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School Health and Safety

A Compelling Moment for Social-Emotional Learning

Sheldon Berman

Lead Superintendent for Social-Emotional Cohort, American Association of School Administrators (AASA)

Today’s back-to-school strategies should adopt to how the pandemic has affected everyone. It all starts with social-economic learning.

The trauma of the pandemic has affected every student. As schools prepare to reopen, we can’t expect children to pick up where they left off last year. The world has changed, and so have they.

Families’ encounters with illness, death, and economic instability follow students to school. The sense of isolation that children have experienced and their inability to interact in familiar ways with schoolmates have been stressful and traumatic. The post-election civil unrest and the past year’s racist incidents have heightened children’s anxiety. Inequalities existing before the pandemic have been exacerbated, further compromising students’ wellbeing. As students return to school, our focus on social-emotional learning assumes a new level of urgency.

Focusing on relationships

The pandemic has underscored how much classroom relationships matter. When students feel connected to adults and peers in school, they perform at higher levels, feel better about themselves, and are more resilient to stress. Being able to manage emotions, achieve goals, show empathy, appreciate diversity, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions provides a safety net for students now and into the future. As the pandemic has dramatically demonstrated, all learning is social and emotional.

Schools can support social-emotional development and help children recover from trauma. Returning to a familiar schedule and structure bestows a sense of normalcy; hence, providing social work and mental health supports is critical. Inviting students to discuss recent events conveys that they are not alone, and they can grow from difficult experiences. Additional resources and instructional supports can mitigate achievement and opportunity gaps.

Making everyone feel welcome

In addition to teaching social skills directly through evidence-based programs, schools can establish classroom communities where students feel known, valued, and affirmed. Teachers can use morning and closing elementary classroom meetings, middle and high school advisory groups, student-to-student mentoring, and collaborative learning to foster an inclusive and equitable school. 

Schools can also address students’ concerns through content instruction. Language arts teachers can highlight the social and emotional issues that literary characters face, while science and social studies teachers can point out how real-life conflicts were resolved. Educators can acknowledge students’ diversity by ensuring their races and cultures are reflected throughout the curriculum. And schools can reinforce social skills through service experiences, such as assisting less fortunate community members or improving the environment.

The pandemic has made evident what researchers in brain science, medicine, psychology, and education have long proclaimed: that students benefit when the school’s environment and instruction place equal their focus on social, emotional, and academic development. The return to school presents an opportunity to implement social-emotional learning approaches that address the issues students bring with them, while promoting long-term success for all. 

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