As debates around reopening schools heat up, parents and teachers can’t afford to ignore the social and emotional crisis threatening to overwhelm America’s children.
A recent report from Mental Health America tells a saddening story: the proportion of kids aged 11-17 who accessed depression and anxiety screenings in 2020 rose 9% over the year before. And that’s just the ones who asked for help: it doesn’t account for kids with underlying emotional and developmental disabilities exacerbated by the pandemic, nor does it wholly capture the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on students of color and those in under-resourced communities.
What’s clear, however, is that 2020 has exacerbated the crisis of diminishing empathy amongst American teens. “As anxiety increases, empathy wanes,” Dr. Michele Borba observed in her bestselling book, “Unselfie.” “It’s hard to feel for others when you’re in ‘survival mode.’” This “all-about-me” attitude, decades of research shows, leads to more bullying, dishonesty, suicide and school violence.
These issues will come to a head when students return to physical classrooms. Unfortunately, educators — exhausted and overwhelmed themselves — have struggled to make room for the social and emotional learning (SEL) programs that can address students’ psychological wellbeing and combat narcissism. Back in July, a survey showed just 7% of educators were prepared to meet the SEL needs of students during COVID-19.
Paige Gagerman, a high school student in Illinois, summed it up this way: “I think that all the hope and all the life has been drained out of me and my peers, and really the teachers, too.”
That may be true — but having seen firsthand the impact quality SEL programming can have, even during a global pandemic, I believe there is hope. If educators act now, they can provide the support students need as they return to classrooms. Here’s what they should keep in mind.
SEL programming builds community and can be done briefly
The last thing today’s inundated teachers want to hear is that they’ll have to teach another curriculum. Frankly, it feels impossible.
They need to know there are programs that make it easy to integrate SEL into their classrooms. And it can be done remotely or in a hybrid fashion, too: during the pandemic, my nonprofit The Nora Project has provided teachers with customizable slides, digital worksheets, virtual coaching, resources to help them integrate SEL into their core subject curriculums, and, starting this March, a free webinar series on building inclusive classroom culture.
Though some might’ve thought SEL would prove more difficult in a remote setting, teachers often say it’s their students’ favorite part of the day. As Samantha Uribe, a school counselor at Haugan Elementary (a Chicago Public School) told me, “My 6th-8th graders normally don’t have their cameras on and teachers are teaching to blank screens. But during SEL sessions they do — they’re actually engaging in conversations and sharing their stories.”
Too often, SEL programs simply check the boxes — but aren’t dynamic enough to have real impact
To meet SEL standards, schools often choose generalized programs to “check all the boxes.” These programs usually revolve around unlikely role-playing exercises or out-of-date video simulations, and are problematic for a few reasons: first, they tend to be calibrated exclusively for a general education population, leaving a significant number of students by the wayside; and second, they tend to be boring and ineffective.
Now more than ever, schools should choose programs that are creative, inclusive, student-driven, experiential, and multidisciplinary. For instance, our STEMpathy Club program empowers students of all abilities to work together to design and implement projects that make their schools more inclusive. We’ve had students redesign playgrounds, develop hallway posters representing disability diversity, and create sensory stations. This kind of learning engages students, calls on their sense of community, and builds equitable, values-driven school cultures.
Case in point: this past year John Gensic, a high school teacher in Indiana, set up a virtual STEMpathy discussion group where he hosts speakers on disability and inclusion best practices. The group is attended not only by a diverse group of students, but by many of the school’s educators and administrators.
Adopting the lens of disability justice and ability-inclusive thinking can help
The reality is that many students returning to classrooms this year will be experiencing invisible disabilities. We need to prepare to center all student needs.
Infusing inclusive teaching practices and a disability justice framework into SEL instruction can help. Disability justice values collective access and interdependence – working together, using an array of tools, to meet the needs of all. SEL curriculums that embody this approach through differentiated, co-taught, values-driven instruction create a safe space for vulnerability and engender what students need most of all: empathy for themselves and others.
When students return to the classroom, they’ll need this supportive community. To get there, teachers will need SEL curriculum that meets the moment.
I believe in the impact truly inclusive SEL can have — and in the educators who make that impact happen. As Neli Garcia, a parent from West Chicago, told a teacher recently after a virtual group SEL lesson: “‘My son said, ‘You know what mom? I love my disability! I think it’s great that I have a disability.’”
Garcia began to tear up, and so her son asked her, “Why are you crying?”
And she told him, “I’m just happy that you love yourself.”
Lauren Schrero Levy is the co-founder & executive director of The Nora Project.
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