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Social-Emotional Learning Is the Elephant in the Room: Three Challenges to Consider

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Today's guest blog is written by Shanna Sloyer-Martin. Sloyer-Martin is a guidance counselor, freelance writer and mother of three living in the Midwest.

In a few short weeks, students from across the country will return to school. How that happens will look different depending on geography, virus surge, and local politics. For some, classes will start online and remain that way for the foreseeable future. Others will attempt a hybrid model that allows for a couple of days in person, then rotates to virtual instruction. Disease-mitigation strategies like mask-wearing, frequent hand sanitizing, and social distancing will be in place for districts planning to return to traditional brick and mortar models.

Whatever model of instruction students encounter when they return to learning this fall, there will be one constant. Social-emotional learning (SEL) needs will be higher than ever, and the education community, in its efforts to keep students physically safe, must not ignore or minimize their mental health. Many of our students have been out of school buildings for nearly half of a calendar year. Despite continuing to learn virtually, the social norms and expectations they have adhered to since February or March have likely been different from those that will be expected when they return. 

What Will Change About the Expectations for Learning?
Students are going to be asked to sit in the same room for most of the day, wearing a mask and staying six feet or more from their peers. Virtual learning expectations will be more rigorous than they were in the spring, so some students will need to adapt to many more hours per day in front of the computer.

While these measures are necessary to curb the trajectory of COVID-19, they fly in the face of everything educators know about developmentally appropriate experiences. It seems that most of the discussion on reopening schools has centered around the desires and experiences of adult stakeholders during the pandemic. There hasn't been much discussion on how this pandemic has affected and will continue to impact our youths, other than to use their mental health as an argument for reopening. It's like there's a giant proverbial elephant in the room, and we don't want our kids to notice it. Guess what? They noticed.

Children and young adults are not insulated from the stressors of society. Our youths are bombarded by news about refrigerated trucks storing virus victims' bodies, the instability of our economy, and the powder keg of racial tension that exploded across the country this summer. Many of them have experienced firsthand the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, financial hardship, or social injustice. Simply shielding kids is no longer a practical solution, and failing to recognize and acknowledge their experiences only increases their anxiety. We must address their experiences head on and we have to do it before any meaningful academic learning can take place.

SEL during the COVID-19 pandemic will (and should) look different from a year ago. While SEL staples like online safety, citizenship, and interpersonal relationships will certainly still be important, I believe the following components should be included in the SEL curriculum to adapt to the times we're in:

Grief & Loss
Grief counseling often brings to mind the loss of a loved one or a death experience, but grief and loss are so much more. When we shuttered schools last spring, students were robbed of the closure that the end of a typical school year brings. Final field trips, telling teachers goodbye for the summer, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with the culmination of another year. 

Our students have missed out on important life experiences and rites of passage in the past six months. Canceled proms and athletic seasons and long separations from family members are losses that deserve our acknowledgement. For students who depend on school as an environment of safety and security, their grief may stem from loss of access to reliable resources like food, electricity, water and affection.

Students will also undoubtedly experience feelings of loss surrounding what the upcoming school year will look like. No longer able to sit shoulder to shoulder with peers at lunch or move from classroom to classroom, students will need to mourn what once was before they can begin to accept the new reality.

Rather than simply moving on, we need to provide students opportunities to discuss their shared experiences since we were last together. This can look like:

  • How are you doing?
  • What have you been doing since the last time we were together?
  • I've missed seeing you and hearing about your life.
  • Is there anything you want to share?
  • What has been difficult about this experience?
  • How can I help you if you're struggling?

Going on without acknowledging the grief and loss that come from living through a pandemic is disingenuous, invites potential behavior issues, and fails to honor our students as individuals.

Resilience & Adaptability
One of the things that I love about working with young people is their ability to adapt and change. They are so much better at being flexible than most adults I know (myself included). 

By discussing with students what it means to be resilient and adaptable and giving them opportunities to practice, we're not only teaching them how to cope with what's happening in the world right now but also providing them with important life skills that will serve them into adulthood.

As educators, we need to praise students for the resilience and adaptability they demonstrate this school year. This can look like:

  • I'm so impressed with how you rose to that challenge.
  • I know wearing a mask isn't always fun, but you are doing such a great job keeping yourself and your classmates healthy. Thank you.
  • Brainstorming positive things that have come out of this period (my own kids learned how much they like homemade bread when we couldn't find bread at the grocery store).
  • Brainstorming ideas with students for how we can adapt pre-COVID traditions and activities to work in a post-COVID world (think recess and playground activities at the primary level and Spirit Week for secondary students).

When we invite students to be part of the discussion, even the youngest children often surprise us with their insight.

Community
A building is just a building; people make up a community. 

Even if schools are not back in brick and mortar, students need to be reminded that they are valued members of the learning community. Helping our kids feel the same connectedness we create when we sponsor clubs and participate in pep assemblies is even more vital to their mental health than before COVID-19.

As adults, we can foster the idea that we are all in this together, not only as a school community, but as part of our larger communities. This can look like:

  • Continuing, where possible, remote extracurricular opportunities like clubs.
  • Encouraging a mentoring program pairing older and younger students. (Reading buddies, Freshmen Mentors, etc. via teleconferencing)
  • Creating a pen pal program between students and a local residential-living facility.
  • Maintaining school traditions where possible. (Can we still play the school fight song over the PA? Wear our class colors?)

Every member of our school community is going to play a vital role in the mental health of students this year. We can begin by acknowledging the COVID elephant in the corner, mask and all.

Connect with Shanna on Twitter

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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