As this new school year begins, educators are met with the challenge of not only addressing the academic needs of their students, but also their social-emotional needs that were greatly impacted by the pandemic. Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in young people due to the grief, isolation, and fear of the pandemic. This increase in mental health concerns among young people is why many school districts are focusing their federal funding and efforts on social-emotional learning (SEL), which is commonly defined as the “process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
For the past several years, Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma has been investing in SEL practices and has outlined continued support for SEL in and out of the classroom in their back-to-school recovery plan. Each school in Tulsa now has a Wellness Team–comprised of an attendance clerk, social worker, nurse, teacher, principal, parent leader, and community partner–that tracks the wellness of each student and connects them to mental health services, housing and food assistance, and grief support groups. The teams have proven successful in improving the school’s ability to support students and to understand the population of students they serve.
In Cedar Grove, New Jersey, all schools in the district are required to develop a plan to understand and assist students who have experienced trauma or have other emotional or mental health needs. Each school must develop plans specifically dedicated to fear; anxiety; bias, prejudice, and stigma; grief and loss; and harassment, intimidation, and bullying behavior. Each plan will provide routines, clear communication, focus on relationships, safety of the student, integration of SEL in classroom teaching, and identification of social emotional and mental health challenges. Furthermore, each school has a group of staff members who coordinate services and supports to address a full range of individual students’ learning, behavior, social, and health needs, such as counseling services.
Adolescence is an extremely crucial period to develop lifetime self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making skills, and yet far too often, student voices are not centered or even present when decisions that directly impact them are made. Students’ lived experiences are more than anecdotal stories, and yet they are rarely given a seat at the decision-making table. We must expand opportunities to meaningfully include students in decision-making bodies and encourage active leadership of young people in these processes as it helps develop leadership and confidence in their own abilities.
Research shows “overwhelmingly that students who have agency in their learning are more motivated, experience greater satisfaction in their learning, and, consequently, are more likely to achieve academic success.” Student-empowering classrooms not only substantially increase achievement and motivation, but are linked to other important educational outcomes, including: “elevated achievement levels in marginalized student populations…greater classroom participation…enhanced school reform efforts…better self-reflection and preparation for improvement in struggling students…and decreases in behavioral problems.”
Students should be allowed more “voice and choice” when it comes to their education, such as choosing what topic to do for a project and who to work on it with. That is exactly the approach of the Community Lab School in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are no stand-alone subjects. Learning is project-based and interdisciplinary with mixed grade levels, in order to boost equity, personalization, collaboration, agency, and socialization. Odyssey STEM Academy in Lakewood, California focuses on personalized learning and is working to capitalize on its benefits in the midst of the pandemic. With educational systems such as these, schools can be a place where students do not simply survive but thrive. “This is an opportunity to think about what we want…[school] to look like, rather than just going back to the status quo,” said Nancy L. Deutsche, the director of Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.
While closing academic gaps caused by the pandemic is important, students are human beings, many of whom have experienced life-changing trauma as a result of the pandemic. Their well-being and sense of belonging must be nurtured before true learning can begin. Young people deserve a holistic approach to education that helps develop their agency and social-emotional skills so that they can take care of not only themselves, but also their communities.
Educators can use this moment of educational re-invention to help establish healthy relationships with students; increase student voice, agency, and flexibility; and help them gain a deep sense of belonging. Educators have unique influence over how students view the world and themselves; genuinely investing in students’ social-emotional needs will help young people not only today, but for the rest of their lives.