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Five reasons why social and emotional learning is critical to our recovery from Covid-19

As children return to the classroom, schools face unprecedented challenges. In this blog, we outline the reasons why social and emotional learning (SEL) will be an integral part of the recovery phase from the pandemic and highlight why it's particularly needed at this time.

With most school children now back in the classroom for the first time since mid-March, and headteachers and their staff facing truly unprecedented challenges, there has never been a more important time to support children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Surveys and research throughout lockdown have emphasised the negative impacts of the pandemic on children, especially on the most vulnerable. 

Many children will return to school having experienced an increased level of stress, anxiety or isolation. Most will have contended with not seeing friends or family and worries about catching the virus. Some will have had to deal with a parent having lost a job, caring for a sick relative, or the loss of a loved one. Some children will have been exposed to abuse, neglect or family violence. This is far from an ordinary restart of a new academic year. 

There will be pressure on schools to make up for lost time with a strong focus on attainment. But learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Supporting children’s social and emotional skills – their ability to recognise and manage their emotions, to build relationships with peers and adults – will all play a vital role in their recovery from the pandemic. 

Schools know that social and emotional learning (or SEL) is important, with 380 out of 400 schools we surveyed telling us SEL was a priority for them. SEL has been proven to help children’s emotional and social functioning, behaviour and academic performance.  

Now more than ever we need a focus on SEL. These are just five reasons why social and emotional learning is critical to our recovery from Covid-19: 

  1. The impact of school closures and social distancing on children’s academic and social and emotional development may be profound and long lasting. Schools are likely to be faced with increased challenges in relation to conduct problems, emotional distress and difficulties engaging in learning. It is widely recognised that a focus on emotional wellbeing and relationships will be critical to children’s ability to re-engage and learn when they go back to school.
  2. Children have been spending much longer than usual at home, away from their friends and from the school environment. Some will have experienced high levels of family stress. SEL plays an essential role in creating an environment that promotes wellbeing, emotional safety and healthy connections with peers and adults. 
  3. SEL provides the foundation to learning. Teachers recognise that without supporting children’s social and emotional needs when schools reopen, children will struggle to engage in academic learning.  
  4. SEL offers a powerful, evidence-based way for primary schools to support children, and teachers, during this transition and beyond. One of the most commonly used SEL approaches involves the teaching of high quality programmes that teach social and emotional skills. Another approach, which has the potential to work well in the context of COVID-19 and curriculum time constraints, embeds SEL practices into everyday teaching and learning
  5. By prioritising SEL and the emotional needs of children and families, school leadership teams can create nurturing environments and cultivate the empathy, resilience and connection that will help children recover and thrive.

SEL delivers other benefits more generally as well. It’s good for staff. Research suggests it can lead to better teacher–child relationships, lower stress levels, and higher job satisfaction. At a time when findings suggest around 40% of the professionals could quit within the next four to five years, this isn’t an insignificant consideration in itself. 

Covid-19 has heightened our awareness that primarily focusing on children’s academic achievement is not enough and in order to help children reach their full potential, we must support them in strengthening their social and emotional competencies. While SEL alone will not resolve all the current needs within our education system, it will play an essential role in helping prepare children to adapt and flourish during these unprecedented times. 

About the authors

Dr Aleisha Clarke

Aleisha is head of what works, child mental health & wellbeing, at EIF.

Stephanie Waddell

Steph is assistant director for impact and knowledge mobilisation at EIF.

Dr Freyja Fischer

Freyja is a research officer at EIF.