Schools Turn to SEL To Help Students Cope and Thrive

Today’s kids face numerous challenges that previous generations could not have even imagined. Many kids spend a lot of their lives online, and with that comes the peer pressure and cyberbullying that emanate from social media. In fact, earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the effects of social media use on youths’ mental health.1 Survey results from Pew Research have found that up to 95% of teens reported using at least one social media platform, while more than one-third said they used social media “almost constantly.”2

On top of that, youth are grappling with the aftereffects of the social isolation and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2020 to 2021, 42% of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 10% reported having attempted suicide.3

As a result, schools and districts are looking for ways to support students as they develop the skills and capacity to thrive in today’s world, and in many instances, they have found those resources in social emotional learning (SEL) programs. While the phrase has been bandied about a lot in education circles— particularly after the pandemic school closures—what is SEL?

According to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the “process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”4 Research shows that when students build SEL skills, their academic performance improves and there is a reduction in bullying, creating more positive classroom environments. According to a study by the Rand Corporation, 76% of principals and 53% of teachers nationally reported that their schools used SEL resources during the 2021–2022 school year.5

Recognizing the increased importance of helping students build these life skills following the isolation of COVID school closures, the U.S. Department of Education included SEL programs as an eligible use for American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds. In fact, state education agencies have directed about $1 billion of federal COVID-19 emergency funding toward initiatives on student and staff well-being, including programs to improve mental health and social-emotional support.6

Schools are facing this challenge, and there are some resources available for them to invest in supports, but what can education companies—even those who don’t offer SEL or mental health support—do to help? Here are some tips for how you can help schools support their students as they cope in today’s challenging environment:

  • Reflect and modify. If there are components in your offerings that have students use social media or spend significant amounts of time in an unrestricted online environment, think about scaling them back or making them optional. Cutting down on screen time online can help decrease stress.
  • Provide ideas. Share with teachers the ways that they can adapt or differentiate your instructional programs to support students who are dealing with significant stress or mental health challenges. It might be as simple as removing time limits from assessments or turning homework assignments into classwork—things that might lessen pressure on students.
  • Offer resources. Work with an SEL or youth mental health expert to develop free tip sheets or guides for teachers using your programs with their students to support them and help them see when a student is struggling beyond academics.
  • Promote SEL programs. If you do have an SEL program, be sure that teachers and school leaders know about it and the ways that it might help transform their classrooms and school culture by supporting students.
  • Be emphathetic. Finally, remember that in today’s hyper-stressful environment, teachers and school leaders might be struggling as well. When that happens, empathy and acknowledgement of what they are dealing with can help as well as giving them space to face their challenges. Remember that school leader who was about to close a sale with you may not be calling back because their attention is being distracted in other directions.

The education community is strong, and together we can all support one another—students, teachers, school leaders, and education marketers as well. As you plan ways to help your community, MDR is here to help you.

1Surgeon General Issues New Advisory About Effects Social Media Use Has on Youth Mental Health

2Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022

3What it would take for US schools to fully recover from COVID-19

4Fundamentals of SEL

5Social and Emotional Learning In Schools Nationally and in the Collaborating Districts Initiative

6States Leading: How State Education Agencies are Leveraging the ESSER Set-Aside