Analyzing systemic SEL barriers: What can districts do to positively impact students?

As districts consider the federal relief funds, financial resources can be allocated to SEL professional development, SEL programs and practices, addressing the digital divide, and increasing access to meaningful relationships for students.
By: | October 8, 2021
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Kimberly Norton is assistant superintendent of student learning at Urbana (Ill.) School District #116

Kimberly Norton is assistant superintendent of student learning at Urbana (Ill.) School District #116

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought forth radical changes to funding for academic and Social Emotional Learning (SEL). When looking at the literature, states vary in their focus on the use of funds to promote “learning renewal.” States encourage districts to prioritize funds for increasing capacity in educators for delivery of SEL, development of SEL programs and practices, and addressing inequities that were created as a result of the digital divide. As states have developed their own unique plans, there is also variation in how inequities are addressed so that students may apply their cultural experiences, knowledge, and competencies to be fully present when returning to in person learning.

Congress passed three separate stimulus bills to help schools safely reopen and provide equitable services that address the physical, mental, and social emotional needs of students. Over 190 billion dollars were provided in the disbursement of the three rounds of ESSER funds to be spent by September 2024. Each state must reserve at least 20 percent of funds to address learning renewal.

Connecticut is one of few states that explicitly outlines the need to address policies that will lead to greater success to address students’ social and emotional needs. Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, Commissioner of Education, states the following:

While many things are unclear during this time in our nation’s history, there is one thing that is not; this epidemic has further exacerbated inequities that have been there all along.

Linda Darling-Hammond highlights “A New Deal” for educators is to focus on policies during the Covid era that have the potential to impact learning now and into the future. She suggests removing “regulatory impediments enforcing antiquated notions of how time and staff should be organized in schools.” The time is now, and we need to strike while the iron is hot. Like other researchers, Darling-Hammond recognizes the importance of closing the digital divide, utilizing formative assessments effectively, intervening early, and offering extended opportunities.

As districts consider the financial resources allocated through the ESSER American Rescue Plan funds, financial resources can be allocated to SEL professional development, SEL programs and practices, addressing the digital divide, and increasing access to meaningful relationships for students. Furthermore, states and local education agencies should consider systemic inequities so students may thrive in school, work, and life.


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Critical policies to support students socially, emotionally, and foster future academic success should make students feel connected and valued. Research indicates when a sense of belonging is established for students, they are more likely to perform well academically, have consistent attendance, and make healthy decisions.

Individual districts can use tools such as student, staff, and family surveys to gain further input to determine whether students feel connected in learning spaces. Focus groups can also provide further information for stakeholders that are willing to share. An SEL screener, such as Panorama, can provide data on how students feel supported within a school or classroom. Assessing students’ social emotional learning is as important as assessments are to determining academic growth. A well-designed SEL program includes not only evidence-based curricula and instruction (along with support for teachers), but also clear goals and benchmarks (i.e., standards), and tools for universal and targeted screening and progress monitoring. The results from these assessments not only inform learning but may lead to antiquated policies that are leaving students feeling unwelcome.

There are a variety of policies that yield to students feeling more connected when implemented effectively: fair and consistent grading practices, inclusionary discipline, equity and access to courses, LGBTQ+ policies that detail students’ rights, removing discriminatory dress codes, and creating a culturally responsive curriculum. Has your district reviewed these to advocate for students to have a sense of belonging? These all are examples of policies that can impact school climate and have the potential to increase the level that students feel safe, supported, and connected.

Allocating ESSER funds towards SEL does not neglect the prioritization of learning renewal. The ESSER funds from the American Recovery Act 2021 are intended to go beyond learning renewal by achieving sustainability and improvement in structures. Districts are now provided with unimaginable opportunities with ESSER funds to further impact social emotional wellness and mental health.

Kimberly Norton is assistant superintendent of student learning at Urbana (Ill.) School District #116.

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