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  • Writer's pictureRobert Kilkenny, PhD

Engaging Students' Needs through Social Emotional Learning

Robert Kilkenny, PhD

Northeast Regional Site Director, Center for Trauma Care in Schools

Schools are open, and children are in classrooms getting the education, socialization, and support from caring teachers across the country. Hooray! Parents and caregivers are relieved, many kids are excited, and most teachers look forward to getting back to in-person instruction. At the same time, of course, students have brought with them to school the many unmet emotional, academic, behavioral, and social missed opportunities for growth that the pandemic has delayed. As a result, schools, parents/caregivers, and teachers everywhere are looking for ways to boost the developmental process that underlies students’ ability to learn, form positive relationships with peers and adults, and to learn the skills needed to cope with the stress, anxiety, loneliness, and trauma that many students have been struggling with. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity. One way to engage these needs is a fresh and intensified focus on social emotional learning (SEL).

Stephanie Jones, Professor and Director of the EASEL Lab (Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently wrote an opinion piece in Education Week titled, 4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now. She advocates for the return to social and emotional learning fundamentals by using strategies from evidence-based SEL learning programs designed for schools and other settings. Professor Jones recommends that adults, whether teachers or parents, try the following four approaches to help children express and process their feelings and restore a sense of security and predictability. The four topic areas are form Professor Jones. We have elaborated on her suggestions from a trauma-informed lens.

1. Ask questions and listen actively.

Students are experiencing a sense of loss over missed friendships, happy life events they used to look forward to, possibly even the illness or death of family members and friends. They may have a lot of confusing feelings they are not sure how to express. And they know their parents are also stressed and so may not want to burden them further. So, go out of your way to check in and let them know that their feelings are a normal reaction to abnormal times.

2. Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.

Children have been through lots of unpredictable living over the last two years. One of the most stressful aspects of the pandemic has been not knowing when or if it would ever end. For adults a year and a half is a small fraction of their lives, but for children it can feel like this unpredictable situation is their new normal. So anything that restores a sense of normalcy and predictability, such as routines and rituals, fieldtrips, celebrations, story time, etc. can help children feel connected to the life they grew up knowing.

3. Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.

Routines like welcoming every student each morning, providing time for journal writing and sharing, art activities, and class or family meetings can create a school and classroom climate that feels safe, predictable and where each students feel that they belong. Similarly, creating more time for social interaction, including recess, can help students catch up on the social skill opportunities they have been lacking. And using structured and engaging SEL activities focused on emotional coping skills and conflict resolution can help address some of the behavioral skill deficits that come with the isolation of the recent past.

4. Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.

Because schools are not the only, or even the primary, source for social emotional learning, it’s important to enlist families to actively collaborate on ways to support children learning to cope with the frustration, sadness, and sense of loss that comes from their isolation over the past year plus. It is emotionally difficult for parents to hear their children talk about their distress, so parents sometimes default to encouraging their child “not to worry, that everything will be ok”. Many families might therefore benefit from some tips on how to help their children talk openly about negative feelings in order that they can know that what they are feeling is a normal response to stress.

Taken as a whole, Professor Jones offers important ideas and reminders for how all adults in a child’s life can help them to express emotions openly, receive affirming support from teachers and caregivers, and create opportunities for social emotional growth in school and at home in what we all hope is the tail end of the pandemic.


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