
1. Adopt SEL Standards and Guidance
There is an urgent need for SEL and holistic supports beyond the classroom or counselor’s office. State standards, guidance and funding should be refocused to address the reality of blended learning environments and should include guidelines so that districts can prioritize and implement SEL.
State-level administration should work toward baking SEL into regular instruction and school day activities. In-school actions and remote learning standards can ensure that SEL is a priority in every classroom and for every student. Administrators and educators alike should prioritize SEL-centered curriculum and supports that equitably address the needs of individual students and diverse populations.
2. Provide Equitable Access to Edtech Tools
Technology is already being integrated in schools to reach students through personalized learning. To enable the highest quality and most holistic SEL and mental health supports possible, we should optimize our use of available technology. Schools should invest in educational technologies that:
- foster connections among students, parents, guardians and teachers
- create authentic learning experiences and support SEL-integrated curriculum
- allow for personalization of pace, content and choice
- enable teachers and administrators to monitor student progress to detect behavioral changes that indicate distress
- support continuous professional development opportunities for educators
State- or regional-level procurement will allow for more equitable purchasing by districts. These decisions should be made alongside investments into professional development, which is necessary for educators to expand their SEL competency and address the unique needs of students.
3. Support Teachers With Professional Development
There is a serious need for districts to enable their teachers, both in self-care and in the identification and mitigation of SEL-related deterioration. Districts should be able to provide professional development opportunities centered on the intersection of SEL and technology in order to equip educators with the skills and confidence to reach all their students.
Download our SEL policy brief, Supporting Social-Emotional Learning to Help Enable Student Recovery.