Education leaders must expect that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term impacts on students’ social and emotional well-being. This expectation must lead to preparation and radical disruption for what could be one of the most challenging school years in our generation. We cannot wait and observe how students will adjust and cope with the new changes and challenges in the world, their home, and at school.

COVID Highlights the Need for Coping

Focusing on what we know about social-emotional learning (SEL) can guide educators as we make decisions. We know that trauma and adverse experiences can have a negative impact on students’ well-being. At this stage, it is safe to identify COVID-19 as a contributor to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that ACEs are traumatic events that children experience between birth and age 17. These events alter children’s perceptions of safety, stability, and bonding. The CDC also notes that toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect attention, decision-​making, learning, and response to stress. During the past school year, COVID-19 exposed the fact that students need more coping strategies.

For some students, the impact of COVID-19 was their first experience with any significant form of trauma. The trauma of being separated and isolated, fear of losing loved ones, grief from losing loved ones, and the loss of social interaction at school can be overwhelming. COVID-19 also caused some students to take on adult tasks, including caring for siblings, teaching siblings during remote learning, increased financial responsibilities, stress from working long hours, and increased cooking and cleaning at home.

Studies are still being conducted regarding the correlation between COVID-19 and suicide rates. However, the CDC stated that there was a rise in hospitalizations among kids related to mental health from April to October 2020. The increase in stress on mental health requires that schools provide more social and emotional intervention. Before the pandemic, there was a need for social and emotional learning, so the implementation of interventions for students’ well-being is nothing new. However, the pandemic intensified this need. Previously, there was a smaller portion of students who required Tier 3 SEL interventions. What was once a small group of students needing SEL care has now become a larger group and, in some cases, is likely the majority of the student body. We have never had so many students in need of social and emotional support.

SEL Competencies and Interventions

Students have returned to school on various academic levels. For students to start a school year with a wide range of high emotional needs and a wide range of academic needs is a new challenge for educators.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, responsibility, and decision making as competencies for SEL. Developing those competencies can help students better cope with the impact of COVID-19.

Consider utilizing the following ideas when applying social-emotional learning to the adverse effects of COVID-19.


Start by checking in to gauge the mental state of all students. There are brief social and emotional screeners online for school use. The screener can be used to identify students’ level of SEL need and tier for intervention. The check-ins can be implemented daily. Having students start their day by saying, writing, or drawing how they are feeling can be helpful for them to become aware of their feelings. The use of emojis, TikTok videos, and selfies can spark creativity. Some check-ins with students will lead to a referral to your trained support staff as needed.

Social Awareness: Social Service

Many social needs and disparities became more apparent in the wake of COVID-19. For social service, students can choose one area of focus—hunger, unemployment, sickness—to collectively research and address. Giving students the opportunity to create a community service project to help others can build compassion and confidence. It will also give students a chance to work together on a powerful and life-changing issue. This will help those students understand how COVID-19 has impacted everyone in some way and ultimately create a sense of community and empathy.

Self-Management: Arts and Activities

Adolescents are surrounded by social media platforms that allow them to express themselves. Schools can use music, art, and other activities to give students an outlet to express how they feel and ways to cope. During study halls, encourage students to create. Employ strategic activities that can provide the release they need during the school day. Think outside the box and try new things like allowing students to go outside and move in classes other than P.E. Music can be used during passing periods or lunchtime to set a “happy” tone for the day. Let students sing and dance as a part of a minibreak and their transition from one assignment to the next.

Relationship Skills: Divine Dialogue

Engaging in divine dialogue is simply being intentional about the words we use with students and the purpose of conversations with them. Use every opportunity to connect with students while you have them in front of you. Students have been more likely to disengage as a result of COVID-19. They need educators to take an interest in who they are as people and build them up. Take advantage of seeing students in the hallway and genuinely compliment them. Ask students about their family and show interest in their likes—it helps to build relationships. We need to demonstrate how to develop relationships so that students can practice those same skills. It may be difficult for them to get back to in-person interactions with their peers. Schools should create in-person social engagements for students to build relationships: facilitate icebreakers, pair students during activities, and arrange informal social outings to give opportunities for engaging in relationships. All events should require local COVID-19 safety precautions.

Responsible Decision Making: Restorative Relationships

Misconduct and discipline referrals will likely increase as a result of COVID-19. Students are still trying to figure out what to do with all of their displaced emotions. Addressing discipline from a restorative and relational approach will help foster students’ decision-making skills. Instead of suspension and expulsions, place students in the position to learn from their mistakes.

After an infraction, have students complete a process that causes them to identify root causes and effects of their actions. Show students potential consequences and solutions for a range of decisions. Restoration of relationships can help show a student how their decision impacted others. Conducting restorative circles and meetings will model caring for others and show how to address issues rationally. There are several other simple ways to help build students’ well-being during this school year, including sending encouraging emails, showing grace over grades, starting the day with morning boosts, providing snacks, and showing students that you care.

Take the time this school year to tackle those social and emotional issues. A proactive approach will disrupt long-term negative impacts.

Tesha Robinson, PhD, is an assistant principal at Collinsville High School in Collinsville, IL.