Social-Emotional Learning is paramount during COVID-19

Mommy is everything all right–why do you look so sad? Many of you may have heard a child, grandchild, niece or nephew, or friend’s child, say something like this of late. Possibly, you also may have observed your 4-year-old being “clingy”  or your 10-year-old having nightmares more frequently than in the past.

As adults, sometimes the easiest response is is to say, “I’m fine, everything’s ok; I was just thinking.” Is that the best way to handle these situations, particularly while your family is sheltering at home during a worldwide pandemic?

The truth is, this is a time in which parents/caregivers are feeling considerable stress. Whether you are “fortunate,” to be able to work from home, or are an essential worker who is putting his life, and those of his family on the line, there is much to worry about currently, and no reason why children should feel any different than adults. Children, even teens, are not little versions of adults (even if they may tell you they are!).

Social-Emotional Learning

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in the U.S. since 1949, an opportune time to understand something about Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) referred to also as Social-Emotional Intelligence or Social-Emotional Health. SEL encompasses a set of competencies and processes through which children (and importantly adults) understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Child development research suggests that SEL is essential in life, supporting outcomes such as success in school, college entry and completion, and later earnings.

SEL is increasingly viewed as an important component of formal education. Educators argue that these skills can be taught, and nurtured, increasing school-age children and youth’s abilities to integrate thinking, emotions, and behavior, in ways that lead to positive school outcomes. As a result, a variety of activities for children from preschool through high school, are available, and consultants abound who are interested in infusing the school curriculum with these ideas. A recent Education Week shows the significant role that the formal education arena is playing, and the challenges and opportunities the sector faces in trying to teach social-emotional learning with most U.S. students out of school this spring. Headlines state the urgency and concern of school officials and policymakers about ensuring the social and mental well-being of students during this period.

These alarm bells from schools ignore that SEL is a set of free-choice learning skills that most people learn (and most certainly, learn to apply), not in a classroom, but in daily life. Yes, SEL may help your child do well in school, but these skills are essential to becoming healthy, happy and fulfilled adults. Like us, children are experiencing loss and grief. They are feeling stressed and are likely worried about their health, and that of their family, friends and teachers. Even though we have adapted fairly well, it is not a typical experience to have all of society abruptly stop. What better time to be aware of these skills and to focus on them intentionally, but lightly, with your children, and yourselves, than during a period of uncertainty and stress?

Two important points to remember. First, by saying this I am in no way trying to diminish the role that schools can play in laying out basic social-emotional competencies. However, as John Falk, Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, suggested in his recent blog post – perhaps supporting and applying SEL skills could be more effectively handled by others outside of the formal education sector (parents/caregivers in the home, faith organizations, public health agencies, and so on).

Second, although I mentioned SEL in the context of Mental Health Awareness Month, in and of itself, SEL is not a mental health issue. Rather SEL is a set of adaptive skills that, as I described earlier, allow children and adults to cope with their emotions, plan and achieve goals, feel and express empathy for others, create and maintain positive relationships, and make appropriate decisions. Emotions, when understood and handled well, are healthy; even the anxiety described earlier is not an entirely bad thing. Feeling anxious is an adaptive response that evolved to protect humans in unknown situations. Feeling this emotion is a regular part of life and different from receiving a psychiatric diagnosis for an anxiety disorder. Such a diagnosis requires medical interventions of some kind.

Telltale Signs

I am suggesting things to notice about your children’s behavior at various ages that are important for you to be aware of, and track, and perhaps even discuss with them. These are behaviors that may be indicators of an increase in their anxiety or fears.

· Preschoolers being more clingy is a typical sign of anxiety. Other signs could be changes in sleep and appetite, a return to behaviors common to younger children, for instance, bedwetting, or becoming irritable, angry, or destructive, in atypical situations.

· Children, ages 6-12 may show less interest in family, friends and fun activities or struggle with tasks that generally are easy, complaining of physical problems or developing new fears, can all be warnings to which to attend.

· Adolescents (Ages 13-18), may become more withdrawn or even sad, have physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, have lost interest in hobbies and peers or be having nightmares, or other sleep problems.

· Children with special needs Times of uncertainty also can be an extremely difficult time for children with special needs, particularly those who already suffer from anxiety or fear. Their responses will depend on the child’s developmental level and their ability to communicate their needs. However, depending on their age, they may display symptoms or behaviors similar to the ones described for their same-aged peers.

Not every child is stressed in the same way, but what’s important to realize is that what adults find challenging right now is likely magnified tenfold for them. One potential new stressor may be information overload; children are now working online for school, communicating with friends through Messenger Kids and perhaps watching more television and videos, and sometimes trying to do all these things at the same time.

Free-Choice learning to the rescue

Just as with yourself, helping children find balance with their activities, letting them know that they do not have to respond to every message they get or connect to all of the friends they hear from can be comforting. Talking to them in age-appropriate ways about their fears and anxieties, as well as yours, can also be affirming. Learning how to write/make art, or do yoga or meditate together as a way to relax, can also be a wonderful free-choice learning activity! Talking as a family about scheduling quiet “alone” time for members to do whatever they want—take a nap, read for pleasure, practice yoga or meditation, write, make art, also can be reenergizing.

Above all else, right now, children’s (and your) social-emotional health is paramount—more important than jobs, school or other demands. Paying attention to the messages your children, and you, are communicating about social-emotional health may be the best thing you do today!

Lynn Dierking, Ph.D.

Senior Researcher

Institute for Learning Innovation

Posted May 11, 2020