Remote learning has highlighted significant inequities in K-12 education, but those inequities are not just curricular and they are certainly not all about devices and internet access. The largest gap in what we are now able to achieve is with social-emotional learning and support. This gap impacts all aspects of a child's education and is to me the most critical area of improvement in our K-12 space.
The reality is that our knowledge of social-emotional learning and how to integrate it into schools was really just beginning. You can imagine the curveball here. We were just beginning to define what SEL looks like in the classroom and are now faced with an entirely different kind of classroom for our students. I am not here to spread doom and gloom, but I do hope to highlight the importance of SEL and share some ideas to support students, families, and education professionals in continuing the charge of supporting our students socially and emotionally.
Why should I care about social-emotional learning?
It is important to understand that social-emotional learning is not a side conversation that we can ignore and expect to achieve equitable outcomes for all students. Some of our students arrive with the time management and self-advocacy skills necessary to access curriculum and improve their learning, while other students require support in figuring this piece out. I did a bit of writing on this subject and initially began my research on the relationship between mental health, student achievement, and school climate with the hypothesis that social-emotional competencies were the missing link to student success. Here are some understandings we should all be aware of:
In a 2015 Gallup Education study of around a million school-age students nationwide, only 39% of secondary students could identify that there is an adult in the building who cares about them.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, school climate and safe, positive classroom environments are preventers of mental health incidences (NIMH, 2015). The US Department of Health and Human Services identifies student disconnectedness, along with mood swing and decreased student achievement as early indicators of mental health issues (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has identified that enhancing student connectedness in school promotes student health and prevents incidences of mental health, violence, substance abuse, and self-harm (CDC, 2015). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has identified that students with low social-emotional competencies are more likely to be suspended and less likely to graduate high school (CASEL, 2018).
The reality that low social-emotional competencies negatively impact student academic performance, access to post-secondary education opportunities, and long-term mental health should set off alarm bells everywhere and establish a moral imperative. While I agree that K-12 education might not be able to solve this issue independently, it does not mean that we shouldn't be vigilant in our support for students and make a concerted effort to improve social-emotional competencies.
Ok, it's important, but what can I do about it?
As an educator who believes in the importance of SEL, I have felt a little handcuffed in our current environment. Our job as educators and leaders in the K-12 space is to continue to support the whole-child in spite of our current circumstances, and this means that translating social-emotional learning and what it means in this new context is critical. I've read multiple opinion pieces and angry Facebook posts on how our kids don't need schoolwork right now, instead they need hugs and reassurance in these uncertain times. I believe both are necessary. I would argue that maintaining connections with your school can provide kids with a sense of normalcy that can alleviate anxiety; we should be embracing these connections in whatever format they are presented to us.
Yes, I said in whatever format they are presented to us.
We have to put down our pitch forks and torches and support school districts in their efforts to implement remote learning. Just as parents will implement at home learning differently, so will school districts. I would like to operate under the assumption that we are all doing the best that we can in our current situation. This is not a time for finger pointing, instead it is a time where we need to support each other.
Let us establish a mutual understanding here that we're all doing the best that we can to help our kids, and that it's okay to be imperfect.
Applying Social Emotional Learning to Remote Learning
There are multiple models and frameworks for social-emotional learning, however my preference is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) Framework. I prefer CASEL because they provide multiple research based guides for educators, education leaders, and also families. I also find the five key competencies outlined in the CASEL framework to be understandable and digestible for a wide variety of audiences.
I am not surviving this tricky dance between home-schooling and remote learning without some bruises to my ego, but I do love to collect my thoughts and reflect on how to do things better. The ideas developed below outline each of the five competencies in the CASEL framework, include a video of what this looks like in the classroom, and talk through what this might look like in a remote learning environment.
According to CASEL, self-awareness is really about ownership. CASEL uses this competency as an umbrella for efficacy, confidence, perceptions, and emotions. This is coupled with supporting the understanding that how we feel about ourselves influences our behavior. Check out this video to learn more about self-awareness.
Encouraging our kids to reflect on their learning and their emotions is not something we should be abandoning in a remote environment. At home with my own kids, I am implementing the following to help them navigate self-awareness:
Self-efficacy means believing you have the skills to complete a task. We review their work for the day and develop a plan for getting work done that feels reachable.
Self-confidence and recognizing strengths means its okay to be proud of your work. At least once per day, I am taking a picture or a video of their work and congratulating them on a job well done.
Identifying emotions and having an accurate self-perception means its okay to be vocal about how you're feeling. I encourage my kids to admit frustration, and to acknowledge that they've missed something or need to start over on a task. The biggest item in this category is recognizing when they are not managing their time well.
Self-awareness and self-management overlap a bit. CASEL uses this competency as an umbrella for controlling your own behavior and impulses, managing your time and setting goals, and managing stress. Check out this video on self-management.
This competency is critical if the goal is to help your kids participate in their remote learning. A couple of the strategies I am using for this competency are:
Managing stress means recognizing when you're overwhelmed and need a break. I have to do this constantly with my older one and I have been using the dog to support him in taking a walk and taking a break from work. We've also needed to get strict on shutting down and stopping work.
Managing your time and setting goals means keeping an agenda or schedule to support you on completing your tasks for the week. Everyone needs a schedule. Some kids need to physically write one down and some kids need consistent reminders for how much longer they have to work and when the breaks are. We've set schedules for the week together, and accounted for long term projects by breaking them up into do-able pieces.
3. Social Awareness
Social-awareness is less about managing your self and your time and more about empathy and respect for others. CASEL groups empathy, perspective taking, appreciating diversity, and respect for others in this category. Check out this video on social-awareness.
I believe this is where our kids need the most support and guidance, especially now. I don't know about you, but up until now neither of my kids had used Zoom or Google Meet, and given their ages they are new to communicating with their teachers through email. Here's how I've been addressing this competency at home:
Empathy and respect for others has meant being patient with your teachers when you're having trouble understanding what is expected of you. We've worked on writing notes and emails, asking for clarification and also making sure we are saying "we hope you and your family are well."
Perspective taking and appreciating diversity has meant talking about how there might be differences in how your teachers are communicating and how your classmates are participating. Your classmates and your teachers are all adjusting and adapting to this new environment and we all need to be patient. Rules might be different for communication, the level of work and the amount of feedback might all look different, and that's okay.
4. Responsible Decision Making
CASEL groups identifying and solving problems with analyzing situations, evaluating and reflecting, and understanding your ethical responsibility. Check out this video on responsible decision making.
Responsible decision making overlaps with self-management in our remote learning environment. A couple of strategies I am using for this competency include:
Prioritizing the must-dos and can-dos. Each of my kids have required work and optional work, and their attention to this detail has varied. When we sit down to review their schedule for the week and review their work for the day, we talk about how they are doing on required work and if they have time for some optional work.
Reflecting on your work. Reflection is hard for kids, and for most adults. My work-around with this is encouraging my kids to present their finished products. I have even gone so far as to share presentation videos with their teachers, upping the stakes a bit for a quality product. In my view, if they know they might be "published" or sharing with a larger audience then it might inspire a greater commitment to quality.
5. Relationship Skills
CASEL defines relationship skills to include building relationships, communication, social engagement, and teamwork. Check out this video on relationship skills.
This is my biggest area of concern right now. My kids have had communication with their teachers and they have seen their friends during office hours, but what about socializing?
Social engagement means looking for new ways to socialize with friends. Today, my son arranged a lunch group with his friends and had a hangout where they played chess, ate lunch, and laughed for a bit. I'd love for him to do this every day.
Separating school from home has been a challenge. Much like I've had a hard time turning off work, so have my kids. We have now committed to stopping school talk after a certain time. It's not always working, but we've had to pay better attention to turning off technology at dinner and making eye contact.
Family meetings to resolve conflict are my new routine. Before remote learning, we barely got to interact with each other and now it's all we do. Last night, we passed around a tape measurer as our "talking stick" and spent some time working out why we're getting frustrated with each other. According to my kids it took FOREVER, but today was much better.
But what if I can't do all of this?
Neither can I, or at least not consistently and without imperfection. Education is guilty of constantly speaking in ideals, which is often coupled with a culture where admitting imperfection is discouraged. I try to support a culture where it's okay to acknowledge our own gaps in learning and where our goal is to work together to become collectively more effective every day.
For me, education is a lot like parenting. I will never be a perfect parent and I fully acknowledge that I sometimes say the wrong thing and I am at times discouraged by the way I addressed a behavior or engaged in a difficult conversation with my kids. I try hard every day, I try to be better every day, and I use my imperfections to set an example for my kids that it's okay to be imperfect and that everyone makes mistakes. I believe the best educators approach their work in this way: hardworking, reflective, and humble.
Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2018). SEL Impact, retrieved from https://casel.org/impact/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services; 2009.
Gallup, Inc., 2017. Gallup Student Poll 2015 Results. Engaged Today – Ready for Tomorrow, Gallup, Inc., Washington, D.C., retrieved from
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (2015). NIMH Strategic Plan for Research (NIH Publication
No. 02-2650). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/strategic-planning-reports/index.shtml