As School Goes Online, Educators Cannot Forget Students’ Social and Emotional Learning

As School Goes Online, We Cannot Forget Students' Social and Emotional Learning
“I am disappointed with leaders and educators who want us to push through this pandemic with children as if it is not happening,” writes Jones. “There has been such a focus on trauma and trauma-informed schools—but when trauma is at the door, everyone seems to forget their training.”  (Manycam)

As I read the daily updates from state and local officials and watch the world come undone, I cannot help but to wonder if the rush to online education is more of a trauma response than a solution to the problem of loss of instruction.

The rush to roll out online education magnifies issues of equity and access for students who have been “left behind’ due to a history of disinvestment and structural racism. In some districts online instruction will likely add to, not decrease these issues. 

Much of what I have read is hyper-focused on covering academic content—disregarding the need, particularly during this time when human contact is severely limited, for social emotional learning and restorative practice. The unspoken message is: “Keep working; this will go away.”

This strategy ignores the reality and magnitude of this pandemic and sets us up for a return to “normal”—normal being schools that decenter the social and emotional development of children. The current response does not consider the psychological and emotional safety of our students, which is critical for learning, and coping with the impact of this pandemic.

In my work as a community educator, my goal for all activities is centering the needs and voices of the communities I serve. I host a group chat with high school girls once a week. My interaction with them has helped me understand their experiences and their perceptions of schooling during this COVID-19 pandemic. So many of our students and their families are struggling to hold on during this pandemic, and the state in which I live (Pennsylvania) is expecting at least 800,000 people to file for unemployment.

What they need at this time is clarity, patience and support. During our chats, these young women have shared their uncertainty, their frustration and their fears. While exploring the now is important to them, many of their thoughts and ideas point toward the future and what will be post-COVID-19.  

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Student Thoughts about Online Learning

At this point most students have accepted that online instruction is how they will finish out the school year. They  are nervous about what that means going forward because the information they receive from schools is limited, or confusing.

Some of the girls express concerns that asynchronous instruction will result in lack of teacher interaction and impact their academic performance: “Of course we should still be learning—using our brains, but grades should not count, because we are doing it all on our own.”

For college-bound 11th grade students, their final grades are important because last quarter grades are typically used as part of their college applications: “Juniors are worried they wont have an opportunity to improve their grades before the end of the school year—what about college applications?”

For most of the girls, these questions have gone unanswered creating a great deal of angst. I worry about how grades and assignments have overshadowed the need to process feelings.

When sharing their thoughts about online instruction, a common issue shared by all the girls has been the potential barriers to online education including lack of access to technology and lack of adequate space to engage in online instruction in a meaningful way.

“A lot of us weren’t in home school for a reason, chaotic life at home, no support, lots of people in the house, not enough ipads or materials.”

Lack of access is a huge issue that many districts have attempted to address, but compounding lack of access is lack of space for learning to occur in a meaningful way.

If everybody is home, some students struggle with finding a quiet place to focus and attend to online activities that require their full attention. If no one is home, older students may be expected to support younger students who are also being educated online. It is not as easy as a laptop and an internet connection—these are only solutions to a part of the problem. 

Using Online Learning to Build Community and Support Emotional Growth

To ensure every member of the group has the opportunity to share their feelings and be supported, I have become more intentional about infusing Social and Emotional Learning and Restorative Practices into our online meet-ups. Sessions begin with everyone sharing how they feel. We use the feeling wheel as a tool for developing their feeling vocabulary and to encourage the use of affective statements and self-awareness. We talk about the role of stress and toxic stress in our daily lives—and we laugh with each other.

As School Goes Online, Educators Cannot Forget Students' Social and Emotional Learning
The feeling wheel has six core feelings: mad, scared, joyful, powerful, peaceful and sad. A secondary ring of words helps narrow those feelings down. A third, outer ring gets even more specific. In all, there are 72 adjectives to link to your feelings. (Simplemost)

These discussions build interpersonal skills and facilitate the practice of compassionate witnessing. We slow down the pace, from our focus on community building, to using meeting time as an open forum to discuss what is happening in the world and what the girls need from their schools, communities, and families at this time.

When we focus on personal needs, most of the girls say what they want from their teachers is understanding: “Understand a lot of us are overwhelmed, stressed; parents aren’t working, people we know are getting sick—it’s a lot…and there is not a lot of (academic) learning going on.”

Educators can use similar activities in their online classes and employ the use of Fair Practice to include students in selecting the instructional and social topics and activities that will best serve the class.

I am disappointed with leaders and educators who want us to push through this pandemic with children as if it is not happening. There has been such a focus on trauma and trauma-informed schools—but when trauma is at the door, everyone seems to forget their training. 

During a pandemic, with so much at stake, many of our students are consumed with their grades and educators are happy to support them in this endeavor, hyper-focused on loading assignments into the Google Classroom. We have conditioned educators and children to focus on academics as the sole purpose of education, but it has the potential to offer so much more.

If we continue to discount the value of social emotional learning and restorative practices at this critical moment, we will look back on this time with regret.  The time has come to prepare for and practice supporting students as they cope with the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need to be ready for the frontline work that will be necessary when our students return to the traditional school setting. As we move to online instruction, we must be intentional about incorporating strategies that promote community, healing and well-being into the learning environment. We have the chance now to create our new normal. 

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Dr. Tawanna Jones Morrison is a School Psychologist; founder and Executive Director of we REIGN Inc., a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that centers the lived experiences of Black girls. She is passionate about racial justice, high quality public schools, and culturally competent teacher education. Follow her on Twitter: @jonseyy_all_day