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How Schools and Families Can Work Together to Strengthen Students’ Social-Emotional Health

How Schools and Families Can Work Together to Strengthen Students’ Social-Emotional Health

Today’s students have weathered a storm of collective trauma over the last few years. For many students, the isolation and unknown of the COVID-19 pandemic disconnected them from their friends, inhibited their social development opportunities, and erased important milestones in their young lives.

While it took a worldwide health crisis for the general public to embrace the importance of devoting resources to nurturing the mental health of our youth, educators were already integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into their classrooms to support whole child development. By continuing to proactively promote positive mental health—even in the best of times—schools help students better comprehend their emotions, build necessary skills to cope with adversity, and form positive relationships with others.

As districts race to fill educational gaps caused by disrupted schooling and accelerate learning to help students catch up to their grade level, SEL needs to stay in the spotlight. In fact, the call for SEL to be included in schools is so great, the American Rescue Plan states that a percentage of funds must be used to address not only learning loss directly related to academic success and performance, but also “nonacademic” learning loss that occurs when the social and emotional needs of students are not met.

To strengthen students’ resiliency and confidence, schools, teachers, and parents must work together as an unwavering support system. Here are six ways that districts can get all stakeholders on board to provide a solid foundation moving forward.

1. Opt for digital curricula that include SEL components.

With a growing mountain of learning platforms to choose from, districts need to narrow their selections to ones that already have SEL tools built in. Edmentum, for instance, offers BASE Education, evidence-based, self-directed curriculum rooted in wellness principles. BASE Education includes more than 100 SEL courses that help students regulate emotions, learn coping strategies, and develop social skills, as well as provide teachers with the tools to monitor their progress along the way.

2. Maintain transparency with SEL terminology and program elements.

SEL has been in practice for decades, but has only recently taken hold of the spotlight. The concept of SEL might be confusing or totally new among parents who may be unfamiliar with the methodology and the ways it fits into a child’s education and development. Yet, when parents hear terms such as responsible decision-making, relationship-building, and goal-setting, they are supportive of the programming. Schools need to clearly explain to parents what SEL includes, why it is needed, and how they can be part of the process at home.

3. View behavioral issues through the eyes of the child.

Isolation and shifting educational experiences have contributed to greater behavioral health challenges among youth. Child psychiatrists say that teachers and administrators need to press pause before implementing a detention or suspension—especially if it would lead to additional learning disruptions—and work with school social workers, counselors, and parents to determine the cause behind the behavior.

4. Encourage parents and staff to listen and then respond.

As adults, we sometimes try to understand our students’ problems by asking questions, but too many questions can be overwhelming, especially if students don’t have the tools yet to fully express themselves in a way that an adult can understand. Instead, we need to give learners space, actively listen to them, and validate their feelings. One child and adolescent psychotherapist explained that something she hears consistently from teenagers is that they just need someone to listen to them.

Pediatric psychologist Vanessa Jensen of Cleveland Clinic shared that the best way to connect with children is through what she calls her “raindrop theory,” explaining, “You just put the little raindrops out there by saying, ‘You know, I’m around,’ or ‘I’m going to be in my study if you want to talk.’ You put those little hints out there, and kids will reach out when they feel comfortable.”

5. Establish intentional routines.

Although they would tell you differently, children thrive when they have a daily routine. Routine provides them with a sense of safety and security, especially if they’ve experienced a trauma. Because the unpredictability and uncertainty of COVID-19 has thrown all of our schedules out of whack, it’s important to rebuild structure with set times for learning, relaxation, and socialization.

6. Ensure that teachers and staff are taking care of themselves.

When schools prioritize their teachers’ wellness, educators can, in turn, better respond to their students’ struggles. By establishing multidimensional educator wellness programs that address each person’s needs, from the physical and emotional to the spiritual and social, districts can create a healthier school climate for everyone.

Even in the midst of hardship, there is hope. Researchers found that when people exhibit symptoms of increased distress during a disaster, most cope well and experience no long-term mental health issues.  As educators and parents, we need to recognize when our students are struggling and provide them with the support they need. You can find a list of trauma-informed resources at Educator Resources: Supporting Students Dealing with Trauma.'s picture
Nicole Plegge

Nicole Plegge has written on education and equity issues for the past 20 years. She previously developed early education curriculum for an international nonprofit and today works at a St. Louis organization focused on social justice. She is also a writer with SWPR Group, connecting educators to software solutions, research institutes, and think tanks that help them improve student outcomes. Nicole graduated with her MPPA degree from the University of Missouri – St. Louis.