Prioritizing Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health Support During the Fall Semester

Prioritizing Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health Support During the Fall Semester

With the coronavirus pandemic casting a shadow over the weeks and months ahead, school communities may find themselves shifting among three instructional models (distance learning, a hybrid approach, and in-person instruction) for an undetermined period of time.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the Framingham school board voted to begin the fall semester with online instruction and then transition to a hybrid model "when it is deemed safe." Meanwhile, Illinois residents are consulting Chalkbeat's online "school reopening tracker" to find out how reopening plans have evolved in response to the latest public health information.

To put it simply, there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding when educators and students will be able to engage with each other in person—and, as noted in an August article for Education Dive, the ongoing upheaval associated with COVID-19 has "exacerbated mental health problems" for students.

According to education news site The 74 Million, a recent survey of school-based mental health professionals identified the following elements of concern:

  • Vagueness surrounding when school buildings will reopen; reopenings are likely to spark social anxiety and readjustment issues among students, while continued closures may have negative interpersonal and academic impacts

  • Disrupted routines in the absence of "the fixed metronome of a school schedule to set [students'] daily cadence"

  • Acclimation issues and attention-seeking behavior "due to an extended lack of in-person contact"

  • School avoidance and refusal driven by "increased social anxiety and fear of getting sick," particularly among students whose parents express apprehension about reopenings

In short, social-emotional learning (SEL) and strong teacher-student relationships are more important than ever given the current climate of uncertainty.

A crisis magnified

Writing for The 74 Million, SEL experts Duncan Young and Linda Rosenberg described the fact that approximately 1 in 5 young people has a mental health disorder as "a long-standing crisis" compounded by the pandemic. With this in mind, the duo urged school officials across the country to ask themselves, "Do we have a flexible, powerful mental health safety net in place?"

It is important to note that although mental health support systems are not synonymous with SEL, many observers view SEL as an essential attribute of any healthy school climate. And with COVID-19 continuing to cause upheaval, Young and Rosenberg asserted that any mental health safety nets developed as part of districts' SEL efforts "must be equally effective in supporting students both in school and at home, in the same way that schools are providing blended instruction for academic programming."

The human element

After schools closed their doors back in the spring, many students struggled to cope with their suddenly reduced ability to physically connect with others. As reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland-based teacher Justin Ryland began sharing his past struggles with anxiety as a way to help students navigate their new reality.

"Me being open and vulnerable at first will show them that it's OK to share your emotions in a larger setting," Ryland explained to the news source. "And even though I can't see them [in person], they can see that I am someone who cares about them."

Misinformation and emotional expression

Elsewhere in the country, Cincinnati-based teacher Alexandra Frost is striking a balance in virtual and physical classrooms by allowing students to express their worries and concerns during a predefined period of time, then working to "combat fear with facts." In a blog post she penned for the We Are Teachers website, Frost contended that "pretending a pandemic doesn't exist is harmful to kids who are anxious, nervous, and looking to you for answers," while allowing students to vent may help them approach their academics with clearer heads.

Frost—who teaches high-schoolers—also recommended working with students to hone their media literacy skills. "You can give them facts, but more importantly, you can arm them with the ability to distinguish truth from rumors on the internet," she wrote. After all, if there's one thing we've learned from the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it's that rapid-fire information-sharing can stoke anxiety.

The bottom line

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the 2020–2021 academic year, prioritizing SEL and mental health will be key. Amid ongoing uncertainty, the structure and comfort offered by SEL-centric lessons and school-based mental health support systems will surely prove valuable to students.

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