Social and Emotional Learning: Why We Must Act Now

By Donna Black

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have predicted that the impact of the virus on human heath will reach far beyond that of physical safety. In the wake of social distancing and sheltering in place, the need for mental health services will rise sharply and swiftly, according to the experts. The healthcare landscape that has been embattled by efforts to keep infected people alive while keeping healthcare workers safe, will quickly transform into a different type of battlefield – one beleaguered by the effects of mental illness.

Unfortunately, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that economic recovery efforts have always sacrificed mental health and social services first, accompanied by decreased funding to departments of education. If this historical trend continues, and there’s no reason to suspect it will not, the services that will be needed the most will once again become the sacrificial lambs of the economy. 

The impact of economic recovery efforts on mental health services no doubt will be distressing, but the impact it will have on education and on our young people’s social and emotional development will be even more devastating, unless we start now to prove the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) as a deterrent to mental illness. We must act now to advocate for the adoption of educational standards in social and emotional development in every state legislature and with every state department of education across America. Social and emotional development must take equal, if not greater, priority as children return to school in the wake of the pandemic.

In homes across the country and indeed around the world, we are just beginning to witness the effects of social isolation and there is increasing concern for the long-term impact this will have on our children. For months now, these children have been isolated from their peers and have been forced to continue their education in a virtual learning environment. Equitable access to educational opportunities and the developmental appropriateness for this type of learning format for some children, have generated increasing concerns, along with a host of questions about how this will impact future educational decisions for these students.

Consider, for example, the story of seven-year-old Kelsi. As a very young second-grade student, her teacher describes her as eager to learn, willing to participate in school activities, and developmentally appropriate in her skill development. She enjoys coming to school and particularly enjoys learning alongside her peers. Like most children her age, she is intrigued by technology and is allowed by her parents to play a limited number of educational games or to watch a few children’s movies on their mobile devices. Kelsi’s interest in technology might be described as ‘typical’ for her developmental age and her enthusiasm is like any typical seven-year-old’s, that is, until distance learning became a way of life. Now her parents describe Kelsi as having daily meltdowns and refusing to engage in any schoolwork that requires the use of technology. Kelsi has no desire to use a computer or tablet. She even refuses to ‘attend’ virtual class meetings. She speaks daily of how she misses her teacher and her friends and how the virtual meetings are boring. While her parents are concerned about how this will impact her educational placement for the coming year, they are more concerned for her emotional well-being.  

Now consider 10-year-old Aiden whose life circumstances are vastly different from Kelsi’s. As a fourth-grade student, he and his two younger siblings, a brother age five and a sister age seven, attend a school that receives Title I grant funding. Due to their family’s low-income status, Aiden and his siblings are eligible for free and reduced lunches, so they receive breakfast and lunch at school. As for technology, they do not have access to a home computer because the family cannot afford one. Even if they could, they would not be able to afford the internet service. A federal technology grant, however, has allowed the school to purchase Chromebooks for every student on campus, so this is the only technology that is available to Aiden and his siblings.

Aiden’s mother is the sole caretaker for Aiden and his siblings. They live in a small apartment in a low-income neighborhood. Aiden’s mother has limited proficiency in the English language, so she struggles to communicate with school staff unless there is a translator available. She works full time as a housekeeper at a local hotel and supplements her income as a part-time cashier for a local restaurant. Following the government’s shelter-in-place order, Aiden’s mother lost access to both sources of income and was forced to file for unemployment. It was four weeks before she received her first payment. Meanwhile, Aiden and his two siblings no longer have access to the meals provided by their school and, without an income, the family is now dependent upon food provided by the local food pantry.

Aiden and his siblings have been unable to participate in the virtual classroom meetings with their teachers, despite being issued a Chromebook by the school, because they do not have internet service. Their mother has been able to access their weekly lessons through emails she receives on her cell phone, but her language limitations, as well as her limitations in technology skills, make working with her children extremely challenging. She uses her phone to let the children view recorded lessons and other digital resources for their assignments, but her lack of technology skills and the limitations of her cell phone capabilities prohibit what they are able to view, let alone accomplish. Another complication is the fact that the youngest sibling has been identified by the school as a child with a learning disability and has been receiving special education services at school. All three children are struggling with the challenges of distance learning and Aiden’s mother reports daily conflicts with getting them to cooperate with her. She also reports increased fighting between the children and daily episodes of emotional outbursts from all three children. Aiden’s mother is concerned for her children’s lack of educational opportunities, as well as their emotional well-being.

There are many different scenarios in which children across the country are struggling with the challenges of distance learning, along with the effects of social isolation brought on by the pandemic. In each case the life circumstances will vary, as will the access to resources and the availability of a support network. When factors such as homelessness, foster care placement, involvement with juvenile justice, or cultural differences are factored into the mix, the risks for negative impact increase exponentially. Regardless of these different circumstances, however, the effects will be observed and manifested in how these children respond socially, emotionally and behaviorally. The longer the isolation, the greater the likelihood of significant problems. The degree of difficulty will vary. Some will have minimal, if any, problems, while others will react more severely. One thing is for certain however, they will return to school and when they do, schools must be prepared. 

The adverse impact of the pandemic on the social and emotional development of these children should be of paramount concern to everyone, not just parents and educators, but community members and policy makers, as well. How we respond now will determine how these children learn to adapt and cope with life’s future challenges, thus preventing any long-term mental health problems. The social and emotional development of our children must take precedence in all plans for school reunification. We must begin preparing for these challenges by advocating for the adoption of educational standards in the area of social and emotional learning. Only then will children’s social and emotional well-being become as important as their academic development. After all, if their emotions are churning, they can’t be learning!

Donna Black is the President of SEL4TX and an Instructor for the Academy for SEL

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