Learning during the pandemic: Making social and emotional learning front and center

The prolonged school lockdowns that, starting in early spring of 2020, dismantled children’s routines, including normal school days, also blocked their access to the basic supports that schools provide—including organized recreation, and, of course, the face-to-face contact with teachers and friends that is fundamental to child development. It thus should be no surprise that the pandemic has not only led to reduced student performance, on average, but also stretched to the limit children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

What, in education policy and practice, we call “social and emotional learning” (SEL) has long been known to be important for student development and academic success, but the pandemic has emphasized the need to elevate its importance. Indeed, as the pandemic unfolded, it was clear that SEL, or children’s “patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” are at least as critical as other traditional academic competencies. We saw that empathy, resilience, and the ability to cope with anxiety, turned out to have major impacts on children’s daily lives, and must be emphasized along with algebra, history, social sciences, or foreign languages.

There is a threefold explanation—that contains the good, bad, and ugly— as to why and how the pandemic has highlighted that need, and as to which lessons education policy can learn as we move forward.

Let’s start with the obvious bad: many of our children have experienced extreme adversity over the past 10 months. Unfortunately, our systems—public education and others—are not equipped to provide the supports students need to cushion their stresses, pain, and loss. This lack is evident even in normal times, but much more so during the pandemic. Leaving aside the irreparable personal losses many have suffered with more than 400,000 dead, reports also document spikes in child poverty, hunger, homelessness, and associated mental health problems and trauma. Just two examples follow. There were almost 14 million children living in a household characterized by child food insecurity during the week of June 19–23, 2020 (This is over twice as many as during peak of the Great Recession in 2008 and 5.6 times as many as in all of 2018). Since the pandemic began in March, mental health-related emergency room visits have soared (health professionals document a 24% increase among elementary school-aged children, and a 31% rise among those between middle and high schoolers, compared with the same period last year). The lack of preparation and the inability to respond appropriately to the pandemic itself reflect broader societal weaknesses that are our collective responsibility to change.

The ugly is that it took a pandemic to make the value of SEL evident to all. We knew from the experience in effective schools and from extensive research, including ours, that social and emotional learning is integral to effective traditional academic learning. However, SEL, or intentional instruction to nurture these skills, has been substantially underappreciated in policy, due in part to overemphasis on the cognitive aspects and lack of understanding that the range of skills students acquire throughout their school years develop in tandem. This long-term failure to properly advance the development of the whole child also undermines the development of a healthy society and of our social capital.

The good in all of this is that finally placing SEL prominently in our upcoming education policy agenda, and or making whole-child education the norm, will significantly boost our recovery from the pandemic and help rebuild a better education system. A comprehensive approach to SEL reflects our acknowledgment of the full range of skills that matter, the natural variation among children with respect to different traits, and the multiple factors that help nurture them (both in and out of school). And this focus on SEL offers us a lever to lift children up: some of these traits have likely improved during the pandemic, while others have deteriorated—so noting both of these realities will boost the efforts of educators working to help students make up for lost ground.

As such, as we design a relief, recovery, and rebuilding strategy for the education system to meet that goal, we must equip schools with the resources and tools to meet all of students’ needs, rather than a narrow (and misguided) focus on closing gaps on traditional outcomes. This will require implementation of diagnostic assessments that inform teachers about where students are socially and emotionally, as well as in traditional academic areas, as well as the adoption of strategies to bolster children’s social and emotional strengths and address their social and emotional needs. As we continue to weather the pandemic and prepare for its aftermath, we have the opportunity of making whole-child education the norm as standards, instruction, assessments, and wraparound supports are structured, which will finally mean that SEL is front and central in our education policy agenda going forward.

This is the second blog post in our “Learning During the Pandemic” series. Over the next few months, we will be releasing more blog posts on various consequences of COVID-19 on students’ learning and development and on the actions needed to recover the lost ground and lift children up during and after the pandemic.