This is how I would describe the last two school years. But there is one thing I would predict about the year that’s just beginning: it will be just as turbulent, if not more so.
As adults debate or even fight over whether to wear masks, get vaccinated or even have our kids go in to school at all, we are creating an atmosphere of instability and worry around our children. Neither are conducive to learning, as safety and predictability are prerequisites to academic progress. Forget catching up on learning loss—unless we can create a secure, predictable atmosphere in our homes and schools, we’ll continue to short-change our children and we won’t see the progress we are hoping for.
So, what can teachers and parents do to help children feel stable, safe and ready to learn? My counsel is to return to social and emotional learning (SEL) fundamentals, processes that develop an array of skills and competencies that students need in order to set goals, manage behavior, build relationships and process and remember information, but that also help them manage and respond to stress and trauma.
Here are my four recommendations for approaches that will help children feel understood, express themselves and flourish during this school year. All of these ideas come directly from the foundational practices that can be found in evidence-based social and emotional learning programs designed for schools and other settings. A comprehensive review of these approaches and their specific practices can be found here in a new guide recently published by the Wallace Foundation.
1. Ask Questions and Listen Actively in the Classroom and at Home
Children are feeling intense pressure this year from parents and teachers. Both feel the need for their children to catch up after a year of online, hybrid or just unpredictable learning. In addition, many kids (especially older students) lost out on meaningful rituals—homecoming, prom, graduations and sports events—indeed most lost out on everything extra-curricular. These are the things that make school fun, meaningful and exciting for students. Many also experienced the trauma of losing a family member to Covid or witnessing a parent or grandparent fight the illness. Indeed, educators experienced many of these stressors themselves.
This disappointment and trauma will show up in the classroom and in the home, and everyone needs space and time to process what is happening, and what has happened.
So, what can we do? It helps to take time to check in with children and ensure their feelings are heard. Questions such as “tell me how you’re feeling” and “what is that like for you?” as well as repeating back what is heard, are important. A conversation with a teenager might go like this:
Adult: “Hey, I see you are upset (or especially quiet, or something) today. Is something going on that you’d like to talk about?”
Student: “I’m not sure, I just don’t feel like myself and everything has me worried.”
Adult: “I hear you; everything really can feel out of control right now. I’m here for you, you can talk with me any time, and I’ll do my best to listen.”
2. Let Your Children Know What’s Going to Happen and Establish Clear and Predictable Expectations
Last year was uncertain and chaotic, with policymakers, districts and schools unsure of what would happen from one week to the next. Unfortunately, this year is shaping up to be similar, if not more so. With disruption all around them, children need as much routine and stability as adults can provide.
So, what can be done? It helps to overcommunicate with students about schedules and expectations both at home and in class and establish concrete procedures when possible. Predictability is the name of the game—students of all ages will thrive when they feel safe, and safety means knowing what’s coming next. If students are slow to fall into step, give them more space, slow things down and exhale. Children often need time to learn what’s expected and practice it. In unpredictable times, even routines require flexibility.
Adults at home can try to do the same. Keeping wake-up time, meals and bedtimes as similar as possible. Consistency makes a difference, and establishing rituals and routines for these everyday activities adds an opportunity for connection. You might ask, “what was the hardest and easiest for you today” or “what are you grateful for today” and share your own experience too.
3. Provide Extra Social and Emotional Time, Not Less
Some simple foundational SEL strategies for the classroom (and in many cases, at home) are:
- Use Journaling: encourage children to express their feelings on paper.
- Do Daily Greetings: smile warmly and greet each other by preferred name; use whole group greeting activities.
- Hold Class/Family Meetings: to foster camaraderie and group behavior norms.
- Incorporate Art: use visual arts to document and express feelings.
- Talk About Managing Emotions: engage in a group discussion about emotions and effective and safe ways to express them in class.
- Employ Optimistic Closings: “what I learned today is …” “I am looking forward to tomorrow because …” “What I might do differently is…” are some examples.
If children are to thrive in the current climate, incorporating these tools and practices into both the classroom and at home is essential. Clearly, the exact approach will differ for younger and older students, but both do best in respectful, open and accepting learning environments.
4. Parents: Step Back, Connect and Listen
While many place the burden on teachers to get back up to speed, it shouldn’t all be on them. Parents play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort. I’m the mother of first year college and high school students and I’ve learned the importance of having conversations (when possible—we all know our teenagers can be hard to communicate with) about what’s going on for them.
Mealtimes are a great time to have family meetings. As the adult, share what’s hard for you about the current situation—model vulnerability with your kids. Then, sit back and actively listen. Let your kids of all ages know they’ve been heard (“I hear you, it’s really hard when you can’t spend time with your friends”) and validate their feelings (“I understand it must be tough being a new student right now with everyone wearing masks. I feel the same way trying to make connections with my new students.”).
Most of all, I don’t think parents need to double down immediately with academic pressure—when children feel safe and comfortable back at school will they be able to fully focus on their work.
With the education system focusing heavily on addressing learning loss at the start of this school year, it’s tempting to pull back on the important social and emotional components that my research has demonstrated are crucial for student success. It’s important to remember that academic and social and emotional learning are deeply intertwined; they are complements to each other, not in competition with each other, and now more than ever, we should take advantage of that.
When students feel safe, listened to and supported by adults in their life, they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do. And this applies both in the family home and in the classroom.
A version of this piece first appeared in Education Week as “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” on September 28, 2021. This version is being reissued with permission from the author.