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Student Well-Being Explainer

Teaching Social-Emotional Skills Amid COVID-19

September 02, 2020 3 min read
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It’s tempting to put students’ social, emotional, and mental well-being on the back burner as schools scramble to make up for lost learning and navigate the tough logistical and political challenges of safely opening school buildings. But ignoring social emotional learning could be a recipe for disaster.

The fact is: Children can’t process and retain new information if their brains are overwhelmed with anxiety.

That’s especially true now for students who are feeling deeply stressed by the coronavirus, the economic recession, and the racial unrest that is sweeping the country.

While adopting a comprehensive, evidence-based SEL curriculum is best, if a school doesn’t have one, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to introduce social emotional learning. There are ways to weave SEL into the school day without overhauling established plans and adopting new SEL curricula. While it’s hard to teach children social and emotional skills while they are working remotely or sitting in classrooms where everyone is spaced six feet apart and wearing a mask, it’s not impossible

About This Series

Seventh in a series of eight installments.

These times are unprecedented. Through eight installments, Education Week explores the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

How We Go Back to School is supported in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Ensuring that students are connected to their peers and have strong supporting relationships with adults in school will go a long way toward helping them cope and getting to a place mentally where they are ready to learn.

—The Editors

Deep Dive: Why Students Need Social-Emotional Learning Now
Downloadable Guide: 6 Exercises for Teaching SEL This School Year


Installment 7Connecting

Strong relationships will be essential to students’ academic success and well-being this coming school year. And the beginning of the semester is the time to develop the personal connections that students will need to sustain them through the uncertainties ahead.

That’s tough with schools either operating remotely, alternating online instruction with in-person classes, or closing due to an outbreak. Schools can take steps to keep students connected with school by intentionally mapping out adult relationships for them, enacting buddy systems for peer-to-peer ties, maintaining regular check-ins, and reaching out to parents and family.

Deep Dive: How to Build Relationships With Students During COVID-19
Downloadable Guide: Language for Forging Online Connections With Students


Installment 7SocialSkills

How can kids learn social skills when they’re working remotely? Or when they’re wearing masks in class and staying six feet apart from one another? Ensuring that students continue to develop critical social-emotional skills in a socially distanced world will require administrators and teachers to not just rethink existing approaches to social learning but also teach children to navigate the new social skills that are needed for life during the pandemic.

That mean re-evaluating the risks and benefits of activities, like singing, to promote social emotional learning, teaching students to give fist bumps and air hugs, and inventing new ways to assess students’ moods and tailor instruction accordingly.

Deep Dive: Teaching the ‘New’ COVID-19 Social-Emotional Skills
Downloadable Guide: Evaluating Risk for Social Activities


Installment 7Stressed

Before the pandemic, federal data suggested nearly half of all U.S. children had been exposed to at least one traumatic event, and more than 20 percent had been exposed to several. This year, as the nation copes with virus, a recession, and racial unrest, the numbers are likely to be higher.

It will be crucial for educators to identify students suffering from toxic stress and find ways to best serve them—and to it do without overidentifying or pathologizing the students whose emotional needs are less critical. Online settings may offer some new opportunities to get a read on students, but schools will also have to team up with community agencies to help families cope with unemployment, housing instability, food insecurity, and other stressors.

Deep Dive: Triaging for Trauma During COVID-19
Downloadable Guide: Trauma Screener

Reporters: Arianna Prothero, Sarah D. Sparks
Designers/Visual artists: Laura Baker, Emma Patti Harris, Gina Tomko, Francis Sheehan
Illustrator: Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
Web producers: Mike Bock, Stacey Decker, Hyon-Young Kim
Visuals project editor: Emma Patti Harris
Project editors: Lesli A. Maxwell, Debra Viadero

Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order, they are: Ron Avi Astor, professor of social welfare, Luskin School of Public Affairs, Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, University of California Los Angeles; Juan Cabrera, Superintendent, El Paso Independent School District; Mahnaz Charania, Senior Research Fellow, Clayton Christensen Institute; Julie Donovan, program administrator, Springfield (Mass.) public schools; Nancy Duchesneau, P-12 research associate, the Education Trust; Stephanie Jones, Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Director of the EASEL Lab; Jessica Koslouski, postdoctoral researcher in trauma-informed instruction, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, Boston University; Ray Lozano, Executive Director Student and Family Empowerment, El Paso Independent School District; Colleen Perry, coordinator of City Connects program, Pottenger Elementary in Springfield, Mass.; Laura Phillips, Clinical Neuropsychologist, Learning and Development Center, Child Mind Institute; Jordan Posamentier, Director of Policy & Advocacy, Committee for Children;  Melissa Schlinger, Vice President of Practice and Programs, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) ; Justina Schlund, director of field learning for CASEL; Karen VanAusdal, Senior Director of Practice, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; Mary Walsh, a professor of counseling and developmental psychology at Lynch School of Education, Boston College; Ellen Wingard, director of student and family supports, Salem (Mass.) Public Schools.

Documents: “School-Related Outcomes of Traumatic Event Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Students: A Systematic Review of Research from 1990 to 2015” School Mental Health (2016); “The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Nationally, by State, and by Race/Ethnicity” Child Trends (2018); “COVID-19 Superspreader Events in 28 Countries: Critical Patterns and Lessons,;” Jonathan Kay (2020); “Potential Effects of ‘Social’ Distancing Measures and School Lockdown on Child and Adolescent Mental Health” European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2020); “Masked Education? The Benefits and Burdens of Wearing Face Masks in Schools During the Current Corona Pandemic.”Trends in Neuroscience and Education; “Safer Singing During the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic: What We Know and What We Don’t” Journal of Voice (2020); “Opening Schools Safely in the COVID-19 Era: School Social Workers’ Experiences and Recommendations Technical Report” UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Work (2020); “Research-Based, Trauma-Responsive Education Practices,” (Webinar), Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (2019); “Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Through an Equity Lens,” Education Trust (2020);“Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning Roadmap for Reopening School,” Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning ot CASEL; “8 Strategies for Building Belonging With Students and Families Virtually,” Panorama Education; “A Review of School Climate Research” American Educational Research Association; “Building developmental Relationships During the COVID-19 Crisis,” Search Institute; “Connecting Schoolwide SEL With Other School-Based Frameworks,” CASEL; “Creating Birds of Similar Feathers,” Harvard University; ; “For Educators: COVID Check-in Survey,” Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education; “Implement SEL Within Multi-Tiered Systems of Support,” Committee for Children; “In Brief: The Science of Resilience,” Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University; “Integrate Student Supports with Schoolwide SEL,” CASEL; “Kernels of Learning: A new approach to social-emotional skills: bite-sized strategies and flexible resources,” Harvard Graduate School of Education; “SEL Kernels,” Greater Good in Education; “School Relationships,” Greater Good in Education; “Strategies and Lesson Plans, Virtual Relationship Mapping,” Harvard Graduate School of Education; “Students Weigh In: Learning and Well-Being During COVID-19,” YouthTruth; “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience,” National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015); “The State of Young People During COVID-19,” Findings from a nationally representative survey of high school youth, America’s Promise Alliance.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week


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How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
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