By: JoJuan Armour

The process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills vital for school, work, and life success, social-emotional learning (SEL) was already well on its way to becoming a key focus for schools before COVID turned our world upside down. As schools and teachers quickly shifted to remote learning and later began rolling out “hybrid” instructional approaches, the need for SEL was amplified to entirely new levels. 

The case for SEL is a strong one. According to Collaborative for Academic, Social,and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL helps young people acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals. It also shows them how to feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. 

Not Just for Students

Right now, much of the conversation is around SEL for students, but we have to remember that teachers also have to be able to manage the impacts of COVID both in and out of the classroom. As the person charged with implementing SEL standards at our school, I use a multipronged approach that includes community partnerships, teacher training, professional development days, and our 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum. 

Working together, these resources help us create an environment for students who become young adults who can make responsible decisions and see the benefit of being self- and socially-aware. As a Title One charter school located in a low-income community, many of our students have unfortunately been affected by COVID and its related impacts on families and the community as a whole. 

3 Success Strategies

We know that we have a huge task ahead of us right now, but as a career-based institution, we’re focused on restorative practices, positive behavior interventions, and multi-tiered levels of support. Put simply, we cater to the emotional needs of our students and our teachers. Here are three approaches that we’re using to support teachers who are struggling with COVID-related burnout or mental health challenges: 

1. Set up a referral system. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that every school/prevention program establish a problem identification and referral system for students. Problem Identification and Referral is one of six Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention (CSAP) strategies. The goal is to identify and refer on if these students need additional supports. Schools should use a similar setup with their own staff members, with a focus on counseling, substance abuse, or some other type of intervention. Having a referral system in place to acknowledge and to assist the students and staff members to resources adds that additional wrap-around support. Everyone faces their own adversity and some fall victim to their own circumstances.  

2. Tap into prevention tools. Our goal is to prevent the onset or use of substances or just illicit lifestyles. To help, I like to use the tool that’s provided by SAMHSA/ OHMHAS (Ohio Department Mental Health & Addiction Services), which have both done a lot of work in this area. They’ve done the research, so why not pull from what has already been identified to help students and teachers out? It only makes sense that we use prevention tools, prevention strategies, and incorporate those in the school setting. This ensures a comprehensive primary prevention program that includes activities and services to meet the needs of the entire population within our school. 

3. Implement professional development. This is an important one. Through my research calling school districts (most of which were in Chicago, or “ground zero” for COVID) that have implemented SEL curriculums, I learned that the buy-in of the teachers was the biggest obstacle. We surprisingly and thankfully haven’t experienced that here, but that’s likely because we’ve done everything possible to ensure an easy and smooth transition to our 7 Mindsets platform. We’re providing lesson plans and using a platform that includes multiple different resources that teachers can use throughout the day. 

Navigating the “New Normal”

As we continue to navigate the complexities of this global pandemic, we’ve seen child abuse hotline calls and reported incidences go down (not necessarily a good sign as incidences are likely still occurring). At the same time, actual incidents—where police, ambulance, or social worker has been called to the scene—are on the rise. 

As teachers work through these issues both on their own and on their student’s behalves, we’ll be equipping them with the tools, knowledge, and technology they need to endure during this difficult time and come out the other side with a brighter outlook for the future.  

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 JoJuan Armour is Student Wellness Director at the Columbus Arts and Technology Academy in Ohio.

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