UPDATED: Emotional Vulnerabilities: What the Pandemic Means for Social Emotional Learning in Schools

Educators believe the social impacts of learning in a pandemic could create challenges later in life. Drawing by Cameron Fisher.

By Cameron Fisher

School playgrounds look a lot different this year. The occasional reminders from recess aides for children to keep their hands to themselves is now a serious, repeated instruction, not just a gentle warning. The pandemic has altered the education system, and for the schools that are able to continue with in person instruction, a number of precautions have been taken to keep those students in the building. Some of those precautions are affecting the way students of all ages can socially interact.

For many students, the flashbulb memories of playing games outside or different activities in the classroom have laid the foundation for their social emotional learning development. This facet of learning is linked to the growth of identity development, emotion management, goal setting, and making responsible decisions. These skills are fostered through collaborative, face-to-face learning, but now that students have to be kept at a distance from their teachers and other kids, the development of these skills is a concern of educators in the wake of all of the educational impacts.

Meg Carpenter, a preschool teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania, has been able to teach her students face-to-face even though public schools in the state have been ordered to close through December. Going on her eighteenth year of preschool teaching, Carpenter said the challenges of this year are unlike another other, mostly relating to the social emotional learning impacts.

“[The kids] run into one another, and they’re not used to working in a group,” she said in an interview. “They’re not trying to run into one another, they really just lack the control because they haven’t been in any sort of formal ‘take turns’ situation. They’re not being selfish; they just haven’t had the opportunity to learn. Four-year-olds are pretty ego-centric anyway.”

For many of her students, this is their first exposure to a structured learning environment. Their days are precisely planned to mitigate the potential spread of disease, and while these precautions are meant to prevent COVID-19 outbreak, there is less availability for social interaction. Specifically, the kids are distanced and distracted with a movie during lunch to prevent talking when their masks are off and must only play with the toys assigned to them.

Carpenter also said this age is typically critical for fostering a sense of independence in children through interactive activities and planned exposure to new concepts. But now that her preschoolers are confined to only their personal space, the teachers must intervene and help the children in places where normally children of that age would be able to help themselves.

 “You’re raising people to rely too much on other people and, and in this instance, we’re not really allowed to help them. Because we’re really not supposed to be in physical contact,” Carpenter said about what she sees in the classroom.

A Look into High Schools

While a large portion of social emotional learning development happens during the primary school-age, the effects of online learning during a pandemic are felt by high school age students as well.  

For Alexis Schagrin, a Pennsylvania high school special education teacher, her lesson plans in an in-person setting have been centered around hands-on and guided activities because of the capacity of her students. Now, the school year’s shift to remote learning has forced her to restructure how she once taught social emotional learning as well as everyday skills.

“We do intensive teaching with some of the students that are lower as far as their language capabilities,” Schagrin said in an interview. “We’ve been able to do that with breakout rooms, but again, it really depends on the student’s abilities. For example, it took one student months and months to be able to figure out how to click the link to access the breakout room.”

Though the teachers are able to continue to teach, there is the potential that the students in Schagrin’s classroom will not progress in the way that is necessary.

“Depending on the student, there might be regression,” she said. “In the long term, they might not be achieving their maximum potential, but there are plans to offset that. So, students who do make regression are eligible for compensatory education when they return. For example, if they made regression in area of speech, and they get two speech sessions a week, when they return in person, they might be entitled to three speech sessions a week.”

In the same school as Schagrin’s special education classroom, emotional support teacher Kathleen Welsh is working to address the needs of her students who are all associating different experiences regarding their online school year.

“It’s been all over the board, I have some students who are really thriving in a virtual setting, which is likely due to the fact that there’s not the social stressors that that caused them to have trouble before,” Welsh said in a phone interview. “That is great for them right now— academically, they’re accessing their classes more, but we know that when we return to school, it may be harder to navigate helping them because they haven’t had to use those social skills that we’ve worked on teaching them.”

While some of her students this year are doing well academically, others are struggling to focus in their classes. Welsh said some students are having a hard time logging into their class meetings or waking up on time, and that is something her support team needs to find solutions for. Her school district has built a study period into the day of Welsh’s students where the students are able to meet with their emotional support teachers on a daily basis, so she is able to speak directly with her students and find out what’s going on in their lives. A major concern for Welsh is the anxiety her students report of not knowing what the future will look like.

“I think recently, the hardest part for some of my students has been the unknown,” Welsh said.  “There was the unknown back in March because we thought we were leaving for two weeks. And then we didn’t and then there was some consistency at the beginning of the school year, because everybody was remote. And we knew we were remote, until mid-November when we were hybrid, and then the county shut us down after a week.”

“I think the uncertainty of it is harder, when we turned remote, the kids knew that was the plan. And they seemed to be at least maintaining, you know, because that’s some level of consistency. But now it’s all just up in the air to see who decides what comes next.”

In a survey of 3,300 teenagers conducted by America’s Promise Alliance this past June, they measured students’ social, emotional and academic experiences since their schools shut down in March. What they found was that teenagers across the country were feeling anxious about the future and disconnected from their school communities.

According to America’s Promise Alliance’s analysis of the data, researchers suggested that students are experiencing collective trauma in regard to the upheaval of their academic and personal lives. The report also stressed the need for immediate and ongoing support for students and families throughout the pandemic. The initial lack of connection students felt to their schools and communities at the end of last school year raised issue for concern, but schools have tried to mitigate the detachment this school year and provide resources now that the online environment is the reality for so many.

Data from America’s Promise Alliance showing how students felt disconnected from their schools at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

From Welsh’s perspective, she recognizes the struggles and emotions of her students as their current situation of being pulled from school again feels a lot like the initial shock of it all back in March. Though the social emotional wellbeing of her students who are already in an emotional support classroom weighs on her mind, she is confident they can overcome the looming challenges.

“Something that some of my supervisors have said that kind of resonated with me back in April or May was that we know we’re gonna have to catch up from this,” Welsh said.  “And it’s not going to take a week or a month, it might take years for us to help build back the skills or the time that we lost. And that’s okay, we’ll put that time in then.”

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Vermont elementary school principal and practicing psychologist Susanne Engels is looking to unpack the trauma her young students are facing through the lens of public health and the inequity of resources.

“One of the problems with remote learning is that it’s widening the gap between those with resources and those without resources. It’s widening the gap between those with disabilities or an unevenness of learning,” Engels said in a Zoom interview. “School evens the playing field, but in remote learning, there’s a whole host of things that make it an uneven playing field.”

Beyond which students have access to fast Wi-Fi or crayons at home, the inequity of resources available to students stems to the guardian students have at home to help them learn. Not every student has this kind of resource, and the inability to engage with teachers or other students face-to-face constrains the growth of communication skills that cannot be taught from a book.

“As far as technology there’s problems with communication too,” Engels said. “When there’s problems with communication, there’s problems with understanding how to relate with people, there’s problems relating with people, there’s problems expressing yourself.”

Engels said she anticipates learning and social gaps in elementary school-age children in the wake of the pandemic. Beyond these gaps, she also foresees an increased layer of trauma among her students considering this period of disruption and change happened during their formative years. As a psychologist, Engels recognizes that trauma will impact education in the coming years and explains the connection to overall public health.

“If you’re approaching trauma and early prevention through a medical model and pulling out pulling out some of the ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, if you pull out some of that medical research, then it gets more attention and more funding, because that’s medical [research],” she said. “And that is coming from hospitals saying that kids with early-childhood adverse experiences are growing up to have chronic health conditions.”

Engels said viewing early-childhood trauma from a medical model and as a public health issue will allow for more funding because people are more likely to fund medicine rather than education. Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to cancer, diabetes and heart problems later in life. Educators are aware of these concerns, but for right now they are focused on the immediate well-being of students.

“The kids with good environmental resources and good neurological resources, those kids can catch up if [the pandemic is] not too long. It’s just the ones that have all of the negatives in their [situation] that you’ll see that gap stay.”

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