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Social-emotional learning can help kids with pandemic stress


As we begin 2021, Understood is predicting changes ahead for people with learning and thinking differences and disabilities. This is part four of a four-part expert series on our 2021 predictions.

The pandemic has exposed a lot of gaps in our education system. It’s creating a crisis for students — academically, and also in terms of mental health.

Teachers have been asking for better mental health support for students for a long time. That includes training for themselves in social and emotional learning (SEL). In 2021, we predict teachers will intensify their calls for SEL as kids struggle with the mental health fallout from the pandemic.

SEL helps kids manage their emotions, solve problems, and interact with others. It supports lifelong mental health. Before the pandemic, SEL was slowly gaining traction. But most schools didn’t focus on it. Teachers know that’s no longer an option.

Kids are struggling. Many are dealing with serious trauma. Without supports like SEL, academics will be a non-starter. This year, schools need to take a “whole child” approach and help kids cope with stress and trauma. They also need to teach skills for managing emotions so kids can learn.

“We can’t ask students to focus on academics if we don’t work with them to develop the social-emotional skills to access learning and navigate life, especially with all of the uncertainty and disruption they’ve been experiencing,” says Shivohn García, PhD, an experienced educator and executive director of impact at Understood.

It’s likely that more schools will provide some degree of SEL training this year. (Some may even offer more specific training in trauma-informed teaching.) The question is how many and how much.

Districts can use their emergency COVID funding from the government for that purpose. Some schools will use it just to cover the bare necessities. But others could choose to put it behind SEL.

Many kids are dealing with serious trauma. Without supports like SEL, academics will be a non-starter.

The need has never been greater. Disruptions in education have caused achievement gaps to widen during the pandemic. For example, distance learning has meant that many kids who get special education services aren’t getting the type of support they need.

The effects could last for years. But research suggests that social and emotional learning may help in closing these gaps.

The good news is that the Biden Administration has recognized the achievement gaps and promised to address them. The administration also plans to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) within 10 years and double the number of counselors and psychologists in schools.

But right now, the situation is urgent. As more kids return to in-person learning, they’ll need to relearn social skills for the classroom. And they’ll need support to manage their emotions and deal with stress.

With SEL training, teachers will gain valuable tools. But they’ll also need the flexibility to make social and emotional growth a priority.

In the short term, that might mean allowing teachers more flexibility in how they pace their teaching to meet academic standards. Or putting less focus on grades. Educators might also think of student engagement and emotional development as measures of success on their own, especially during remote learning.

SEL isn’t a replacement for professional mental health services. Teachers can’t fill the mental health gaps in schools on their own. But most haven’t received the training that could help them make a bigger difference. Hopefully, this year they will.

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