Strategies to Support Learning

I know I must sound like a broken record when I keep returning to social and emotional learning as a pandemic priority… but I found more support in an Education Week piece by Stephanie Jones, “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” [EdWeek]. The Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, she affirms the imperative that teachers and parents work to “help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn.” Jones offers four specific strategies:

  • “Ask questions and listen actively.”

Jones describes the disappointments and traumas of the last two years and the intense pressure that children [and parents] feel about catching up academically. She urges adults to check in with children and have conversations about how they’re feeling.

  • “Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.”

I have always seen value in this approach, but it becomes even more important in times that feel unstable. Jones urges teachers to establish concrete and predictable procedures, and to give students more time when they need it. She encourages families to develop predictable rituals and routines at home, and to invite conversations with prompts like “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” Students need to be seen and heard, especially when they are under stress, and adults need to provide those opportunities.

  • “Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.”

Helping students thrive in the current climate requires more support for emotional development and stability. Jones urges “respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.” She offers several strategies, including journaling, daily greetings, and open discussion about how students are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that students’ readiness to learn is highly correlated with their emotional well-being. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior” [Frontiers in Psychology]. Investing time and energy in the emotional well-being of students ultimately pays off in their learning.

  • “Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.”

Jones asserts that the responsibility to support students and their learning should not depend only on teachers. “Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort” [Op.Cit.]. She suggests that parents share their own feelings and sense of vulnerability, then listen actively and affirm what their children say.

I loved Jones’ closing statements: “…it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do” [Op.Cit.]. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.