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Recovering from interrupted learning: Social-emotional learning can transform past trauma into future strength

By May 10, 2021May 12th, 2021No Comments

Like the students and communities they serve, educators have endured fear and frustration these last two school years, but have also enjoyed the fruits of their resilience, ingenuity, and determination. We know that local conditions vary worldwide, but we’re feeling optimistic at this time about post-pandemic K–12 education in the U.S., and in this special blog series, McREL consultants and guest authors offer practical tips on succeeding in 2021–22 and beyond.

In an insightful podcast series, The New York Times recently documented the experiences of students attending Odessa High School in west Texas during the pandemic. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking to hear the students’ roller coaster of emotions, as they experienced brief moments of joy amid the malaise of remote learning. In the final episode of the series, adults wonder what sort of permanent damage this pandemic may inflict on our students.

It’s a genuine question born out of compassion and a recognition that for many students, the pandemic took a heavy toll on their psyches, relationships, future plans, and well-being. Yet it struck me as not exactly the right way to frame the problem. We often view damage—for example, in a car, home, or relationship—as something beyond repair. Or if repaired, it may never again be as good as new. A repaired car may still shimmy at a high speed. A repaired roof may leak when it rains. A mended relationship may still be tinged with mistrust.

Without a doubt, many students have experienced trauma during this pandemic. They may have been forced to move, gone hungry or faced food insecurity, watched helplessly as parents lost their jobs, seen relationships fray, and experienced their own raft of powerful emotions. Yet it’s important that we—and they—see that they need not be permanently damaged by these experiences, and I believe that social-emotional learning (SEL) can help accomplish this.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, researcher and psychologist Shawn Achor notes that while traumatic experiences can lead to stress, anxiety, and decreased well-being, they are for many people sources of tremendous personal growth and strength. Similarly, in his book Flourish, famed positive psychologist Martin Seligman notes that posttraumatic stress often leads to posttraumatic strength. Indeed, people who have experienced one or more terrible event in their lives tend to demonstrate greater personal strengths (and well-being) than individuals with none.

It’s not surprising, then, that the biographies of 700 of the most influential individuals in history—such as Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt, and Frida Kahlo—reveal that most experienced some sort of setback in their lives, such as poverty, childhood loss of parents, physical impairments, or early failures in school or life. Yet they bounced back from these challenges, gaining strength, compassion, and resilience from them.

So, while we should recognize and attend to our students’ needs and traumatic experiences, we should not treat these students as damaged goods. Far from it. Rather, we should help them reflect on their experiences, what they might learn from them, and how they can rebound stronger, more compassionate, and more resilient. The attitude of this entire generation should be “If I can handle a pandemic, I can handle anything.”

Recently, my colleague Dr. Lisa Jones and I wrote about the power of helping students write about their traumatic experiences, turning them into narratives that guide them toward identifying ways these experiences can make them stronger. One of the most powerful things any of us can to do work through trauma is to construct a powerful narrative about it. Instead of perseverating on everything that went wrong, we can craft a story that we use to remind ourselves that while our experiences were painful, we’ve emerged from them as better people.

Chances are you agree wholeheartedly with the idea of SEL but may not know exactly how to implement it in your classroom, so here’s some advice from my colleague Cheryl Abla, who as I write is visiting schools again in person (hooray!) working with educators.

What should we do to support our students’ social and emotional needs? Simple acts like greeting students at the door can improve academic engagement by 20 percentage points. Making sure all children have an adult who truly cares about them effectively combats the effects of poverty, violence, and neglect. A research team I admire recently issued a paper on the science of learning and development that declared, “The presence and quality of our relationships may have more impact on learning and development than any other factor.”

SEL isn’t something we spend 30 or 40 minutes on a week. True social and emotional learning and supports are fluid, and they remain at the forefront of what we do as educators. When an opportunity to include social and emotional supports presents itself at any time throughout the day, we need to capitalize on that opportunity. Use the teachable moment to include empathy, understanding, and a strong belief in a student’s well-being. Something as simple as asking them how they are can provide you with a temperature check of your student’s emotional state—something that’s more important than ever as we ascend from the pandemic.

I think the best thing a teacher can do now is not to dwell on what has been lost, but to build toward what is to come.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, and the author of Building a Curious School and many other titles on teaching and learning.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.