Never Waste a Crisis – We Cannot Afford to Return to Normal
COVID-19 is only the latest vector in a non-stop flow of stressors for kids and adults in today’s world. We are all justifiably worried about the impact all of this is having on our collective psyches. Parents have had to balance forced homeschooling while working remotely. Teachers have been pressured to become overnight experts at online learning, while homeschooling their own kids. And everyone is wondering how long this “new normal” will go on, and what the long-term impact will be on the physical, emotional and mental health of us all, not to mention the academic progress of our students.
But sooner or later it will all be behind us and we can get back to business as usual, right?
So when the dust settles on this latest crisis, and everything returns to normal, what then? First, let me remind you of what pre-COVID normal looks like:
• According to The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, teen suicide has increased by 56% in recent years, spurring experts to declare a youth mental health crisis.
• In the past decade, the rate of teen depression increased by 60%. Experts attribute this in part to the use of social media and technology – a side-effect of which results in students spending less time building healthy relationships with peers and adults.
• Another major source of stress and anxiety for students is the pressure to succeed academically and get into a good college. Stress, and the effect it has on the brain, only adds to a student’s struggle to learn and process information.
• Our current political climate has spilled over into our schools in the form of increased incidents of bullying, racism, and school-related hate crimes; oftentimes targeting our most vulnerable and marginalized student populations.
• 2018 saw the deadliest number of school shootings in our nation’s history, with 105 incidents of gun violence on campuses, resulting in 61 deaths and 91 injuries.
• Active shooter drills have become a ‘normal’ part of the in-school experience. Concern and scrutiny has been placed recently on the intended value of this practice versus the resulting trauma on kids (and adults).
The fact is, we live in a constant state of stress. There’s just no escape anymore. Bullied kids don’t get to leave that trauma at school at the end of the day. It follows them home. It follows them everywhere they go thanks to social media and smart phones. Today’s students believe it is only a matter of time before a mass shooting takes place at their own school.
The fact is – we were in crisis pre-COVID.
The good news is a vaccine for this pre-COVID crisis already exists.
Decades of research on the science of learning and the important role emotions play in how we humans learn and process information has finally caught up with what most educators have always known – students need more than academics to successfully navigate their way through this complex world they have inherited. SEL is about treating a student as a whole person, emotions and all, and cultivating the skills we all need to become engaged citizens leading happy, healthy (in every respect), successful lives, both personally and professionally.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) must form an integral part of the curriculum from preschool through high school. SEL can help children identify and name feelings such as frustration, anger and loneliness that potentially contribute to disruptive and self-destructive behavior. It can also teach children how to employ social problem-solving skills to manage difficult emotional and potentially conflictual situations. (The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Report, as cited by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, 2016).
Several parents of children lost to such tragedies as school shootings have expressed their support for teaching social and emotional learning skills in school, indicating their belief that implementing SEL would have a positive impact on creating a safer, healthier, and happier school environment.
I recently had a personal conversation with one such parent who shared with me that only in the aftermath of losing her child to a school shooting did she learn about SEL. Following up on this new found knowledge she visited her child’s school to inquire as to whether or not they had implemented any SEL strategies prior to this horrific incident. The response devastated her. “We had planned to implement SEL, but we just never got around to it” said the school administrator.
No school administrator ever wants to find themselves in this situation.
Given the statistics and profiles of school shooters, the majority being current or former students of the school they target, it is this parent’s belief that had SEL been in place at her child’s school, he would be alive today. Sadly, we will never know.
Experts are predicting a “Mental Health Tsunami” post COVID, the fallout of which will likely last a decade. The impact of COVID, in terms of both economics and mental health, are being compared to Hurricane Katrina.
Let’s not waste this crisis only to return to the status quo. This time of forced school closures and alternative learning presents the perfect opportunity to learn more about how to implement SEL and how it’s connected to virtually all major challenges in education including; equity, school climate and safety, family engagement, student engagement and academic achievement.
Every district and school MUST include SEL as a priority in their reopen/return to school plan.
The time has come for an Emotion Revolution in our nation’s education system. Research shows that emotions drive learning, decision making, relationships, and mental health. Evidence-based approaches to social and emotional learning (SEL) lead to higher academic performance, greater teacher effectiveness, and enhanced school climate - Marc Brackett, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Personally, I don’t want to return to normal – we can and we must do better!