Mitigating COVID-19 Learning Loss: Why Districts Should Focus on SEL Instruction

Mitigating COVID-19 Learning Loss: Why Districts Should Focus on SEL Instruction

Whether your school has chosen a blended learning model or is strictly conducting online learning, there’s a way to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and summer learning loss. The answer lies in social-emotional learning. Counselor Kate McKenzie makes a compelling case for why districts must focus on SEL instruction before holding kids accountable for academic success.

If you’re an educator, there is a 99% possibility that you’ve been asked, “So, do you think you’ll go back to regular school any time soon?”
It’s a tricky question to answer, specifically when trying to acknowledge the lenses of health, politics, childcare, and the socioeconomic statuses of families in a casual conversation.
This innocent question can quickly become emotional or heated, especially since plans for the fall are possibly still undecided. It’s no wonder that even our Magic 8 ball is responding with, “Ask again later.”
One thing is clear, though. Whether we are back in the building, teaching using a blended learning model, or totally online, schools must incorporate social-emotional instruction and focus on relationships before attempting to hold students accountable for academic success. 

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The Growing Divide During Distance Learning

There was some good that came out of schools shutting down in the spring.
Educators were able to learn and use different interactive online platforms. Certain students found their voice digitally and thrived in the at-home learning environment.
Other kids got to be just that –kids– and learn how to ride bikes, play kick the can, and help mom bake banana bread. 
However, another present and largely unspoken force was that of a digital divide.
The concept of a digital divide is nothing new to teachers, and school systems usually have the resources to bridge the homework gap.
However, with the quick turnaround of buildings closing, many districts did not have the time or resources to equip families with the necessary materials to learn.
While some districts moved rapidly, sending home devices with students and setting up hotspots throughout heavily populated neighborhoods, this was not the case for all. The lack of WiFi or computers quickly led to these students feeling an immediate disconnect from their peers. 
The ability to see classmates and teachers, engage in online learning, and complete homework came few and far between in districts in which families lacked resources or internet connection.
Even those that had internet access at home may have been at a disadvantage; a study shows that only 20% of Hispanic and Black workers could report to their jobs virtually, meaning that parents may not have been able to supervise or ensure their children completed work.
This issue doesn’t just affect kids’ spring education; unfortunately, it may have created a lasting consequence in the learning gap between their peers, leading to a domino effect affecting future course placement and future readiness skills. 
Before teachers throw in the towel or mark their calendars to provide daily tutoring before the school year even begins, they should revert back to the basics of building relationships with kids. Know that there’s a better solution to help close the gap: social emotional learning. 

Ways to Be Consistent in Teaching Social Emotional Skills

While COVID-19 and social distancing in the spring affected families differently, one thing is certain: everyone felt new stressors.
Before jumping right into the course syllabus or instruction, it is important for educators to acknowledge the losses from last school year, allow students to connect with old classmates and teachers, and create a physically and psychologically safe space. 
According to the Committee for Children, “social and emotional learning may be the bridge across the expansive achievement gap that exists between low-income, at-risk students and their peers.”
When comparing children living in poverty, those able to self-regulate and tap into their emotional skills have less problems academically than those without practiced emotional intelligence.
Therefore, social emotional learning (SEL) will be impactful for every teacher and student in the fall, and especially those who were impacted financially. 
Educators know that emotional intelligence is important for students to learn, practice, and master, but it oftentimes gets lost in other district and curriculum directives. Below are four tips for teachers to keep SEL instruction in the forefront of their teaching practices this upcoming school year. 

  • Don’t Reinvent the Wheel:

Tackling a social emotional curriculum can be very daunting, especially when you may already feel overwhelmed and spread thin with other building initiatives.
Take some time to research the basics of SEL by starting with CASEL, an organization that has earned a top spot in the social emotional field.
If your building is willing to invest in a research-based program, look into Second Step, which provides lesson plans, scripts, and materials. Another strength of these websites is that both provide parent resources to extend learning to home. 

  • Plan With Intention:

While SEL instruction can be woven into most lessons, it is most effective when it is incorporated with purpose. Instead of being an afterthought, social emotional skills should be taught, and more importantly, practiced over and over.
From carving out a particular time of day to practice, such as Morning Meeting, or reviewing learned skills consistently before procedures, teachers can implement these competencies regularly. 

  • Meet With Colleagues to Determine Non-Negotiables:

A lot of mental health and counseling professionals suggest consistency in and out of the classroom for the sake of the teacher and the students.
When students come to know and expect routines, they feel safe and empowered within that structure.
This mentality also goes beyond their classroom’s four walls. Having school-wide expectations allows students to feel more comfortable and knowledgeable, since academic and behavior standards are consistent in every common space and classroom.
Similar grade or subject-level expectations not only promote this mindset, but also ensure that students are receiving similar instruction and will be prepared for the next year. 

  • Reflect and Reassess:

You may need to switch the way you teach and practice SEL skills throughout the year. If your class isn’t making the progress you’d like, look into your delivery method or collect input from students.
If SEL instruction has taken a backseat to content or standardized tests, remember that students that feel a sense of belonging and connectedness in your classroom are more likely to engage in learning and develop a growth mindset.
SEL instruction isn’t an added responsibility, but actually one of the most important things you can be teaching your students. Relationships are incredibly important, and consistently building (or rebuilding) those can have powerful effects in your classroom culture. 

The Make or Break For Successful Social Emotional Programming

Now, if you’d lend me two minutes of your time, I’d like to lace up my shoes, dust off my soapbox, and hop on. I’ve worked under six different principals, and while their leadership styles were vastly different, one thing remained consistent. 
Teachers implementing SEL alone in their classroom, without support or guidance from the administration or district, ultimately failed. 
Building leads, please let that sink in. 
A teacher can read all the books she wants, create various lessons that align to standards, and communicate with parents to extend learning at home.
But when August rolls around and there is no systemic implementation of SEL, her students may move onto another teacher whose social and emotional values, expectations, and rules are not vertically aligned. In some cases, all that hard work and extra hours put in the previous year were for naught.  
Since teachers are already reimagining what their classrooms and instruction will look like whenever kids reenter the building, administrators can do the same.
By seeing a need for and developing a robust SEL program, building leaders can mandate explicit SEL instruction, prioritize professional development for all teachers, engage the community, and collect and use data to make informed decisions. 
Psychologist and NY Times bestseller Madeline Levine states that, during this time of uncertainty, kids desire the four S’s: to be “soothed, seen, stable, and safe.” I’d argue that teachers want and need the same.
Social emotional learning goes way beyond interactive activities and cute videos; SEL instruction helps create a caring, inclusive, and healthy community.
Adult SEL competencies need to be learned, practiced, and strengthened before teachers are expected to lead a classroom full of students. 
Teachers, I recommend that if it is not already a part of your professional development, to request that your district prioritize your own social emotional wellbeing, and also allow additional time throughout the school year for you to collaborate with your colleagues on the topic.
By advocating for a comprehensive and inclusive social emotional program, you as an educator will feel empowered and supported, and, in turn, be better equipped to positively affect your students. 

Free eBook: An Educator’s Guide to Developing Social-Emotional Learning Skills in Your K–12 Students