How the pandemic made social-emotional learning more accessible

Photograph of children in classroom

Katari Coleman is senior project director for Education Development Center and co-leads the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment.

Throughout history, tragic events have served as springboards for advancements in quality of life. For example, World War II innovations like influenza vaccines, penicillin, radars and jet engines were developed and still serve vital purposes to society. For this moment in time, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed social-emotional learning to undergo a similar development.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is essential for managing emotions and problem-solving. It equips an individual with the ability to deal with difficulties that may arise throughout their life and the ability to build relationships and navigate the community they live in.

But amid the pandemic, millions of students lost socialization and structure because of disrupted daily life, including invaluable interactions and expectations from their participation in school, afterschool and summer programming, community and religious organizations, and other extracurricular activities. These barriers illuminated an urgent and often unmet need for accessible social-emotional learning supports.

In the two years since the pandemic began affecting American life, some states and districts began touting the value of SEL for student success, and committing to new investments and strategies for meeting the social and emotional needs of students. Below are some of the ways we’ve seen advances in SEL accessibility during this moment of crisis and transformation.

Championing SEL for both students and adults

To better address the SEL disruptions students and adults were experiencing, states and districts used social media platforms to make a renewed push around the importance of SEL, distributing support documents, tip sheets, briefs and other resources to make sure communities were aware of strategies to foster SEL.

For example, California used Facebook Live and Twitter to engage education professionals, families and students in discussions about SEL and mental health supports throughout the pandemic. In particular, the California Department of Education’s Twitter campaign for the SEL WikiWisdom forum yielded over 160,000 impressions — illuminating the voices of classroom educators who may not have been heard otherwise.

Coordinating SEL and mental health supports

SEL and mental health are not the same, but SEL can promote positive mental health and should be implemented as part of a system of mental wellness supports and resources that include promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment. This type of coordination is now promoted by states, local districts, and federal programs with intentionality.

While not entirely novel, due to popular tiered SEL approaches like the Pyramid model, what is recent are the efforts taken to compile these supports to make them more accessible.

The federal Office of Child Care Initiative to Improve Social-Emotional Wellness of Children provided a guide that outlined strategies for states, territories and tribes to consider in addressing the needs of students. These strategies ranged from systematic SEL implementation approaches to specific mental health supports.

Using new data to inform SEL

The collection and reflection of data that elevates the perspective of students, families and staff can lead to better understanding of these groups’ social-emotional needs and allows for the identification and focus on inequities. Not only should states systematically collect SEL data to make informed decisions, but they should also provide guidance to school districts and programs on how they can collect and use data to ensure their services are highly effective.

Pandemic-related data uncovered life struggles for students, their families, and staff, such as housing insecurity, lack of technology and broadband access, and health concerns.

North Carolina’s SEL and Crisis Response website is one example of a state-level resource that offered support on conducting needs assessments and mapping resources as fundamental elements of data-informed support. Basically, it provided districts and schools with assistance in collecting and generating needed data to meet the needs of their communities.

Leveraging funds for smarter SEL supports

Funding allows states to more accurately respond to their data and meet the actual SEL needs of their population. Though SEL has been historically supported by federal, state and local funding on some level, recent federal stimulus funding created opportunities for school districts and programs to increase professional development, resource development, and access to needed technology supports.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning recently shared recommendations on how states can utilize American Rescue Plan Act funding to address SEL through systematic implementation, including promotion of SEL to students, support of adult SEL competencies, and an alignment on SEL efforts across schools, families and communities.

Through tragedy, the pandemic functioned as an incubator for developing innovative activities and resources, and resulted in unprecedented steps forward for making SEL more accessible and comprehensive.

As we observe the social and emotional needs of our students as part of International SEL Day, it’s important we take a moment to recognize the significant investments and advances in SEL accessibility amid the crisis and take steps to ensure that the momentum endures.