A growing population of students in the United States face increased risk due to a range of environmental factors and behaviors. These children are more likely to struggle academically, which can lead to dropping out of school and lifelong economic hardship.

Every day, schools work to help these vulnerable students overcome adversity and achieve positive academic and social outcomes. But this difficult job is made even more challenging during remote learning.

Despite the obstacles, there is something we can do to support the academic, social, and emotional development of our students. High-quality, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs can help support your most vulnerable students and is an important lifeline during remote learning.

Who are our “vulnerable youth”?

The definition of “vulnerable youth” is fairly broad. Here are some examples of students who will likely need additional supports during remote learning: 

  • Students with special learning needs: Remote learning can be difficult for all students, but it is especially challenging for students who already struggle with special learning needs.
  • English language learners (ELLs): Language development is very much a social construct, and ELLs miss important interaction during remote learning. Colorín Colorado is a good ELL resource for students and educators.
  • Students in foster care: Children in foster care are especially vulnerable at this time because things like social distancing and disruptive changes to routine can trigger traumatic memories, feelings, or physical symptoms.
  • Students suffering from Adverse Childhood Trauma (ACEs) or domestic abuse: For many students with ACEs, school is a safe haven, a place of stability and structure. It’s also a place for adults to spot red flags that could mean a child’s life is in danger. These students need additional and sometimes intensive support during remote learning and should be monitored closely.

How can SEL help support vulnerable students?

There are many ways SEL can ease the stress, anxiety, and challenges that come with remote learning. Here are a few actionable ways to keep students connected and learning during the pandemic:

  • Reach out to students regularly. One of the best ways teachers can help all students during remote learning is by fostering caring, supportive student-teacher relationships. Conduct frequent check-ins, talk about students’ safety concerns, and provide a way for students to reach you. For more tips, read the article in this guide, “5 Ways to Build Strong Teacher-Student Relationships with SEL.” 
  • Access vetted resources. There are so many remote learning resources being shared right now. It can be difficult to know which to use and which provide meaningful support. If you are looking for more than simply a list of links and want quality, vetted resources, visit Educating All Learners. Support topics include: helping students mentally cope, IEP progress monitoring during school closures, and COVID-19 resources for students with Tourette Syndrome.
  • Keep in mind technology limitations. (This isn’t really an SEL tip, but we feel it is important to list so students can keep up with assignments and connected with teachers.) Many vulnerable students may need access to computers and/or the internet. Become familiar with your school’s policy for providing school laptops and hotspots, or try to deliver lessons/materials over the phone. Also, keep in mind any closed captioning needs for hearing impaired students.
  • Understand limitations of family support. Some families of vulnerable students may not be able to provide home instruction (i.e. families that do not speak English). It is important to keep families involved but be aware of limitations and what additional supports are needed from school staff, family liaisons, and community partners.

 If students do not have access to supportive family/home environments, there are many out-of-school networks and organizations that have proven track records for helping at-risk youth who live in unstable home environments. A few examples are:

  • Quality, local afterschool programs
  • National and local youth organizations (e.g. YMCA, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and scout groups)
  • Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship
  • Advocacy and mentoring groups (e.g. City Year, Americorps)

These entities can give students the supports and scaffolds they need to build the social and emotional skills critical to achieving academic and life success.

  • Help students feel safe. Many students do not feel safe right now. Negative and shocking news reports, increased risk of domestic violence, financial hardships, and food insecurity are just a few of the ways students’ sense of safety has been compromised during the pandemic. Educators can improve students’ sense of safety by providing a caring, nurturing learning environment. Learn more by reading the article in this guide, “Create A Safe and Supportive School Culture — Even (and Especially) During Remote Learning.”

School closures and remote learning are difficult for all students. But vulnerable youth are especially impacted. SEL can keep students connected and learning and is a proven way to help students overcome adversity by building protective factors.