Teacher, Interrupted: Leaning into Social-Emotional Learning Amid the COVID-19 Crisis
There was life before COVID-19, and there will be life after.
We didn’t choose to have our schools and colleges closed; our carefully constructed routines halted in their tracks; our field trips, concerts, sporting events, fundraisers and finals all canceled. We didn’t expect this and had little warning.
We weren’t ready for this either. Or were we?
At this very moment, there are so many questions swirling through our own heads and the education ecosystem across the globe. What impact will this have on student learning, on families, on the economy—now and in the long-term? How will we support students who rely on school for meals or the stability that their classroom provides? How will our students without access to computers or technology continue to learn? What will this do to our school and campus communities? How will this impact our school’s funding, our careers?
And then there’s the uncertainty around when teachers and students will be allowed to return to school—and what school will be like when we do.
As psychologists, we at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence are concerned about everyone’s emotional state. How will students and educators cope with life being turned upside down so quickly?
Right now our media feeds are being inundated with anecdotes of our nation’s parents jumping on the homeschooling and digital learning bandwagons. They are at the mercy of the information available to them and the technological tools their children and households may have access to. Districts and colleges across the nation are requiring educators to provide plans and digital resources, despite their varied levels of knowledge about and support for which instructional technologies are most effective for whom, how and under what conditions. All of this is rapidly evolving with a finish line that gets pushed back daily.
This is not a snow day. It’s not a holiday break. It’s a crisis.
So what can we do to support ourselves and our students in getting through these difficult times? We need to look to social and emotional learning (SEL) for evidence-based practices to help us now and to support us when we eventually return to school.
SEL is for everyone. It’s especially critical for students with the greatest needs—the ones who will be severely impacted by the psychosocial and fiscal effects of this pandemic. But it’s also for teachers and students in the most well-resourced districts and institutions.
The crisis around COVID-19 is leaving an indelible footprint on the hearts and minds of multiple generations of children and adults—even our youngest ones who are not yet old enough to realize it. The impact and ripple effects across our collective livelihoods is likely too vast to comprehend.
It’s scary. But it’s not hopeless.
Now is when we need to apply everything we’ve learned about SEL. Recognizing your emotions and leveraging the science of SEL is more important now than ever. SEL skills are real skills that can support us in managing the roller coaster of emotions we will be having over the coming days and months. For many of us it’s dealing with daily uncertainty and new ways of interacting socially.
Be Cognizant of Stress and Its Effects
Fear manifests in our actions, including well-intentioned, research-based mandates to engage in social distancing with our world and all the people in it, including our own families. In times of high stress, negative emotions like fear, anxiety and panic diminish our mental resources and ability to think clearly, make healthy decisions and behave prosocially and productively.
Stress, in moderate doses, is healthy. It’s our body’s way of responding to events that threaten or challenge us. But chronic stress impairs our ability to function well and impacts the quality of our relationships. Navigating uncontrollable, unpredictable, ambiguous situations like the new coronavirus, in addition to being confronted with many new demands, is challenging and for many of us amounts to chronic stress.
As educators, practicing social distancing during a pandemic while implementing digital learning with your students—in some cases, for the first time—is overwhelming in itself. Then add juggling your own family and their evolving physical, social and emotional demands while bracing for the unknown, and it becomes exhausting, if not impossible.
These intense and seemingly insurmountable demands can make us feel insecure and inadequate. In school, safety is both physical and psychological. Clorox wipes, toilet paper and social distancing are only going to get you so far in the promotion of your safety. We must also ensure psychological safety for ourselves, for our students and for our families. SEL can support us here, too.
The RULER Approach
Briefly, SEL is the teaching of an interrelated set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies that underscore our capacity to learn, develop and maintain mutually supportive relationships, and be both physically and psychologically healthy. The field of SEL is replete with programs and approaches, which support schools in embedding five large dimensions into teaching and learning. These include self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we use the power of emotions to create a healthier, more equitable, productive and compassionate society, today and for future generations. Our approach to SEL, the RULER Approach, provides tools and resources grounded in the theory of emotional intelligence to promote the psychosocial health and well-being of educators and their students and parents.
RULER is an acronym for the components and process of emotional intelligence, including:
- Recognizing emotions in self and others,
- Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions,
- Labeling emotions accurately,
- Expressing emotions appropriately, and
- Regulating emotions effectively.
These skills can help us navigate this uncharted territory in our socially-distanced world and do our part to control the imprint it leaves on the mental health and well-being of our students and school communities. You can find additional resources here from our center to specifically support your well-being and manage your anxiety during this sensitive time.
Routine Reminders and Checks
You can make choices every day to support yourself, your students and your families. First, check in with how you are feeling a few times per day. Avoid judging your own and others’ emotions. From an emotional intelligence perspective, all emotions are information. Accept them all. They are information to be attended to, not denied.
Be kind to yourself and flexible (as permitted) with your schedule. Look for easy and small ways to bring yourself and your loved ones joy. Make breakfast a different way. Take creative pictures from different angles. Find a new way to organize your closet. Call old friends and family members to check-in. Try a new exercise routine at home.
There also are things you can monitor carefully, including your media consumption. Digital platforms are pretty incredible at enabling us to connect with people in a socially distant world. We have perhaps never been more prepared to practice social distancing as we are today. But keep in mind there are over two decades of research correlating social media usage with loneliness, depression and unhealthy behaviors including addiction. After using technology, ask yourself this question: Is this helping me feel greater well-being and connection, or is it making me feel more isolated? Find the “tech” routine that works for you and your family. And leverage resources and expertise across networks for support.
If the thought of being home for a couple of weeks or months—or returning back to school—is overwhelming, take a meta-moment. Try to imagine your best self—visualize a positive image of yourself, who you want to be and how you want to be seen and experienced by your family and students. And in each of your interactions, whether face-to-face at home or when connecting with others through technology, try to be that person for your students, for your families, for your community.
While the world is turned on its head, we have the opportunity to leverage the power of emotional intelligence to keep our feet on the ground and our minds directed toward building the future that we want for our students and ourselves. We can’t control what has happened, but we can control how we respond to what is happening. Give yourself and everyone around you the permission to feel all emotions. It starts and ends with self- and social-compassion. Lean into SEL.
Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., Ed.M., is the Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and a research scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale University. Follow her on Twitter @drchriscip.
Marc Brackett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University. He’s also on the board of directors for CASEL and the author of the new book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive.