“Maslow before Bloom,” the concept of addressing basic human needs before academic learning, is emerging as a mantra in contemporary education — and for good reason. Amid a long-lasting pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, and political polarization, students’ social and emotional health is — and should be — a clear priority in education.
Supporting children’s social-emotional learning is not a new concept for educators, but doing so remotely has presented new challenges. Administrators now have the new task of supporting teachers and students’ SEL in an unfamiliar context, and without a playbook for how to do so.
The world is still learning how to best support children’s academic and social development during the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent and seminal research have produced the following helpful themes. Administrators should use these themes as guideposts as they help teachers support children’s well-being and SEL remotely.
Practice Self-Care to Maintain Positive Relationships
Teachers are better equipped to support students’ well-being when they are in a state of well-being themselves. Administrators should openly recognize the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on both adults and children in their community, communicate self-care for all as an organizational priority, and help educators understand they can’t do their job well if they don’t care for themselves.
Some teachers will need more support than others. Administrators may provide extra support by helping teachers find and use resources to guide self-care. But leaders can also help by allocating time for educators to support one another personally and professionally. Just as healthy eating, sufficient sleep and exercise are essential for physical health, feeling connected to colleagues and maintaining positive relationships supports educators’ well-being.
Establish Clear Routines and Expectations to Provide Clarity
The unpredictability of 2020 proved turbulent for families, children and teachers. Consistency and clarity can do a lot to help. Recent research found that having a centralized curriculum in place leading up to and during the pandemic provided valuable routines and predictability. Administrators with access to a social-emotional learning curriculum should communicate clear expectations around implementing the program in remote environments. But even without a specific curriculum, administrators can set clear expectations for SEL. For example, they might direct teachers to lead a daily morning check-in during which students discuss their emotions. They might also have teachers explicitly integrate key social-emotional competencies such as perspective-taking or growth mindset into their academic curriculum.
Create Systems for Data Collection and Improvement
Many administrators have embraced data-based practice but may have a narrow understanding of what data is and the ways in which it can be used. Data can be produced in numerous ways: in conversations with staff, students and families; in surveys; during in-person and remote classroom observations; and from academic and SEL assessments. No form of data is inherently better than another.
Administrators must first articulate the question they need to answer or the problem they need to solve before collecting the best data for that purpose. Administrators should also have a plan in place to respond to the data. Who will review and analyze the data, and who will take responsibility for acting on it? Using continuous improvement systems, such as the Plan, Do, Study, Act/Adjust cycle, is one way to ensure that improvement efforts translate data into action.
Leverage the Power of Community to Support Students
We’ve seen communities come together in inspiring ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have worked closely with out-of-school time organizations, food banks and local nonprofits to get students and families needed support and nutrition. Communicating with OST providers, families and children will help school administrators coordinate SEL language and strategies. Administrators can also use these relationships to learn which approaches help or hinder children’s social-emotional and academic learning outside of school, and what more they can do to successfully support children’s well-being.
The work of supporting children’s SEL is not new, but remote learning challenges have forced administrators to revisit and reimagine how they can best lead this work. While turbulent, the events of 2020 have created opportunities for reflection and improvement. Administrators should learn from these opportunities and establish systems that place children’s well-being and SEL in the foreground — not just in the classroom, and not just today, but everywhere and always.
MORE ON EDTECH: How schools are taking SEL and mental health online.