Think Big to Make Meaningful Change
COVID-19 gives schools across the country the opportunity to correct some entrenched models of learning that have been problematic, specifically prioritizing academic needs over SEL. After essentially patchwork instruction at the end of 2019-2020 school year, there will be mounting pressure to ‘catch up’ kids, especially those that are most vulnerable to falling behind. At the same time, these are also children that are most susceptible to trauma and anxiety, because of their financial circumstances at home or other factors of instability. School leaders have to prioritize children’s mental well-being more than ever, given the tumultuous nature of these unprecedented times, and give teachers permission to spend more time on social-emotional health. While most educators recognize its importance and have added SEL resources or required some level of instruction into schools, it is done so without the same level of accountability and rigor as academic standards. There aren’t standardized assessments for social-emotional health; there aren’t explicit national standards for it, like the Common Core. This is not to argue for that, but simply to point out that we pay lip service to its significance without following through. Teachers often have so much instruction to fit into a day, into a school year, especially with the pressure of standardized assessments, that dedicated SEL curriculum, exercises, activities are usually the first to get squeezed out. Teachers will need dedicated time at the beginning of the fall to focus on relationships - teacher to student, teacher to parent, student to student. These have always been critical to school success but now they need to be prioritized above all. Children will need recovery time.
Furthermore, in addition to vertically aligned, evidence-based curriculum as a foundational resource for teachers, teachers cannot be solely responsible for a child’s SEL. We need more counselors, opportunity for teachers to receive summer training on how to manage children’s trauma, anxiety, depression, fear. Finally, schools need to take a collaborative approach by considering wraparound human and social services that not only support children outside of school, but provide resources to their families. This includes high quality early childhood education, after school and enrichment programs, food security programs, job skills and training for adults, language services, etc. Schools and local leaders should work together with local institutions (libraries, non-profits, faith-based organizations…) that can find common goals for the community.
Although times are tough, we have a golden opportunity to redefine the paradigm of what school is and improve its design for children and families. We need to think big to make meaningful change.