If ever there was a time to pay attention to how students are doing socially and emotionally in school, it would be now in what is likely to be the most disruptive societal change since World War II.
Millions of people are already out of work, our health care systems are overwhelmed, we are likely to be in a deep recession, and thousands, likely hundreds of thousands of American lives will be lost because of COVID-19. I have no doubt that we will get through it as we have for many other wars and viruses, but it will take a toll on all of us and it will be critical to process as children and adults.
It seems obvious now that teachers must pay attention to how students and families are doing in new ways given this crisis. Thousands of schools and millions of teachers are struggling to connect and listen to students through the internet and sometimes on their porches at a distance of six feet or more. We know now, as we did during the September 11th crisis, that students of all ages need to understand what is happening and sort through their own emotions and trauma with friends, family and teachers. Connectedness to peers and teachers allows for students to feel safe and heard, and tragically we are losing so much of that human interaction right now.
It’s difficult or nearly impossible to pay attention to a geometry lesson without a student being in the right headspace to grapple with what may seem so irrelevant at this time, possibly with a parent out of work or trying to share a kitchen table with a little sister or mom. We also know that sometimes a healthy mental state can make a world of difference in solving problems and or dealing with adversity and trauma of all types.
There is so much we take for granted in a school setting that allows us to be insulated from understanding a student’s particular home context. We do not see so directly the relationship between the student and their family, nor do we really understand the difficulty for some students in finding a quiet place to read or the resources needed for a project. In addition to pushing all of us to think about how to reach students remotely, this is going to open many of us up to the realities of the enormous range of what it takes in the home to make sure a student is successful in school.
This bold experiment, where nearly all public school teachers are brought in some ways closer to students, may likely change the way that we think about incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) supports into the classroom.
While SEL has recently been seen as more important in the last few years, it has also felt a bit like one of the many educational fads with superficial programs or add-ons to existing programs. Social emotional learning cannot be a fad, it must be part of learning curriculum as a whole. It is a large (missing) piece in the puzzle of successfully serving students and ensuring they are on track for life after high school.
I wonder if this crisis will help us to understand how fundamental it is for students to have the right mindset and supports for learning. Most of our most consequential learning experiences or teachers manifest because of a strong emotional connection. Content and educational settings matter enormously, but the emotions in learning are fundamental and cannot be ignored.
Fortunately, there is now a growing body of research showing the merits of incorporating and teaching SEL as part of a school’s curriculum.
Kirabo Jackson, an economist at Northwestern University (Yes an economist!) has been tracking Chicago high school students since 2008 to investigate the relationship of students’ own understanding of their “soft” skills to grades, graduation and college going, etc. using a value-added model. In the first paper on this study, released a few months ago, a positive relationship is shown with these habits and more traditional educational outcomes. This research is critical to making a link and the case for having effective SEL incorporated into school regardless of the state of our nation.
My hope during this COVID-19 crisis is that while educators are learning to connect with students in entirely new ways, we will take the time to support students through this crisis and reflect on what we are learning about these skills among students to build quality SEL into our regular school programs when we return this fall.