We Need Social and Emotional Learning Now More Than Ever

By Guest Contributor Dr. Anne Snyder, McGraw-Hill Education

As schools have shuttered and emergency homeschooling has become the new norm, families and teachers alike are working together to ensure that learning continues, albeit in new ways. The restrictions introduced by the COVID-19 safety precautions have understandably created challenges for families and educators alike. Despite this, learning can still happen.

One particular form of learning has garnered special
attention: social and emotional learning (SEL). The skills and competencies involved
in SEL are proving especially critical for young learners right now, as children
are pressed to rapidly adjust to the sudden transition in learning environments
and structures, often without clear direction--or an end in sight. Learning to
manage learning, time and space, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors has never
been more pressing.

Even when schools are shuttered, the adults in these young learners’ lives -- whether they are professionally trained teachers or newly minted homeschool teacher-caregivers -- can support students in learning these skills. Moreover, this support doesn’t have to add yet another overwhelming task to the to-do list, since SEL instruction can easily be folded into what is already happening during the day. Below are four examples of social, emotional, and behavioral skillsets that can be developed no matter where or when learning is taking place:

Patience – While it is true that some people are more
naturally patient than others, practicing patience can be difficult at times
for everyone. Fortunately, patience is in fact a skill that can be taught, just
like addition or reading comprehension or cooking or hitting a baseball.


  • Simple exercises such as setting timers for
    engaging in work tasks (e.g. 5 minutes of focusing on reading a book) and playing
    waiting games (“I Spy” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors”) can help learners develop

  • Children also learn by observing as adults model
    patience themselves and explain how they do so (e.g. “I’m feeling impatient to see
    everybody, but I’m taking a deep breath and writing a list of all the fun
    things I can do while I wait until it’s safe to see our friends again”).

Productive Struggle – Productive struggle is a
term that has emerged in education to describe and define the processes
involved in allowing learners to independently grapple with challenging
problems. In short, productive struggle involves learners persisting in the
face of discomfort, confusion, or frustration, seeking help only at the point
when it becomes necessary. The key here is for adults to provide learners with
the time and space needed to really dive deep into a concept – even when their
instinct may be to provide immediate help and feedback. Families and caregivers
can support productive struggle in any subject area or learning task.


  • When reading together, adults can wait to read aloud
    an unknown word for a child until the child has had a chance to try sounding it
    out herself.

  • When
    a child has a question about a math problem and seeks help, adults can provide
    strategies for finding new information, re-reading the problem, and thinking
    about the problem in new ways – before simply showing the child the

Goal Setting – As school has transitioned to the home
environment, and as everyone must continue to stay safely at home, it can be
tempting for both adults and children to stop setting and working toward goals.
However, a great many research studies have demonstrated that the act of
setting and working toward manageable objectives with defined parameters (e.g. completing
a certain number of problems or for a certain amount of time) serves to
significantly increase motivation, emotional well-being, and overall learning.


  • Small, measurable, and achievable academic goals
    can be established at set time each day, such as reading three books,
    completing a writing prompt, or trying one home science experiment.

  • Home-related task goals, such as helping fold a
    load of laundry or cooking and serving a meal, can help learners master the
    skills involved in goal setting.

Empathy – Like other disasters throughout history,
the COVID-19 crisis has brought out the very best of humanity. Teachers,
medical professionals, essential workers, and everyday heroes are working
tirelessly to help others. Empathy – the ability to acknowledge, envision, and
share in the experiences of others - is at the heart of every one of these
efforts. There are countless opportunities and methods to promote empathy
throughout the day, even (especially!) during a crisis.


  • Encourage children to record music or
    storytelling for others to enjoy, send virtual pen pal messages to other
    children under quarantine, help sew facemasks to help prevent spread of the
    virus, or create art on your driveway, sidewalk, or window to cheer or inspire
    neighbors. Each of these activities helps develop a sense of empathy for

As the COVID-19 crisis continues
to unfold, it will be important for all adult stakeholders to work together to
continue to support children’s learning from home. By including a focus on SEL (and
by practicing and modeling these skills ourselves) we can help ensure that we help
the next generation continue to learn and grow, even in our most challenging of

Stay connected on resources for supporting remote and distance learning.

Dr. Anne Snyder is a Senior Learning Scientist within the Applied Learning Sciences team at McGraw-Hill Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Columbia University.