SEL Is More Important Than Ever
During a normal school year, supporting students’ social emotional needs through SEL (social emotional learning) is crucial since they can’t be ready to learn unless those needs are met first. This year, it’s more crucial than ever as students return to their classrooms for the first time since March – when in-person instruction shut down because of COVID 19.
“The pandemic has created a host of barriers that have impacted students socially and emotionally,” explains Director of Student Services Emilie Dahm. “All students were impacted by the school closure in spring, and some have been further impacted by issues such as family illness, unemployment, decreased food security, etc. These factors, in addition to the changes in our school environment and procedures due to COVID-19, will likely result in increased worry and anxiety for some students.”
School Counselor Britne Lorge agrees.
“Just like adults, students always have social and emotional needs. For example, maybe they are having a bad morning because they got into a disagreement with a parent or sibling or maybe they have low self esteem and just need one person to believe in them,” she explains. “As a School Counselor, I would say that social emotional needs should always be the MOST important aspect of teaching because our students can't learn or focus on learning if there are other things getting in the way.”
Now there are new sets of social and emotional needs for many students.
Some students could have been in an unstable home environment since March where they experienced neglect, abuse, or didn't have their basic needs met. Before the pandemic, they may have always been in the home environment, but were able to come to school to feel safe. Now they are coming back to school bringing extra trauma and "baggage" with them.
“Students may also be experiencing higher levels of anxiety due to uncertainty, having to wear masks, having to social distance, along with following all of the other new and different guidelines and rules at school,” Lorge adds.
Building positive relationships with staff is key to supporting students’ social emotional needs.
“Teachers need to first and foremost work on building relationships,” says Lorge. “Our students need to feel safe and feel like they can trust someone at school. The first way for this to happen is for staff and teachers to build a healthy and trusting relationship with their students – take time to really get to know them and notice who they really are.”
Building relationships is also one of the essential ingredients of a Trauma Sensitive School because it is proven to help all students, but also specifically those who have experienced trauma, she adds.
But teachers are not the only adults at school students can build relationships with, according to Dahm.
“Every staff member in our district, from the classroom teachers, school counselors, educational specialists, instructional assistants, administrators, custodians, food service staff, and bus drivers, has the opportunity to be that important connection for a student,” she says.
Teachers can also incorporate and practice social emotional skills such as cooperation in their curriculum or hold morning meetings to check in with students about their feelings, Lorge says.
“SEL should be a part of the classroom environment and culture,” she adds.
Shelley Hyde, Associate Principal of Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, notes that the district staff has been trained in supporting student needs through three specific practices – Welcoming Ritual, Engaging Activities and Optimistic Closing that can be incorporated into the school day.
There is a strong connection between SEL and UDL (Universal Design for Learning), the educational framework the district uses. Hyde notes that UDL focuses on meeting the needs of all students and removing the barriers that inhibit them from learning. Recognizing students’ emotional and social needs is another way to remove the barriers.
“SEL and UDL go hand-in-hand” says Dahm. “Our goal in UDL is to build Expert Learners. In order to be an Expert Learner, a student needs to have the skills of self-regulation and self-monitoring, which are key components of SEL. Expert Learners know how to identify strategies, both academic and social/emotional, that reduce barriers and help them learn best. Whether that is knowing that they benefit from using a graphic organizer to plan a written essay or that they focus better when standing instead of sitting, students can be experts about their own learning.”
“UDL and SEL are both about our students learning those soft-skills to help individuals be successful in life; not only as learners, but beyond. This includes things like self regulation, motivation, cooperation, and goal setting.”
Because learning is for life.