The last three school years have been full of disruptions in our nation's schools. While school leaders, educators, and families continue to navigate challenges, a deeper conversation has been unfolding about how children learn and the foundational, developmental elements that are required for learning. When students were learning remotely, it became clearer that socialization with peers and in-person access to teachers are critical for learning. When students and staff navigated trauma related to the losses of the pandemic or the social climate, it became clearer that our students' emotional state impacts their learning. One vice principal from Charles County Public Schools in Maryland told us, "So much has transpired in the world that we have to be proactive and address the needs."
Students and families are depending on schools to keep moving forward. Educators are taking a critical look at the learning conditions in schools, especially as the ongoing impact of the pandemic brings new disruptions every day. Luckily, it is possible to build a better foundation for learning and design environments that allow all students to thrive.
Social emotional learning is the foundation of all learning
Social emotional learning (SEL) is the foundation students need for lifelong success. Social and emotional development is critical for cognitive development to improve academic performance; for creating systems of support within a school community and prioritizing community wellbeing; for deepening relationships with families; for deepening students' understanding of self and their awareness of the world around them. One elementary school counselor in Utah told us, "Giving students the skills they need to function in society develops their ability to adapt, be flexible, solve problems, and learn how to work with different types of people. Social and emotional learning should be the root of the learning for every child."
Educators (and increasingly, parents) can sometimes be skeptical about SEL while still acknowledging the importance of child development. Social emotional learning needs to be authentic, interactive, and engaging to promote cognitive development. A principal from Lancaster ISD in Texas shared that "SEL is the foundation of true education. Students and staff must know they belong in the environment, are cared for and have a voice. Once these needs are secure, true teaching and learning will begin."
Students of all ages benefit from SEL, but the teenage years especially are a critical time as hormones change and students begin to prepare for independence after graduation. A high school principal from Belle Plaine Public Schools in Minnesota shared, "As we have researched social emotional learning over the past 2 ½ years, I am amazed at the need. We need to take care of our students' mental and emotional health now more than ever."
Social emotional learning happens everywhere
There are many practices and exercises that educators can integrate into the operating system of a school or district that explicitly promote social and emotional development, but in order to truly be effective SEL cannot live on its own. It must be integrated authentically into the moments when students need it. What are the strategies or processes they can rely on when navigating conflict with a friend? What are the structures in place to help them advocate for support from teachers or counselors?
Within academic content areas, social emotional skills show up daily. Students often consider diverse perspectives when studying history, explore how literary devices spark empathy in ELA, discover new ways to solve problems in math, or rely on observation and communication skills when conducting experiments in science. Beyond academic content itself, SEL helps students become more confident learners. A social worker from Jordan School District in Utah shared that "Practicing and using [SEL] skills can literally turn a student's challenging circumstances into stepping stones that lead to greater resilience, empowerment and a readiness to learn academic content."
Outside of the classroom, strategies to promote social and emotional development continue to impact students' lives, strengthening relationships with families and friends, helping them self-regulate when experiencing big emotions, and sparking curiosity to explore new interests. The Director of SEL at Distinctive Schools in Chicago shared that "SEL skills are so important for our young people in becoming happy, successful and contributing members of our community."
While disruptions may come and go, families and students maintain high expectations for academic learning outcomes. Without a strong foundation for learning in place, students and educators will continue to face an uphill battle.