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SEL as a Pathway for Mitigating Effects of Learning Loss

April 12, 2022

It is hard to believe that we are now in the third year of the global pandemic.  We have all been through so very much and we are now faced with another pandemic: one of mental health. The anxiety, upheaval, and uncertainty of these challenging times, compounded by social and global unrest, have impacted us all-adults and children alike.

You do not need to check your newsfeed to see what the implications of the stress, isolation, trauma, and loss have been - you just need to walk into your own classroom. Long before the pandemic, we were seeing a dramatic rise in children’s stress, anxiety, and dysregulated behavior. This uncertain and disruptive time has exacerbated that situation exponentially, resulting in late last year the AAP, AACAP, and CHA, along with the US Surgeon General all declaring a national state of emergency on children’s mental health.  For our youngest learners, this time has meant they have been growing up in the midst of constant stress and unpredictability. They are not just experiencing all of this from their own young lives but also they are observing and absorbing the emotions and stress the important adults in their world are experiencing, and not surprisingly it has taken its toll.  We don’t know what the long-term impact will be, but we do know what we see in front of us in our classrooms each and every day.  A study by Dr. Walter Gilliam of Yale has shown that 56% of pre-K teachers report children being more aggressive, hyperactive, and oppositional while 55% noticed their children were exhibiting more shy, withdrawn, and anxious behaviors than seen before. Parents, of course, see this too and they are more concerned than ever about their children’s social and emotional well-being, yet social-emotional learning, SEL, continues to take a back seat-a second thought or add on to early learning and in many cases, SEL has been dismissed altogether. All this despite what we know about social-emotional learning’s positive long-term impact on academic, behavioral, and societal outcomes.

There has been so much concern and conversation about learning loss, worry over how far behind children are in key cognitive skills through this time. What those conversations are missing, however, is the very real and troubling loss of social-emotional skills, especially for our youngest learners who have been without the critical social and emotional learning opportunities they need in this pivotal time of their lives. All of their very BIG emotions are walking through our classroom doors each morning and our little ones do not have the skills to understand, identify, manage and regulate all that is swirling inside and around them. The ability to be aware of, manage and understand all those many emotions that are being experienced and expressed is critical for them to learn at all levels-in fact, they cannot learn without those skills. 

How does effective learning happen?  Most people think about IQ as the critical factor for learning – the academic skills measured in standardized tests, the so-called book smarts. But the real truth is IQ only accounts for about 10-20% of school, career and life success-it is EQ, Emotional Intelligence, that accounts for 80-90%, along with a bit of luck! (Dr. Goleman)  The ability to be aware of, manage and regulate emotions, to deal effectively with stress and anxiety, is foundational to our ability to pay attention, problem-solve, absorb new concepts and attend to tasks. When our brain is cluttered with anxiety and emotion, those emotions can hijack our brain’s ability to think, focus, concentrate, take in information and grasp new ideas - all central to learning. When our minds are consumed with unregulated emotion it can interfere with optimal learning by interrupting or impairing access to executive function skills necessary for learning. Think about your own ability to focus and attend to the present moment when you are experiencing stress.  You may find yourself re-reading the same section of a page of a book again and again without really taking it in or you may not be able to make decisions think clearly or move forward.

What do we need to develop those essential executive function skills so critical to successful learning?  Neuroscience describes the growth of executive function as the development of self-regulation. We need Emotional Intelligence and to ensure we are developing self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to regulate and manage our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior. Self-regulation, executive functioning, and emotional competence are all interrelated and the key to optimal learning, communication, empathy, and positive relationships.  It is important to remember that schools are very social places. For children to succeed in school, and in life, they have to have the skills to not only understand and manage their own emotions but also those of others around them. They need the skills to be empathetic and to cooperate with their friends across their play space. Children need to feel they belong and that their feelings are heard and validated, that they have agency, that they can work together with others to problem solve, and that they can persevere when they are met with frustration and challenges. If children are experiencing stress, anxiety, and trauma, all of those feelings unmanaged can become roadblocks to their progress. Before any child, no matter their background or experience can start on their important academic journey they need to have the ability to self-regulate, to be able to free up all that cluttered emotionally hijacked brain space so they can focus, concentrate, pay attention and be available to take in all that new information… and learn. 

The underpinnings of cognitive achievement require the ability to deal with and manage one's emotions. When children have the tools to regulate the intensity of their emotions then all that energy that is consumed by unregulated emotion, can then be freed up to focus, attend, grasp new ideas and concepts - increasing and enhancing the learning of academic skills and knowledge  Being able to manage one’s own emotions and understand those of others is also key in the growth of prosocial skills helping children in their relating and relationships with one another - in the development of friendships. Social-emotional skills are not simply “feel good” skills, nor are they unpacked only in the heat of the moment, but rather they are foundational for success in learning and in life.

For both children and adults, the ability to manage and regulate emotion – deal with anxiety and stress — is critical to every aspect of everyday life. We cannot address learning loss, we cannot move forward in any child’s academic growth and achievement without first addressing their emotions and the loss of social-emotional skills they have experienced- and we cannot do this without comprehensive programming and training. The solution for not just this moment but for the future of every child, every educator, is social-emotional learning that is an intrinsic part of the everyday classroom – not “hit and run” programming, not a band-aid to get us through this remarkable period, but systemic change - a holistic commitment to place the understanding and regulation of emotions at the heart of everyday learning beginning from the earliest years. Starting from birth, when the brain is developing very rapidly, allows us to capitalize on the most opportune time in brain development when there are 100 million new neural connections forming every second - a prime time to inform the architecture of the brain for life.

Without comprehensive programming that goes beyond social-emotional learning, we run a very real risk of setting our children even further back and not putting them on the best path forward. Social-emotional learning is learning! It is intrinsic to the foundation of academics, pro-social behavior, mental health, and well-being. Countless research reports and a national commission show us that social-emotional learning for all children has enormous potential and leads to better academic and behavioral outcomes - a changemaker, closing the gaps and opening doors of opportunity for every child.  

The risk of losing a generation is not an overstatement or hyperbole. Social-emotional learning should be as fundamental as reading skills. If we are truly to repair we must also be sure we are focusing on prevention as well. Laying an infrastructure of social-emotional well-being is an investment in strengthening the new generation for their own future and for our society at large.

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