It’s clear that districts across the country are facing real challenges—how to reengage their students, address learning loss, and place students on a path for learning growth. Couple these concerns with the social-emotional needs of students and educators, and administrators undoubtedly are feeling more pressure than ever before. But there is hope. Understanding how to support the health and well-being of students through social-emotional learning (SEL) can lay the groundwork for success in all of these areas.

Students’ emotions and their ability to cope with challenges are directly tied to their ability to learn. According to Tim Shriver, the co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there is a groundswell of recognition that the academic, social, and emotional development of children is intertwined with their ability to learn.

Why Is SEL Important?

Social-emotional learning is the process through which children develop skills that help them understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. In other words, SEL helps students strengthen resiliency, improve their communication skills, and it positively impacts their overall health and well-being.

Equipping students with social-emotional skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills provides them with the ability to cope with and manage their feelings and their responses.

More than two decades of research confirms that when we nurture the social-emotional needs of students, there is also a positive impact on learning. SEL improves student academic achievement and equips students with life skills. As students learn these skills and strategies, they are better prepared to manage the situations they encounter at school, at home, and in their community.

Given the uncertainties we experienced throughout most of 2020, including school closures, COVID-19, and civil unrest, many students are experiencing increased anxiety. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, children are reporting a significant increase in stress, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, and grief right now. These challenges are likely to increase the social-emotional needs within your district and throughout your community.

According to Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale University and the director of its Center for Emotional Intelligence, “Social and emotional learning is critical to managing anxiety. If you don’t know how to deal with the lack of control of your future, or the feelings of uncertainty that you’re having, your brain is going to stay in a constant fight-or-flight mode. And if our brain is in fight-or-flight mode, then it’s not in learning mode.”

Students Are Not Alone

Students and educators alike have dealt with massive upheaval in education and in their daily lives. Recognizing that educators and school staff are also experiencing similar stressors, it’s important to consider how we support their social-emotional needs as well. CASEL and Yale University conducted a survey in April of 2020 to unpack how teachers were feeling during the COVID-19 crisis. In just three days, they amassed over 5,000 responses. Teachers were asked to describe the three most frequent emotions they felt each day. The most commonly reported emotions among teachers were: anxiety, fear, worry, feeling overwhelmed, and sadness.

SEL is clearly a major challenge facing not just students, but also staff, educators, and their families. It is important to determine how to best support these needs.

How Districts Can Support Social-Emotional Needs

Whether learning takes place in person or online, it is possible to support the transition with practical strategies that consider the value of SEL with three main considerations:

  1. Start with relationships first. We know that a teacher’s relationship with a student is indicative of whether or not they show up for remote learning classes. If educators have opportunities to build better relationships with students and their families, students have the potential to achieve better outcomes. This also means we should provide opportunities for students to build relationships with one another and also for educators to share best practices in positive and productive ways.
  2. Establish effective communication. We must be intentional about our communication with students, educators, and families. Make sure resources to help students and families are collected in one location. Having access to communication in one place can reduce confusion and make it easier for educators and students to stay connected as they adjust to a new learning program.
  3. Build communities of learners. Remember to provide opportunities for students to engage with one another and in activities that support mutual learning goals. Finding ways for students to work collaboratively is possible, no matter where learning takes place. By applying these strategies, we have the potential to create supportive, engaging learning environments. How we build that community of learners does matter and will be an indicator of success for the future.

Considerations When Choosing an SEL Curriculum Provider

Research points to a set of criteria for districts to consider as they choose an SEL curriculum. It is important to find a solution that supports the needs of the whole child with research and evidence-backed learning materials aligned to the CASEL standards and designed to meet grade-level learning objectives.

Most districts indicate they prefer a solution that:

  • Offers flexibility to use the curriculum in different ways depending on the school’s or students’ needs. Offering SEL via stand-alone topics, as a for-credit course, or woven throughout core academic courses offers flexibility that meets a variety of needs.
  • Provides assessments, often in the form of student surveys, that can offer indicators regarding student needs and insights into school climate and culture.
  • Equips teachers and school staff with the language and strategies for SEL through professional development.
  • Addresses equity and offers a culturally responsive curriculum that reflects the diversity of their student populations.

In addition, SEL solutions should be evidence-based—providing developmentally appropriate content for students across the grades. And today, more than ever, the SEL curriculum must be delivered in a format that is accessible to students no matter where learning takes place.

To learn more about what to look for in an SEL provider, visit​emotional-learning.

Jean Sharp is chief academic officer at Apex Learning and has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries, including product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management, and effective implementations for digital learning solutions.