OPINION: Teachers will need to focus more on how students are feeling in these tough times

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By Kamilah Drummond-Forrester

Back in March, after schools closed their doors and transitioned to remote learning, one question loomed large for educators when it came to their students: How were the students feeling?

Whether the subject was math or English or science, and whether the students were in first grade or 12th, educators had to address the well-being of kids whose worlds had been turned upside down. Amid academic concerns, supporting students’ mental and emotional health became the primary focus for some teachers.

The dual crisis we are currently facing — Covid-19 and systemic racism — is teaching us valuable lessons about education in America. One of those lessons is that there can be no learning without ensuring the social and emotional well-being of students, especially Black, Indigenous, Latinx and low-income students.

Social and emotional learning — or SEL, as it is known — might previously have been viewed by some as a nice add-on to academics during the school day. The current crisis has shown us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that SEL is the very foundation teaching and learning should be built upon. Relationships matter, as does centering those relationships in authentic ways.

SEL involves developing children’s skills for recognizing and managing emotions, such as empathy. It calls for building positive relationships and problem-solving, while helping schools develop communities where students feel safe, empowered and cared for. If this didn’t feel critical before, it does now.

At a time when daily routines have been upended and the future is uncertain, there is nothing more important than making sure our kids feel safe and cared for.

At a time when daily routines have been upended and the future is uncertain, there is nothing more important than making sure our kids feel safe and cared for. Families have an important role to play, too, especially when it comes to social and emotional well-being.

Education has always been a cooperative effort between schools and families, but that cooperation was somewhat obscured when much of learning took place within a school building. The first teachers of our children — the adults who care for them at home — were out of sight and, at times, possibly out of mind.

Related: A district wades through a deluge of social and emotional curricula to find one that works

Now, with the necessity of remote learning, families are in the background, being seen and heard, and at times participating during class. This complicates how schools and districts think about and experience teaching and learning, laying bare an interconnectedness that was there all along. Families are their children’s first teachers and should be an integral part of their education.

Children aren’t the only ones whose social and emotional well-being should be prioritized. The current crisis has also exposed the social and emotional needs of educators, who are being asked to do the impossible for the foreseeable future. They need to be supported and to be shown that their well-being matters, too.

In other words, we all need to believe that we belong, that we can do it, that we matter and that we can handle whatever may come our way. This is as true for teachers as it is for students. What can we do to meet our educators’ social and emotional needs, show them that they matter and help them handle whatever comes their way?

The suffering that this dual crisis of the pandemic and systemic racism has caused also has revealed that our institutions need to change, in a way we can’t ignore. The faulty foundation our education system was built on — a singular focus on academics, sometimes at the expense of our humanity — is being revealed as the shaky structure it is.

At the social and emotional learning program I direct in Massachusetts, we provide evidence-based SEL curricula and professional development for elementary schools. One of the theories that grounds our work is the Crucial C’s. In group settings, each of us — children and adults — needs to feel connected, capable and counted. Another C, courage, is a quality each of us has to nurture in order to meet the need for the other C’s, in ways that benefit ourselves and others.

All of us have a chance to build a stronger foundation as we reimagine what the system should have looked like from the beginning. In the better system we hope will emerge, we must elevate social and emotional well-being as a necessary building block for teaching and learning.

Kamilah Drummond-Forresteris the director of the social and emotional learning programOpen Circleat the Wellesley Centers for Women, and was previously a co-founder and director of wellness at a Boston charter school and director of an education-based re-entry program at Suffolk County House of Correction in Massachusetts.

This story about social and emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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