Feeling Overwhelmed and Overlooked, Special Educators Need SEL to Navigate the Pandemic

Sep 17, 2020

It’s September.

It’s been six months since teaching and learning as we knew it was turned on its head. Six months filled with increasingly disproportionate experiences of loss across school communities. Six months of social distancing, remote learning plans and hybrid models, temperature checks and face coverings, school waivers, and district accountability policies.

So much has changed in the last six months, and yet for educators of students who learn and think differently, what has remained the same is that navigating these evolving conditions continues to present challenges above and beyond those faced by educators of neurotypical learners.

Our research team at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in partnership with EdTogether, a nonprofit that supports the inclusive education of students with disabilities, and with funding from the Oak Foundation, had been working to understand how students with learning differences are accessing and benefiting from social and emotional learning (SEL) when the pandemic began. However, when school buildings closed, Zoom windows opened, offering us a new vantage point by which to view the professional and personal lives of educators and education support professionals (ESPs) who work primarily with students with special education needs.

In the eight weeks leading up to the start of this unprecedented school year, we collected survey data from 250 educators of students with learning differences and conducted seven hour-long interviews and focus groups via Zoom. Our goal was to understand how educators are innovating with SEL in their professional and personal lives and fully capture the factors that have contributed to their experiences of emotions during this unusual time.

What follows is a summary of our findings, along with snapshots from our interviews that illustrate what many educators were feeling this summer and how SEL can support them.

“It’s been like packing for a vacation where you don't know what the weather will be like.”

Educators experienced a continuum of emotion this summer, with their responses heightening in intensity the closer our conversations came to the start of the school year.

“It’s been like packing for a vacation where you don't know what the weather will be like.”

Similarly to what we found in a survey of general educators at the onset of the pandemic, anxiety was the most frequently mentioned emotion. However, this time, we were able to dig deeper, and we learned that although anxiety was most common among general educators this time around too, special educators felt overwhelmed, and paraeducators were frustrated.

We also asked which factors contributed to their feelings of stress and frustration at school. The most frequent responses were lack of time, lack of support, and lack of a plan.

A major source of anxiety for many educators stemmed from not having the answers about what this year holds, as well as preparing for a restrictive start to the school year, knowing some families are taking more precautions than others. Educators described “needing more time to work,” putting the burden on themselves. But follow-up discussions revealed that what they are craving, really, is more support from administration, a bigger team, more resources, and personal time to process circumstances.

“The ability to work 24 hours a day—that’s what it feels like it is going to take to plan to teach different ways.”

In the week leading up to the start of this school year, educators explained that they have to plan for several different possibilities, and that much of this planning will be last-minute, such as learning about which students they will have in their classes, pods, and caseloads and understanding each of those students’ needs.

Many teachers are also worried about the transition period between learning models and establishing a routine. One special educator estimated that it took approximately four to five weeks for students to adjust to their new routines for learning: “Will students even have enough time to adjust before their plans are changed again in response to the virus?”

“The ability to work 24 hours a day—that’s what it feels like it is going to take to plan to teach different ways.”

And for younger students, social distancing measures may mean developmentally inappropriate learning, as one kindergarten special education teacher expressed how children will not be able to play together, and instead, will be confined to desks that otherwise would not have been part of her classroom environment.

Special educators shared that they were overwhelmed last spring with the demands and expectations of implementing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students with diverse learning needs during distance learning. They also recounted being provided with a never-ending and ever-changing stream of guidelines and recommendations, most of which failed to include their professional input and were inapplicable to the specific realities faced by their students and their families.

Still, the educators we spoke to were full of hope. SEL stood out in helping them navigate these challenging emotions and the multitude of daily stressors that continue to define their lives today.

SEL as a Protective Factor

It became clear in our research that educators are carrying the emotional labor of constant concern for the well-being of themselves, their families, their students and their school communities. They recounted the range of students’ circumstances they have encountered to date: some students struggled more than others with distance learning, some families were impacted more than others by the health and financial consequences of COVID-19, and some students showed greater resilience than others during this time.

Educators responded by identifying students who were having difficulties or not showing up and offering them supplemental support, while also trying to attend to their own self-care and family life. It’s a lot to juggle. Many educators described incorporating SEL practices into their own home routines, while considering how to support the social-emotional needs of their students in the classroom this school year—whether that occurs in-person or remote—despite the pressure they were facing this coming fall from administrators to prioritize academic instruction at the expense of SEL.

Teachers also learned that focusing on SEL helped students who struggled with distance learning and had anxieties around joining Zoom calls and using technology. In response, they offered individual or small-group sessions that were less formal and provided space for personal conversations. As one teacher explained, “Once you establish a relationship with students, they are more prepared to share their feelings. The key is consistency of support—not giving up on them so they know they have that space and are valued and listened to.”

Communication Is Critical

Families and caregivers play a fundamental role in remote learning, and educators have adapted to work closely with them to establish new bonds during this time. The sudden new relationship with families emerged for many as a welcomed consequence of distance learning. With educators entering students’ homes virtually, they discovered, “Parents are starting to realize and appreciate teachers more than four months ago—they are giving feedback on what the teachers are doing to support children, and more kids are saying they want to be a teacher when they grow up.”

Educators also found that these enhanced relationships helped them to be more in tune

with what families needed, and to better understand their students' experiences outside the classroom. For example, parents felt incredibly stressed and overextended during this time, and educators came to understand that they needed to support the social-emotional needs of both parents and students for effective learning.

One educator shared: “I have been working my communication muscles more creatively and remembering how important it is to stay connected to families.”

Another put it this way: “Virtual sessions have also felt like supporting the families as much as the students—parents have talked with me about their own frustrations with virtual learning.”

Another common theme across our focus groups was that most educators have established additional ongoing communication with their co-workers since they went into remote learning mode back in March. Colleagues played a key role in supporting each other to best serve their students. This was particularly important when deprived of opportunities to engage in “hallway” conversations that had previously been a staple—and a bright spot—of the typical school day. We heard examples of school staff setting up virtual happy hours, and many said they felt more emotionally connected to their co-workers than ever before.

That Is, Until We Asked the Education Support Professionals

Few people realize that ESPs make up a third of the entire education workforce (estimated at just over 2 million staff). In our work in schools prior to COVID-19, we were struck by the lack of acknowledgement at scale of ESPs.

As the most proximal service providers to often our highest-need learners, or as the individuals in our school community who have the greatest amount of contact with the entire student body during highly social times—the rides to and from school, during lunch and recess, and in-between classes—excluding ESPs from school programming seemed like a massive missed opportunity to support student growth.

“I feel I'm on an island. I'm not involved in my usual day-to-day functions with students and staff. ... This leaves me not really understanding my role during all of this.”

“Many students see the ESPs as a ‘safe’ person to express their feelings and frustrations to.”

Most of the ESPs reached in our study said they felt overlooked in school reopening plans, most notably feeling frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. When asked to take a moment to think about their experiences of stress and frustration at school and the factors that contribute to these experiences, results were not surprising: a lack of communication, lack of respect from administration, insufficient time, uncertainty, and dismal wages rounded out the sources of stress.

Most ESPs said they had “very little” communication with their colleagues and teams. Special educators also reported less communication with colleagues and teams than general educators.

“I feel I'm on an island. I'm not involved in my usual day-to-day functions with students and staff. Most of the focus is on what needs to be done in the classroom. This leaves me not really understanding my role during all of this.”

An Opportunity for Broader Self- and Social Awareness

We asked educators to identify what they had learned through the close of last school year and what they would be carrying with them as they navigate the coming year.

One educator, reflecting on how the pandemic affected individual students and their families in such a variety of ways, said: “My biggest takeaway was just how different peoples’ positions were.”

The pandemic has disproportionately and differentially impacted households within and between school communities, and educators shared how the past six months had shined a bright light on the diverse experiences and unequal challenges faced by their students, families, and peers.

These varied experiences require social awareness, which includes empathy, a deep understanding of how others are feeling, and what is contributing to their feelings. It also includes the ability to understand others’ perspectives, especially people from a range of backgrounds and cultures.

Although many feelings that educators expressed carried negative valence, they also shared positive words of excitement and gratitude in anticipation of what the new school year would bring, regardless of what it looks like.

Educators also felt proud and inspired by their students’ resilience, and the transition to distance learning helped educators build their own emotional intelligence and enhanced empathy by developing new understandings of family dynamics and deepening relationships with students and colleagues.

“I feel proud of the resilience of the students during this time period—it reinforces why I went into education, and I am hopeful for whatever the unknown is going forward.”

What Can We Do Now?

Educators expressed that they want to feel appreciated, respected, valued, and joyful, and identified their sources of inspiration and joy as their students, colleagues, learning, helping, and families.

The message is clear: To support the whole child through the pandemic, we must center on supporting the whole school community, including and especially our educators and ESPs. SEL training and implementation that includes all of the adults who make up the education ecosystem—in school and at home—must be prioritized in the equation for student success, particularly for our students who learn and think differently.

Look out for a full report later this fall. This research was funded by a grant to Dr. Christina Cipriano from The OAK Foundation (OCAY-19-407). Surveys with ESPs were conducted with the support of the National Education Association (NEA).


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