Guidelines for reopening school in the wake of COVID-19. | AASA Central
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Action Steps for Guiding Principle 4

from the AASA COVID-19 Recovery Task Force

Address the Psychological, Social and Emotional Needs of Students and Adults

Another major and recurrent theme in the task force discussions centered on the need to address the “whole learner.” Specifically, participants emphasized their concerns about how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the psychological, social and emotional well-being of both students and staff. They also expressed deep concern about a range of issues related to these areas, including:

  • The importance of district staff understanding the range of emotional reactions students, staff and families are experiencing during this crisis, and the significance of placing social and emotional learning needs ahead of a rush to return to formal academic instruction;
  • The high level of need for closure rituals and ceremonies to ensure that students and staff are supported during this time of transition (e.g., virtual graduations, virtual proms, acknowledgment of athletes and scholars, provision of closing activities for staff, etc.);
  • The need to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies and routines into students’ daily classroom experience, whether they are learning in a virtual or in-person context;
  • The importance of anticipating the range of physical, psychological and emotional needs that students are experiencing; and
  • The value of understanding that staff members are also suffering during this time and may have widely varying reactions to the idea of returning to school (e.g., fears for safety and health; pre-existing conditions that may make them vulnerable to the virus; the necessity of caring for at-risk family members, etc.).

Leading Social and Emotional Learning

AASA is currently involved in an extensive range of collaborative partnerships with significant national organizations considered leaders in the field of social and emotional learning. Its SEL partner organizations include the Chan Zuckerberg Institute (CZI); the Wallace Foundation; the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); and the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development. This next section of the task force report provides an overview of social-emotional learning for use by superintendents and other educational leaders working to introduce and sustain SEL implementation in their learning organizations within the context of school reopening and transformation.

Understanding the Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

Although the term “social and emotional learning” covers a range of focus areas and concepts, all national leadership organizations associated with SEL emphasize that it is an educational philosophy emphasizing the powerful relationship between students’ cognitive/academic achievement and their development of social skills, emotional self-regulation competencies, and the capacity to interact effectively in team settings.

In addition to student achievement, a focus on social and emotional learning in schools and districts offers a powerful catalyst for enhancing professional learning and organizational productivity. AASA, CZI, CASEL, and the Aspen Institute all agree that social and emotional learning involves schools and districts addressing the following action steps:

  • Adopt SEL standards of practice and performance that are integrated into students’ academic experiences, grades K-12.
  • Deliver high-quality curriculum that integrates social and emotional skills and competencies into the teaching-learning process.
  • Integrate a range of teaching and assessment tools to enhance classroom climate and management, including strategies to engage students’ sense of responsibility, efficacy and community commitment.
  • Use a range of feedback and assessment tools and processes to monitor students’ progress along a social and emotional learning continuum.
  • Provide all staff with professional development that reinforces educators’ understanding of the importance of SEL in promoting student learning and strategies to reinforce students’ SEL development during their K-12 education.
  • Engage parents, community members and stakeholder groups in activities and partnerships designed to promote SEL awareness and reinforce its value for student learning.

Understanding Key Components of Social and Emotional Learning

Research supported by RAND, CASEL, and the Aspen Institute confirms that students’ social and emotional well-being and development are essential for their academic achievement. According to the National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development, “The evidence base demonstrates that there are a variety of skills, attitudes, and character traits that are embedded in and support learning. These generally fall into three broad categories: (1) SEL-related cognitive skills and competencies; (2) social and interpersonal skills and competencies; and (3) emotional skills and competencies.”

SEL-Related Cognitive Skills and Competencies: Social and emotional learning experts agree that educators can support student achievement and academic growth by direct modeling and teaching of specific SEL-related behaviors, including supporting students’ ability to focus, pay attention, and stay engaged in on-task behavior; set goals, plan, and organize; and demonstrate perseverance, problem solving, and decision making skills and processes. A key point is that frequently, these skills mistakenly are assumed to develop naturally or automatically in students; consequently, they usually are not taught explicitly in the classroom through modeling, shaping and internalizing strategies.

Social and Interpersonal Skills and Competencies: Similarly, educators frequently assume that students will develop interpersonal skills as a natural part of their growth and maturation. However, the research on SEL and its impact on learning emphasizes that children and youth need coaching, support and ongoing feedback to acquire and integrate the ability to read social cues, navigate social situations (both within and outside the classroom), negotiate and resolve conflicts with others, and cooperate and work effectively in teams. The SEL-sensitive classroom, therefore, should be highly interactive, focused on student discourse, and grounded in various cooperative learning structures and processes.

Emotional Skills and Competencies: Research on SEL also confirm the value of helping children and youth recognize and manage their emotions, including their internal reactions to self and conscious awareness of how their actions are affecting others around them. SEL researchers strongly advocate the integration of learning activities into subject matter curriculum. For example, teachers can include activities to help students recognize how emotions and emotional interactions affect literary characters, understand how individual and group emotional reactions affect historical events and groups, analyze how emotional trends and patterns affect economic issues, and similar investigations in other academic areas. Students benefit greatly from ongoing support and coaching to help them understand the perspectives and experiences of others and demonstrate empathy both within and beyond the classroom.

Implementing Key Elements of Social and Emotional Learning in Schools and Districts

According to A Practice Agenda in Support of How Learning Happens, a major research report published by the Aspen Institute/National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development, effective districts and schools emphasize the following action steps:

  • Integrate social and emotional learning as a priority in vision, mission and guiding principles for the district and schools at all grade levels.
  • Communicate clearly articulated social and emotional learning standards integrated into students’ academic experience and used to monitor their progress along a learning continuum.
  • Integrate clear and aligned SEL standards into daily classroom practice, including reinforcement of key SEL-related cognitive skills (e.g., focusing and paying attention, setting and achieving goals, planning and organizing, and perseverance and problem solving).
  • Model and shape students’ social and interpersonal skills and competencies, including learners’ ability to read social cues, navigate social situations, negotiate and resolve conflicts, and cooperate and function effectively in team settings.
  • Help students recognize and manage their emotions and empathize with the emotions and perspectives of others.
  • Provide professional development to educators to reinforce their understanding of social-emotional learning’s importance and key processes for reinforcing it in their classrooms.
  • Ensure that all schools are safe and supportive learning environments conducive to the growth and development of diverse student populations.
  • Develop and implement a Multi-Tiered System of Support, including short and long-term interventions for students experiencing learning challenges (including academic, psychological, and social services support).
  • Actively engage parents, community members and stakeholder groups in understanding and supporting social-emotional learning as a systemic priority.

Performance Indicators of Social and Emotional Learning in Effective Classrooms

Many AASA partners and collaborators, including the RAND Corporation, The Wallace Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and CASEL, reinforce the power and impact of integrating social and emotional learning into students’ daily classroom academic experiences. In effective classrooms, educators should be able to observe:

  • Clearly articulated and understood SEL norms and processes for student-teacher and student-peer interaction that reinforce the value of the classroom as a true community of learning;
  • Daily inclusion of social and emotional learning objectives into lesson plans and delivery;
  • Modeling of effective social-emotional learning strategies and behaviors by the instructor, reinforcing and acknowledging students’ demonstration of key cognitive skills, social and interpersonal skills, emotional recognition and self-regulation, as well as empathy;
  • Evidence that students can “see themselves” in the curriculum they study, including making connections between content and students’ life experiences and backgrounds.
  • Student engagement and positive social interaction via experience-based and small-group-focused learning activities such as cooperative learning, seminars, project-based learning, problem solving and decision making and analysis of perspectives.
  • Classroom management as an opportunity for shared decision making, problem solving, and conflict resolution involving the instructor and students.
  • Integrated opportunities for students to reflect on their own social-emotional growth and development, including periodic “town meetings” in which students consider classroom norms, practices and behaviors, and how they might be improved.

Supporting Social and Emotional Learning in Districts and Schools

AASA’s Social and Emotional Learning Cohort as well as research studies sponsored by the RAND Corporation, CASEL, and the Aspen Institute provide numerous examples of districts and schools whose educational leaders have reinforced the following key systemic elements:

1. Reinforce SEL as an Articulated Systemic Priority: Effective leaders are relentless in ensuring that district and school visions, missions and guiding principles reinforce SEL and its value in promoting high levels of achievement for all learners.

2. Ensure a Sustained Commitment to Promoting Safe and Supportive Learning Environments in Both School and Community Settings: In addition to reinforcing clear and sustainable norms and practices for safety, effective leaders are committed to making educational settings inviting and engaging for every learner.

3. Promote Accountability for Ensuring That Educators Teach Students Social, Emotional and Cognitive Skills Explicitly and Embed Them in All Academic Learning: School and district leaders must ensure that their K-12 curriculum integrates SEL standards, teachers integrate SEL into their daily classroom practice, and assessments include processes to monitor students’ growth in relationship to key SEL performance standards.

4. Demonstrate a Deep and Sustained Commitment to Ensuring Adult Learners’ SEL Competencies: Professional learning is essential for helping educators move along a learning continuum related to SEL, including knowing its value, applying key SEL strategies and processes, and modeling SEL behaviors in educational settings.

5. Ensure Continuing Engagement of Parent, Community and Stakeholder Groups in Supporting SEL Implementation: Effective leaders ensure that these groups are actively involved in learning about SEL, understand its value for student growth and development, and reinforce SEL strategies to promote the learning process.

6. Engage in Strategic Planning and Continuous Improvement Processes to Implement, Scale Up, and Sustain SEL Implementation: In successful SEL districts and schools, SEL is a clear and sustained priority in systemic strategic planning and school improvement plans, including a commitment to continuing funding for professional learning.

Accessing Funding Sources to Support Social and Emotional Learning Programs and Initiatives

The RAND Corporation’s recent brief “How the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Can Support Social and Emotional Learning” confirms that ESSA offers extensive opportunities to support school-based SEL interventions and programs. The report also cautions that educational leaders must be “sure that the SEL interventions they are interested in implementing are both evidence-based and can be supported by funding available through ESSA.” The RAND brief identifies three funding streams that can support SEL implementation:

Title I: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged: Title I supports SEL-related services such as school-wide assistance programs, targeted assistance programs, and school support and improvement activities—all of which require sensitivity to the social-emotional development of learners.

Title II: Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, and Other School Leaders: Title II can be used to build teachers’ SEL capacity via professional development opportunities such as Supporting Effective Educator Development and School Leader Recruitment and Support grants.

Title IV: 21st Century Schools: Title IV authorizes funding to support a variety of programs aimed at improving the educational opportunities of students, such as Student Support and Enrichment Grants, 21st Century Learning Centers (Part B), and National Activities (Part F), including integration of SEL into academic and non-academic support programs offered outside the regular school day.