Teachers and Parents Agree: Social and Emotional Learning is More Important Than Ever

By Guest Contributor Dr. Shawn Smith, Chief Innovation Officer, McGraw Hill  

87% of parents believe SEL is important in helping children navigate today's world.

I’ve written previously in this publication on the  opens in a new windowrole of EdTech providers in a post-pandemic landscape – on embracing flexible learning models, leveraging adaptive technology, and driving with student data. 

Today, I want to explore the role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in that same complex landscape of K-12 education. Even in pre-pandemic times, our evolving understanding of SEL has impacted not only the work of EdTech providers but of teachers, district leaders, and parents. We know that SEL influences technology, pedagogy, policy, and student achievement. Now, in the face of interruptions to learning and ongoing trauma, our ability to understand students’ SEL needs is particularly detrimental to the success of all other teaching and learning endeavors moving forward. 

At McGraw Hill, we recently conducted a  opens in a new windowsurvey of educators and parents to better understand how they think about SEL and how the pandemic impacted teachers’ prioritization of SEL. From the survey, we learned that student well-being was deeply influenced by COVID, and both teachers and parents view SEL instruction as a critical tool to help students cope with trauma and transition to in-person learning. Here’s a look at our findings, and what I believe they may indicate about our collective efforts to empower students in this rapidly changing environment: 

SEL awareness has increased among educators and parents. Implementation is also on the rise. 

We conducted a similar SEL survey among educators in 2018 and discovered that educators’ awareness of SEL increased from 83% in 2018 to 94% in 2021. Educators are also much more knowledgeable about their school’s and district’s plans for teaching SEL skills today (91%) than they were in 2018 (77%), and 56% of educators report that their school has begun implementing an SEL plan. Notably, 62% of parents now feel teaching SEL is very important, compared to 55% three years ago. 

94% of educators in 2021 familiar with Social and Emotional Learning

What it means: For some time, a great deal of effort around social and emotional learning was concentrated in educating teachers and parents about the importance of SEL and garnering buy-in for implementation. While that’s of course still the case for many districts, many more communities are moving from asking “why” to prioritize SEL, to “how” to prioritize SEL. It’s time for us to think deeply about how we can integrate SEL throughout instruction, and balance explicit instruction of competencies with embedded instruction in academic content. 

Teachers have observed a decline in student well-being as a result of remote learning and COVID. 

53% of educators said COVID-19 and/or the shift to remote learning has caused their students emotional distress and created attendance problems. Administrators and educators noted that students have “given up” on school and show signs of depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They also reported that student confidence has plummeted, and it is common for them to disengage from learning.  

75% of educators anticipate additional SEL needs as a result of students returning to classrooms.

What it means: These results point to the importance of personal relationships and engaging learning experiences for students. We know that every student responds to online learning differently – many educators have observed that some students thrive in online environments and feel empowered to participate in class discussion online. These results also indicate – as many educators have known for a long time – that every student has unique SEL needs, and it’s critical that we balance time spent with online learning and in-person learning to keep students engaged. Blended environments and education technology can help us foster connections and better understand and respond to individual student social, emotional, and academic needs. 

Teachers view SEL as a critical tool to address the unique concerns they have for this school year. 

 Educators report that students are fearful of COVID-19 and social interaction, and that they will need extra time and attention to relearn social skills. They believe that SEL will help provide short-term benefits such as reduced behavioral problems (96%), improved grades (91%), and less emotional distress (95%). Most educators (84%) believe that incorporating SEL into the core curriculum has become more important since the pandemic. 

Most educators believe that SEL will help students transition to in-person learning and process COVID-related trama by 96% reducing behavioral problems, 91% improving grades, and 95% reducing emotional distress

 What it means: These results tell us just how deeply educators understand both student needs and the benefits of social and emotional learning. The obstacles of this school year will not be easy to navigate for any educator, and it will be particularly challenging for them to balance addressing these behaviors with their efforts to address academic learning loss. But our respondents’ overwhelming inclination to prioritize integrating SEL instruction into core instruction tells me that these educators understand something fundamental about SEL and learning: Academic, social, and emotional learning are all interdependent. Educators know that students must be socially and emotionally supported to be engaged in academic learning and reach mastery, and that understanding is bound to serve their students well. 

While our survey highlighted the complexities of teaching during a time of collective trauma, it also highlighted educators’ powerful intuition and a very encouraging growth in the emphasis on social and emotional learning. It’s clear that in order to move toward the future of teaching and learning, we must progress to a place where student well-being, social and emotional development, and readiness for learning is embedded in all touchpoints for instruction. Based on what educators have shared in our survey, I believe that this school year will be a pivotal year to move us closer to that goal. 

To review the results of the survey in full, see our 2021 Social and Emotional Learning Report.


Dr. Shawn K. Smith

Dr. Shawn K. Smith is currently serving as the Chief Innovation Officer for McGraw Hill and a national leader on issues surrounding digital education and pedagogy.

Described as an “education futurist”, Shawn is an author, speaker, entrepreneur, and rare book collector. He has one of the largest private collections of John Dewey’s writings in the world. Shawn has authored four books on education: Teacher as Architect: Instructional design and delivery for the modern teacher (2012), The New Agenda: Achieving personalized learning through digital convergence (2017), The Shape of Change: The continued journey of the Digital Convergence Framework(2018)and Wisdom and Influence: Mastering the Digital Convergence Framework (2019)Formerly Shawn was a teacher, principal, and Chief of Schools for 15 years in school districts in Illinois and California and served as CEO and co-founder of Modern Teacher for 9 years.

Shawn has made appearances on both Discovery and learning channels as well as various radio, web, and podcast programs. Shawn has degrees from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin (bachelor’s degree, elementary education), the California State University, San Bernardino (master’s degree, middle school education), and the University of Southern California (doctorate degree, urban education policy and leadership).