Erin Ryan

Q+A: Supporting social-emotional learning during collective trauma

Blog Post created by Erin Ryan on May 1, 2020

As COVID-19 redefines “normal” across the country, students, teachers, and families do their best to make progress at home, in whatever form it may take. With distance learning efforts underway with the help of video chats, apps, and paper packets, one component of student learning is often left out of the conversation—social emotional learning (SEL). SEL is often described by what it’s not: anything related to traditional academics. It’s the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help kids be successful in and out of the classroom.

To learn more about SEL, I interviewed Dr. Karyn Lewis, senior research scientist in the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA. Karyn has a background in social psychology, with an emphasis on SEL, school climate, and students’ sense of belonging. We set out to learn more about how SEL will be impacted by COVID-19 closures, and what teachers and families can do now, or when schools reopen to support students through this shared trauma. Karyn’s responses were edited for length and clarity.


As I understand it, SEL are those non-academic skills or behaviors that help people build relationships. Is it essentially, how to be a human? What kind of skills are we talking about? 

I think you could ask ten different people and get ten different answers. Things like managing their emotions, controlling their behavior, connecting proactively and productively with peers, making good decisions. It really runs the gamut. And I think schools have, and should, define what it means for their population specifically, to honor the unique types of kids that they're serving.


For early learners, some of these SEL skills and behaviors are embedded in their standards. Does that continue as they get older?

You're right that it is really well represented in what we expect of preschoolers. But we've had this interesting trend of kind of just letting that drop off after kindergarten. And I think in the last five years or so, schools have started to recognize that this is something to be purposefully developing in older students. And we're seeing more and more states and districts develop standards around social-emotional learning.


What do you think are some of the hold-ups to making this more widely accepted?

We know that social and emotional development is really different from academic development. It's not a linear trajectory over time, like we expect with math skills, where at every increasing age we expect new and linear trends in development. It peaks and valleys, depending on kids' experiences in the classroom and outside the classroom. So that is a challenge that prevents us from having a really accurate picture of what we should expect at each developmental milestone.


Let’s talk about SEL in the context of COVID-19. Researchers at NWEA used data on summer learning loss to develop possible scenarios for how school closures will impact student learning. Can something similar be done for SEL?

We know that trauma and chronic stress can be really impactful on the kinds of skills we put in this bucket—things like the ability to pay attention, regulate our emotion, regulate our behavior. Research shows a really strong link between experiencing [trauma] and having a hard time with those kinds of capacities. So it is very much based in relationships and kids' experiences.



So depending on what that looks like for some students in this pause, I think we very much can expect that we're going to see some real challenges and struggles when kids get back in the classroom.


Will these challenges look different for older students?

This isn't just something that's going to pertain to younger kids. I think we should expect it for students of all ages. I think we should expect it in adults as well. We are all able to fall victim to the impact of trauma and chronic stress.

I know for me, when I am feeling anxious, it comes out as irritability. And I think, "Oh my goodness. What are the words coming out of my mouth right now?" But it's human nature to have this kind of behavior when we're under really, really stressful and trying times.


Is there anything that teachers can do to help students now, or is it something that can wait until they’re back in the classroom?

I think what's really powerful is that the best thing we can do is really focus on relationships, connecting teachers and students, connecting students to one another. Because the most healing way to combat trauma is to focus on well-being and relationships.


I've seen a couple of articles that ask questions like, "How can you continue your SEL instruction remotely?" And I think at this point what is best is to think less about developing individual social-emotional competencies like goal setting and adopting a growth mindset, and instead change the conversation to be about how can we support students and teachers' social-emotional well-being. The number one way to do that is to make sure we're connecting with one another, and just checking in, and focusing on well-being, in contrast with any kind of skill development.


Some schools or districts are unable to do virtual distance learning, and some students may not be able to keep up with it at home due to age, learning needs, etc., so maintaining those relationships is difficult. When students return to school, what can teachers do to make up for lost time, so to speak?

I think it's going to be really useful to reframe our narrative when we return to school in the fall. Let’s not think about how we can hit the ground running. Let's pause and allow the time and space that adults and children are going to need to recover from this. And I think that really involves being gentle with ourselves and our students, and just letting this unfold. I think there's some research-based ways to support things like emotion processing and connection that we can pay attention to, but it's going to be really important to just give time and space to grieve what was lost and come back together and start rebuilding those relationships.


Can you talk about some strategies that may be helpful when we’re back together again?

I think as adults, it will go a long way to provide those kind of emotional and psychological scaffolds to process this experience that are going to be really important. So that will be things like just giving time and space to talk about emotions. Writing assignments and journaling can even be incorporated now into distance learning, to help kids write about what this experience has been like for them and what's challenging.



But overall, it’s critical that we’re sure that the focus of what we're doing when we come back together is reconnecting, and ensuring kids are feeling connected to their teachers and one another. And I think that emphasis on connection means that we need to spend time thinking about our school and our classroom climate first and foremost, as opposed to panicking about all the instruction that's been lost and getting kids caught up to where we wish they were. We need to meet kids where they're at, make our priority their well-being, and figure out how we can connect with them to support them in that space.

And what about teachers and staff? How will COVID-19 closures impact adults in schools and classrooms?

We know that student trauma is going to work its way up and impact teachers, and they're going to have a really heavy emotional burden now and in the future coping with this. I just hope we can encourage teachers to give space to that. Having a peer network of other teachers that are going through the same thing to debrief with, to process with, to support one another is going to be really critical.


If you want to learn more about SEL, visit CASEL [The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning] online. For ideas on self-care for teachers, read our article from Fenesha Hubbard in Show of Hands.

Erin Ryan joined NWEA as senior writer in 2018. A former teacher and student of education policy, she enjoys using her word-**** status to support student learning.