This is the third of a three-part series looking at how social-emotional learning strategies can support teachers of students with learning differences during the pandemic. Read part one and part two.
We are living through a time that is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to close their doors and, in doing so, set off a chain reaction of regulatory responses as our nation's school systems urgently worked to address student instructional, psychological and physical needs through requiring novel remote learning plans. And with no precedent to draw on.
Reactions have never been best practice in education. This transition has been no exception. And in reality, the emergency pivot to remote learning has been more challenging for some students than others, including for those who think and learn differently.
Yet in the most unimaginable of ways, when the doors of our schools closed, opportunities to innovate opened. Educators and administrators across the country took the blank slate created by the absence of a playbook as an opportunity to lean into their social and emotional learning (SEL) training, think flexibly and evolve their practice—in the interest of all their students.
This essay is the last of a three-part series exploring the challenges facing educators of students who learn and think differently and elevating how SEL strategies can support educators in reframing and addressing those challenges now and in the long term.
We previously shared how teachers are leveraging SEL to adapt student services and promote accessibility for their students during this unprecedented time. A third challenge resulting from the pandemic has been how teachers should address the rapidly evolving requirements for remote learning—from what goals to teach to, to logging instructional hours, addressing absenteeism and cataloging evidence of learning—for their students with special education needs.
The challenge: Remote learning requirements keep changing, and I can’t keep up.
Long before the pandemic upended their classrooms, educators of students with learning differences knew the value of an instructional minute and how to make each one of them count for their students. Special educators know how to prioritize their students' learning in the equation of instruction; they know how to leverage resources and how to find teachable moments regardless of the circumstances.
Yet the rapid transition to a new instructional territory called into question everything we thought we knew about our educational systems.
Let’s consider the layers of decisions being made during the transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Federal and state governments are releasing guidance about what standards are “most” important for learning, and the necessity for remote learning guidance brought new urgency and scrutiny to these already contentious conversations. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education instituted a three-phase plan to support schools during remote learning. In phase three, they implemented “power” standards, encouraging districts to move all students toward successful engagement and focus on addressing fundamental needs by prioritizing prerequisite standards for the following year rather than covering every standard as initially suggested.
- Schools are working out how to support educators to implement student IEPs in previously uncharted territory, drafting the rules as they go.
- Families are making choices about what to prioritize during distance learning while navigating unique demands of work, family and health. Early evidence suggests that 40 percent of parents of children with special education needs are concerned about their children's mental health, and a longitudinal study of families during the pandemic reports a 67 percent increase in the number of parents who reported feeling anxious or depressed all day, alongside a 42 percent increase in their children’s externalizing behaviors.
- Students are choosing whether or not to show up—physically and emotionally—in remote learning.
Across the days, weeks and months, each of us is weighing various needs and making decisions in ways that affect what we focus on, how we show up and whether or not we invest. And although this kind of decision-making was happening before remote learning became the norm, the calculous seems more obvious and tenuous now as we work through the challenges the pandemic has created for students and educators alike.
Reframing the challenge: As remote learning requirements evolve, my decisions should reflect the needs of my students and our school community.
There still remains much that is unknown about how the 2020-21 school year (and beyond) will look for our students. The evolving requirements don’t change educators’ role in the equation—teachers always have and always will know their students’ needs better than any requirement or guideline will suggest. And teachers are the point of connection between students, services and policies; this was the case before the pandemic and will continue to be the case thereafter.
We can adopt a challenge-centered mindset and build student- and family-centered solutions.
The ever-changing conditions require responsible decision making, the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions and the well-being of self and others. Making decisions during the pandemic is challenging—and the challenge can feel overwhelming in the absence of support. When we place the needs of our students first and elevate the voices of all those impacted by our decisions, we can make them most constructively.
For example, Dr. Nicole Abera is the director of elementary and middle school programs at the Katherine Thomas School in Washington, D.C., and has been leveraging a challenge-centered approach to decision-making during the pandemic. She is intentional about actively listening to her community (educators, parents and students) more accurately define the problems that need to be addressed. Dr. Abera collaborates with her community to generate and implement solutions and to follow up with evaluation, reflection and adjustment as needed.
Dr. Abera used technology during school closures this spring to continuously maintain a dialogue with students about their needs and desires moving through the remote learning experience, alongside evaluations from staff and parents and ongoing personal reflection.
On the advice of parents and educators, student demands transitioned from reviewing foundational and previously learned material to include the introduction of new content through remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Educators noted that, with the increase in expectations of students, they were also increasing the demands on parents, since most students with disabilities needed support from parents to execute remote lessons—from setting and regulating their students' schedules, to helping them access (i.e. search, open, download, read and listen) digital content and complete assigned work tasks for review.
In addition, it was important to temper the volume and expectations of assignments to account for the demands facing families. As a result of these insights, supporting parents became a critical focus for the Katherine Thomas School’s offerings moving forward. By placing students and teachers at the center of her decision-making processes, Dr. Abera was better able to empathize, define the challenges to be addressed and come up with solutions that supported wellness and better met the needs of those in her school community.
We can all work to leverage this kind of emotionally intelligent decision-making process to better meet the needs of our students and families, while also making time to actively reflect, re-evaluate and adjust as conditions change.
We can prioritize units and lessons that support students’ social-emotional health and well-being.
Making responsible decisions at this time necessitates attention to our various experiences and circumstances, and must be informed by the social, emotional, learning and basic needs of each student and family. At the end of the day we can make constructive choices about our practice, building from student needs, requirements and the affordances and challenges of distance learning strategies.
Shira Moskovitz is a fifth grade inclusion classroom teacher in New York City, an epicenter of the pandemic. Moskovitz adopted the approach to working to support her students’ basic and social-emotional needs, as well as their need for academic development during distance learning.
Moskovitz redesigned a unit on poetry to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to share their experiences during the pandemic, while working on wellness, self-awareness and social awareness.
Her unit encouraged students to reflect deeply on their individual experiences during the pandemic with poetry identification and exploration, offering a healthy outlet for students to express themselves while engaging with rich academic content. Moskowitz says, “Their reading analysis skills have increased as they contemplate how poets might have felt and why they chose that particular language. Their writing skills have developed as they utilize figurative language, rhythm and reflect on peer and staff feedback. Yet the core of the unit remains an emotional support for our students during this challenging time.” She adds that she intentionally combined Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Bloom's taxonomy of educational learning objectives, when designing this unit to better support the whole learner.
We can recognize the intersectional needs of all learners.
The pandemic’s prejudice for communities of color, persons with disabilities and the elderly—and its exacerbation of longstanding inequities based on income, education and health—has been devastating. Concurrently, our nation is experiencing compounding traumas in the form of racially motivated murders, police brutality and community violence.
We can support our students and schools to heal and create sustainable change toward the end of eradicating systemic inequities and racism. We can transition to learner mode as a school community and use our SEL training to rebuild and restore our collective commitments to each other. What are we learning about differential experiences and effects of the pandemic and protests across communities? How can these differences inform policies and practices at the classroom, school, district, family and community levels?
The narrative for students with learning differences and their education and treatment in our society is one of profound intersectionality. Race, class, gender, ethnicity and disability interact to create overlapping and interdependent systems of disadvantage for students.
Unfortunately, when advocates work to do better by vulnerable student populations, they often focus on specific groups in isolation, but the reality is that a narrow approach to eradicating inequities can fail to account for the intersectionality of learner identities, resulting in recommendations and decision-making that can be siloed and less likely to bring about truly systemic change.
In a recent essay, Drs. Shannon B. Wanless and Tia N. Barnes encourage us to shift to an asset-based paradigm in support of making decisions that account for intersectional student identities through a lens of socially conscious SEL. Opportunities include fostering the awareness of one’s own social identities, managing biases, raising a social awareness of others’ social norms and intersectionalities, building relationships with others of different identities and making responsible and informed decisions that explicitly stop discrimination and the perpetuation of inequities.
So, the requirements have changed. In reality, the requirements will continue to change. And that’s a good thing for all of us. By remaining in learner mode, maintaining a challenge -centered mindset to solve from a perspective of community and recognizing intersectional identities, SEL can support us to make the necessary decisions to responsibly evolve requirements in the best interest of all learners.
Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the Yale School of Medicine. Follow her @drchriscip.
Gabbie Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.D., is Executive Director and Chief Scientist at EdTogether and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her @g_schlichtmann.
Their research was funded by a grant from The OAK Foundation (OCAY-19-407).