The Pandemic’s Toll on School Leaders Is Palpable. Here’s What’s Needed for a Successful School Year.

Jul 16, 2020

In early May, when what seemed like the worst of the pandemic was behind us, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI), in collaboration with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) in New York City, conducted a survey to understand how urban school leaders were feeling during the COVID-19 crisis. Over 1,000 principals, assistant principals and district-level supervisors from New York—then the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States—participated.

Leaders were asked to share the three emotions they had experienced the most during the prior two weeks. An overwhelming 95 percent of the feelings they named could be classified as “negative.” The most commonly mentioned emotion was anxiety, which stood out glaringly above all others—overwhelmed, sad, stressed, frustrated, uncertain and worried. (These findings mirror the results from a survey of more than 5,000 teachers we conducted with CASEL in the spring).

The toll of the coronavirus on our nation’s school leaders is palpable.

Frustration, stress and anxiety each impact leaders’ motivation, engagement and physical and mental health—and in some cases can lead to burnout. And although at first they may seem interchangeable, they are in fact distinct feelings, each with their own source and solution.

If we look at what psychologists know about these emotions, we see that frustration arises from something standing in the way (or seeming to stand in the way) of a goal. Stress is a response to adverse or very demanding circumstances, especially when we feel we don’t have enough resources to cope. Anxiety is a feeling of uncertainty and inability to control the future.

Understandably, school leaders expressed worry about getting sick and about their families or loved ones contracting the novel coronavirus. But we also noted three additional factors.

The first is health concerns about their faculty, staff and students. By the time we launched the survey in May, over 150,000 people in New York City had contracted the virus and at least 15,429 had died. Today, more than 224,000 people in the city have been infected and nearly 23,000 have died.

One leader wrote, “I feel tremendous responsibility to do and say ‘the right thing’ when a student or staff member loses someone to COVID-19. It’s been really tough to hold the space for so much grief in so little time.”

The second—familiar to many—is stress around work-life balance in a remote learning environment. One leader shared, “From my kitchen table, I’m running a school with 1,700 students, some of whom we’re having trouble finding. I’m also attempting to stay connected to 150 faculty and staff, some of whom have gotten sick and others who are not adjusting well to remote learning. At the same time, I’m attempting to communicate with thousands of frustrated family members who speak dozens of different languages.”

The third is wanting to ensure their students get a quality education during the pandemic, including concern about what school will be like in the fall. “I feel worried and deeply concerned about how quarantine is impacting our students with disabilities,” one leader shared.

What can help?

In our survey, 45 percent of school leaders cited the importance of strong departmental and political leadership. School leaders want to feel valued and supported by their supervisors. Clear goals and expectations for remote learning, decisive decision-making, transparency and frequent communication were the most mentioned critical factors school leaders believed could mitigate their anxiety. While respondents acknowledged that May was too soon to have clarity regarding the timing of the return to physical school, school leaders want to know that a thoughtful re-entry plan is being formulated—one that incorporates input from public health experts.

About 40 percent mentioned the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL). Leaders are looking to improve their own ability to manage anxiety, stress, work-life balance and time. They also emphasized the critical role that relationships play in managing through the pandemic. These include professional networking and maintaining strong connections with teachers, staff, students and parents.

Over the past two decades, research has shown that when schools embed SEL—the skills of self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship management and responsible decision-making—into the school day with fidelity, academic achievement goes up, distress goes down and school climate improves.

But many schools take a piecemeal approach to SEL, as opposed to embedding a systemic approach that includes training and support for school leaders. What these leaders are asking for underscores the importance of all adults in the school community, and especially leaders, being trained in SEL.

School leaders shared that they were using a range of ineffective strategies to manage their anxiety, from rumination to poor self-care to binge-watching the news. Healthy regulation of emotions is at the core of SEL.

Managing anxiety starts with accepting both the feeling and the fact that current conditions are real and significant. The next step is for leaders to learn and use evidence-based strategies to regulate their anxiety, including reappraisal (a skillful conversation with yourself that supports well-being). For example, we can remind ourselves about how we survived other major hardships, or we can start planning for the range of possible ways school may resume in the fall.

The number of strategies is limitless, ranging from these cognitive strategies, like reappraisal and positive self-talk, to better routines. Sleep, good nutrition and exercise also are important because they support a healthy immune system and make us more likely to respond to difficult emotions in helpful ways.

In times of crisis, the SEL skill of relationship management also is highly valuable. Leaders need to build trust and encourage connections among educators and students. Maintaining this sense of community can help foster engagement and preserve the continuity of learning. SEL skills can also help leaders make responsible decisions in an environment where the pace and gravity of decision-making has amplified.

When schools reopen, effective public health virus prevention protocols, academic catch-up and mental wellness must all be priorities. School leaders are trained for academics, but what training will school leaders have in strategies to support their own well-being, as well as the psychological welfare of their students and educators?

As one school leader pointed out, “Emotional well-being and security have to be the foundation both now and upon returning to our buildings. I don't see how learning can ‘restart’ until students, their families and our staff feel safe and grounded and have effective coping strategies.”


Marc Brackett is the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor in the Yale Child Study Center and author of the book Permission To Feel.

Mark Cannizarro is the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators in New York City.

Scott Levy is the executive director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in the Yale Child Study Center.


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