Where to Begin?

Administrators and school leaders are confronting challenging, high-stakes decisions while planning to reopen their schools as COVID-19 continues on seemingly unabated. They are facing pressures from every side—whether it’s trying to reverse the COVID Slide (making up for lost learning), working through the myriad of obstacles in the path of safely opening school buildings, or fending off the political challenges of closing them.

Amidst such a plethora of competing demands, there are child-development experts who are concerned that students’ social, emotional, and mental health won’t receive the care and attention they need. And this could be a recipe for disaster.

Students are Anxious

A survey of 3,300 teenagers in June found that they are much more concerned than usual about their health and the health and financial stability of their families. Thirty percent of teens reported in the survey by America’s Promise Alliance, a national nonprofit focused on youth, that they are more worried than normal about basic needs including food, medicine, and safety.

Over a quarter of teens said that they are losing more sleep, feeling more unhappy or depressed, feeling under constant strain, or losing confidence in themselves.

Forty percent said they have not been offered any social or emotional support by an adult from their school while their school buildings were closed last spring.

A Social-Emotional Learning Mandate?

It’s tempting to move students’ social and emotional well-being to the back burner as administrators scramble to find ways to make up for lost learning, and navigate the tricky logistical and political challenges of opening school buildings in a safe and responsible way. But ignoring the children’s social and emotional needs could come back to haunt them.

The fact is both simple and unpleasant: Children find it nearly impossible to process and retain new information when they are consumed with anxiety. And that is, even more, the case at the moment as students are consumed and deeply stressed by the coronavirus, the economic recession impacting their families, and the racial unrest they see and hear about that seems to be sweeping the country.

COVID-Generated SEL Adaptations

The obvious questions are, “How can kids learn social or emotional skills when they’re working at least part of the time remotely? Or when they’re wearing masks in class and staying six feet apart from one another?”

To adequately ensure that the social and emotional needs of students are met and that they continue to develop critical skills in those areas within our current reality will demand nothing less than a new paradigm of thinking from teachers and administrators.


Strong and healthy relationships will be an essential component of students’ academic success and emotional well-being this coming school year. And there is no better time than the beginning of the semester to develop those connections that students will need to fortify them as they embark on their uncertain road ahead.

Undoubtedly that is quite challenging when schools are operating either remotely or in a hybrid model. Either way, face-to-face interaction is either partial or non-existent. Administrators need to be proactive in facilitating both peer and adult relationships that will meet children’s needs to the degree possible. This may not be the textbook case of SEL, but again educators will need to be creative in our new reality!

Evaluate the Risk of Activities

Unfortunately, PPE (personal protective equipment) such as facial masks will cause significant interference with children’s capacity to fully engage in SEL. One new study found:

“Covering the lower half of the face reduces the ability to communicate, interpret, and mimic the expressions of those with whom we interact. Positive emotions become less recognizable, and negative emotions are amplified. Emotional mimicry, contagion, and emotionality, in general, are reduced and (thereby) bonding between teachers and learners, group cohesion, and learning–of which emotions are a major driver.”

When balancing the need for safety and social engagement, teachers and administrators need to consider these four things:

    1. The viral load associated with an activity

    2. The duration of that activity

    3. The educational and social value of the activity

    4. The maturity of the students involved

For example, singing tends to disperse more viral particles into the air, while small-group projects conducted outside can be lower risk. That said, higher-risk activities can be modified to reduce their likelihood of contagion while maintaining their value.

Explore Ways to be Supportive while Maintaining your Distance

Social distancing has severely restrained traditional ways teachers and students alike relieve stress, so experts say that teachers should be more proactive in monitoring students’ emotional health and imparting alternative methods to cope with isolation and anxiety.

“With elementary school students, they can’t always communicate how they feel verbally, but you can tell by how they interact with you physically. Sometimes a kid, if she’s sad, will come up and hold your hand or she’ll want to sit next to you, really close, or want to hug you,” said Colleen Perry, a coordinator for the City Connects student support program at Pottenger Elementary in Springfield, Mass. “So it’s just trying to teach them, ‘you can still do that with your family, but with us, we have to verbally say things to each other,’ and just trying to teach kids the words to use.”

Alternatively, it is important to teach the children that social-emotional learning doesn’t necessarily have to be something that happens in close proximity to a student, said Nancy Duchesneau, an SEL researcher for the Education Trust. “It can be around expressing that you care about a student; allowing students to have opportunities to express themselves, verbally but also in writing assignments that allow them to show their voice.”