Student Well-Being

Social Emotional Learning and School Reopenings: A Guide for Schools

By Arianna Prothero — July 14, 2020 3 min read
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Schools are trying to plan for the upcoming academic year during a pandemic, economic recession, and national protests over police killings of Black Americans. The confluence of these seismic challenges makes developing students’ social and emotional skills critical to their academic fortunes, says a new guide on reopening schools developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, and 40 other education groups, including professional associations and influential philanthropies.

The guide lays out what schools need to do to respond comprehensively to the myriad challenges students are facing, which include missed milestones, economic instability, racism, institutional bias, and even the death of loved ones.

Regulating emotions, managing stress, empathizing with others, and maintaining relationships—all social-emotional skills—will be key to helping students overcome the trauma and challenges brought on by the pandemic so that they are in a state-of-mind to learn come fall.

A recently released survey of teen-agers found that large shares of teens struggled with depression, anxiety, and unhappiness during the mass school closures last spring. Forty percent said they had not been offered any social or emotional support by an adult from their school.

Students will also need to feel safe, supported, connected, and included in their school community whether they are learning together in a building or remotely from home, says CASEL.

It’s a lot to take in—and on—especially as district and school leaders are trying to figure out an entirely new set of basics, such as how to keep students socially distanced on school buses and catch students up on learning they missed during the mass school closures of the spring.

But CASEL urges school leaders to put social and emotional supports—for both students and staff—at the center of their reopening plans.

From Relationships to Data, How to Reopen with SEL

To do that, CASEL’s guidance identifies four critical areas to focus on:


  • Relationships, partnerships, and planning for SEL;
  • Opportunities for adults to connect, heal, and build their capacity to support to support students;
  • Safe, supportive, and equitable learning environments that bolster all students’ social and emotional development;
  • Data used to share power, deepen relationships, and continuously improve support for students, families, and staff.

The guide is extensive, each of those four broad focus areas is broken down into several sub-categories with details on how to implement the recommendations, including questions to reflect on, activities, and tools.

For example, the guide recommends taking time to stop and examine where SEL efforts have been impactful during the pandemic. It prompts district and school leaders to ask how SEL is being used to engage families in person and remotely? Have those strategies affected students differently based on their race, income, and home language and what inequities have not been addressed?

Among the activities the guide recommends: conducting surveys or focus groups of families, students, and educators to understand their experiences with school closures, remote learning, and SEL and disaggregating that data by race, economic status, language-learner status, and other special needs.

The guide then links to a series of tools such as a resource-mapping tool from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that details how schools can take inventory of existing resources for families that are available through school or community partner organizations.

While the guide, which is aimed primarily at school leaders and leadership teams, says that SEL is not a panacea to the complex issues facing schools as they reopen, it will go a long way to helping support students and educators in uncertain and stressful times.

Despite all of the challenges vying for administrators’ attention, it appears that interest in SEL remains high, based on a June analysis by CASEL. Large shares of state education departments told CASEL in a survey that SEL was either a top priority in their pandemic response plans or had increased in priority since the pandemic began and that requests for SEL from districts had also increased.

CASEL is among several organizations releasing guides to reopening schools, including groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and both national teachers’ unions.

EdWeek has created a curated list of reopening guides you can find here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.


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