Why social-emotional learning must come first when schools reopen

'Students have to see positive images of themselves in what they’re learning on a daily basis'
By: | July 7, 2020
As part of the I'm WOKE project, students in Clayton County Public Schools will study the disparate impact COVID-19 has had on people from different ethnic groups.As part of the I'm WOKE project, students in Clayton County Public Schools will study the disparate impact COVID-19 has had on people from different ethnic groups.

Schools that attempt to start the year with something other than social-emotional learning are “going to lose,” says Ralph Simpson, deputy superintendent school leadership and improvement at Clayton County Public Schools outside Atlanta.

Students and their teachers will need to discuss the pandemic’s personal impact, and then build on that foundation to develop core competencies such as self-awareness and social-awareness, Simpson says.

Some of these discussions may be controversial as teachers and students from different ethnic backgrounds share their experiences of COVID, the killing of George Floyd and other pressing issues.

“I would hope that our teachers and educators encourage children to be open-minded, to be critical thinkers and to not just look at an issue from one perspective,” Simpson says.


More from DA: Coronavirus is yet another trauma for East St. Louis students


Throughout the summer, administrators have been working with building leaders on how to create a culture of SEL for staff and students.

The district’s director of professional learning is building school-level teams that will serve as SEL coaches for their fellow educators as classes resume, says Ebony Lee, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

SEL prepares students for the unknown

Research done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina showed that students struggled when schools focused too quickly on remediation, rather than social-emotional needs, Lee says.

SEL will extend into the curriculum as teachers, for example, assign books that are culturally relevant to students, she adds.

“Students have to see positive images of themselves in what they’re learning on a daily basis,” Lee says.


More from DA: Why slower school supports students’ social-emotional health


And in a marriage of STEM and social studies, students this year will study the disparate impact COVID-19 has had on people from different ethnic groups. In the past, students have used the same techniques to study whether New York City’s controversial stop and frisk policing equated to racial profiling, Lee says.

“The global pandemic has taught us that we have to prepare students for the unknown, the way to do that is to create thinkers who are able to make informed decisions,” Lee says. “That goes beyond a blanket curriculum—the world has to be our curriculum.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.