The focus on learning loss and getting kids “caught up” after two years of online, concurrent, and hybrid learning distracted educators from the critical work of developing the skills students needed to be part of a thriving learning community. The result was a frustrating school year mired in discipline issues and unproductive behaviors.
Almost every teacher I interacted with last year said the 2021-2022 school year was the most challenging of their careers. They reported discipline issues, lack of engagement, and general student apathy. As frustrating as those issues were for teachers to navigate, the source of those behaviors was not a mystery. Many students had not been in a structured academic environment for two years. Students transitioned from a high degree of control over their environments and time to classrooms where they had little or no control. The pandemic has also introduced myriad social and emotional stressors that negatively impacted students.
This year we have an opportunity to approach the school year differently with a focus on building strong learning communities and helping students to develop the skills necessary to thrive socially and academically.
Schools emphasized social-emotional learning (SEL) during the pandemic to support students struggling with social isolation and trauma. Yet, it often felt like an add-on instead of an integrated part of the class curriculum and culture. Helping students develop their social-emotional skills is critical to creating classrooms where students have both the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills necessary to navigate complex learning tasks. Students must develop the skills and confidence required to project their social and emotional selves within a learning community. This requires that teachers explicitly teach and model these skills, integrate routines that actively engage students in refining these skills, and provide feedback on student progress in relation to these skills.
The CASEL Framework presents five competencies at the heart of social-emotional learning. I am writing a 5-part blog series between now and the start of the new school year. Each blog will focus on one competency with the goal of sharing concrete strategies and resources teachers can use to cultivate these skills in their classrooms.
I want to support educators in approaching the upcoming school year differently. Instead of jumping right into content and curriculum, I’d like to see educators begin the school year with a focus on building strong learning communities. This requires that we help students cultivate the skills they need to “develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
Investing time and energy into cultivating these critical competencies will pay dividends over the school year and, ultimately, improve the quality of student learning and interactions. It also has the potential to eliminate many of the unproductive behaviors and frustrating issues that made the 2021-2022 school year so challenging for teachers.