Getting Teachers & Students Back On Track in 2021-22 with SEL

The pandemic brought social and emotional learning (SEL) front-and-center in districts, schools, and classrooms as a fundamental element of high-quality education. Strong relationship skills, the ability to manage stress and regulate emotions, problem-solving skills, and intrinsic motivation are just a few of the SEL skills that students and teachers need for success. 

The coming school year will bring about new challenges, new areas of uncertainty, and new opportunities for growth. Teachers will need to help students make up learning loss, and many schools will need to adjust to in-person learning. SEL will be crucial for helping teachers and students meet these challenges and persevere.

This fall, we must prioritize the SEL needs of all students and educators. Here are five key areas to get started. 

1. Provide opportunities to build relationships, connect, and heal. The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health and well-being of educators and students. Schools need to acknowledge and improve mental health to address ongoing concerns and start the healing process. 

Schools can improve educators’ overall well-being by focusing on initiatives that make them feel valued and supported. Educators should prioritize SEL instruction by building meaningful teacher-student relationships and working through trauma. Efforts should be made to help students and adults effectively manage stress and anxiety. And fostering a supportive school culture will help the whole school feel connected and supported. 

2. Focus on the basics. As many schools head back to in-person learning, teachers may start feeling overwhelmed. Now is not the time to introduce big, new initiatives. Instead, focus on programs you already have in place and make sure you are using those with fidelity. Now is a great time to make sure all programs, systems, and policies align with your district’s mission and vision, and simplify things as much as possible.

In line with getting back to basics, invest in your staff. Ask educators what they need and do all you can to support them. Provide opportunities for staff to express their concerns and be heard, involve them in the decision-making process, and provide effective and empowering professional learning.

3. Re-align supports as needed. Pre-pandemic, schools operated knowing that their Tier 3 students had the highest needs, and these students generally received the most supports. Schools are now finding that students in Tier 2 and even Tier 1 have more intensive needs. To provide more supports to a larger group of students, schools and districts must get creative. 

Many schools are taking an “all hands on deck” approach that hinges on cross-collaboration between support staff, for example, assigning each department an “SEL Skill of the Month.” During their assigned month, the department is responsible for promoting the skill, planning activities around the skill, and working with school staff to provide more intensive support for students who need extra help.

Another example of an all hands on deck approach is creating a task force focused on a particular priority, such as attendance. Find ways to get all staff involved. School counselors and social workers could conduct home visits. School admin and support staff could call students’ homes to check in. Teachers could incorporate SEL lessons to engage students in their education and help them realize the importance of attending school. Getting the whole school involved will increase the impact of your SEL program.

4. Plan a back-to-school SEL blitz. The pandemic shook up so much in our routines, behaviors, and everyday aspects of the school and classroom. Start the 2021-22 school year with an “SEL blitz.” Plan a full week (or more) dedicated to the things that will get students reconnected and engaged. Consider spending the first days of school focused solely on SEL. This could include class or school-wide activities that help build a safe and supportive school culture, taking time to foster strong teacher-student relationships, planning fun icebreaker activities, meeting students’ families, working with students to establish class rules and routines, etc. There will be plenty of time to make up academic learning loss. Prioritizing SEL will make it that much easier because students will be engaged and ready to learn.

5. Use data to create a sustainable SEL program to support students and staff all year. Keep your SEL program going strong all year with a quality SEL assessment and an effective action plan centered on data. Here are a few ways to use SEL data to support students and staff: 

  • Formative assessment: A universal formative assessment of students’ social and emotional competence can be a useful way to understand students’ needs and guide instruction accordingly.
  • Progress monitoring/RtI: Research shows that instruction improves when educators monitor students’ progress in developing SEL competence throughout the school year. This way, educators can determine if interventions are working and make necessary adjustments.
  • Early Warning System (EWS): Using SEL data in conjunction with academic risk indicators can help educators identify the root cause(s) of low performance.
  • PBIS and MTSS: SEL data can guide educators in selecting student services and interventions and in moving students along the continuum of tiered supports.
  • Program evaluation: Formative SEL assessment data can help you measure the effectiveness of your SEL program.
  • Continuous improvement: To ensure the sustainability of your SEL program, it is important to continually measure success of implementation and progress toward your goals.

As many schools learned last year, quality SEL programs are essential for helping students succeed — especially during challenging and uncertain times. As we enter a new school year, help educators and students thrive by prioritizing SEL. 

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