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Schools have always taken on responsibilities that go beyond teaching history, English, or math. They are an important part of the communities they serve and an integral part of the lives of the students they teach. That‘s part of why schools have historically taught kids everyday life skills alongside important academic skills.

One set of life skills that are especially important right now involves something called social and emotional learning.

While it isn‘t a new idea, social and emotional learning is something that will be more useful than ever as kids return to classrooms after COVD-19 and during this stage of the global pandemic.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an educational concept that helps kids gain skills in important areas beyond math, reading, and other core school subjects. SEL helps kids identify their feelings, understand and communicate with others, build strong relationships, and make good, empathetic decisions.

SEL focuses on a set of life skills kids need to understand themselves and communicate with others. For instance, SEL teaches kids ways to improve their:

Through SEL, kids can gain a better understanding of themselves and of the people around them. They can gain the skills and knowledge that will help them understand their emotions, develop their identities, and set goals.

In an important 2011 study, researchers conducted one of the largest and most comprehensive reviews of SEL. They reviewed 213 studies that included over 270,000 students and found, among other things, that participating in SEL programs improves students‘ performances in their classes. It also has a lasting impact on students and on school communities.

Emotional intelligence, sometimes called emotional quotient (EQ), is the ability to manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of others.

People with a high EQ are able to communicate their emotions. They can take actions to resolve emotions such as anger or stress. They‘re also able to work well with others and build strong relationships based on empathy and understanding.

There are four key elements of emotional intelligence.

  • Self-awareness. People who have high self-awareness recognize their own emotions. They understand the ways their emotions affect their motivations and actions.
  • Social awareness. People with high social awareness are very empathetic. They understand the needs, emotions, and concerns of other people. They are skilled at picking up on social cues and social dynamics.
  • Self-management. Self-management is the ability to control impulses and behaviors. People with high self-management skills are also great at sticking to commitments and adapting to change.
  • Relationship management. Creating and maintaining strong relationships with others is an important life skill and is one of the key elements of emotional intelligence. People with strong relationship management skills are excellent at communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork.

Emotional intelligence is important in every area of life. Giving them the tools and education they need to strengthen their EQ benefits kids in a variety of ways.

Additional benefits of SEL include improvements in:

  • relationships at home and at school
  • empathy
  • self-esteem
  • self-awareness
  • communication skills
  • positive thinking patterns
  • problem-solving
  • stress response
  • mood
  • motivation

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in the United States and across the world. While we have all faced disruptions to our daily routines and lives, children have faced some of the largest changes.

Remote learning made school possible during the pandemic. Kids with certain educational and learning styles saw some benefits from remote learning. However, for many other school-aged kids and teens, this disruption was incredibly difficult.

The pandemic didn‘t just mean the loss of classroom learning and the adjustment to a remote school day.

Schools provide community services that go far beyond academics. For instance, kids went without the social structure school attendance provides. Daily peer interaction, athletics, arts activities, field trips, school dances, graduations, and other events simply weren‘t available.

Kids with unsafe and unstable home lives were unable to escape to the safety of school during the day. Additionally, 22 million American children rely on free school lunch programs. Many of these children faced increased food insecurity during the pandemic without access to a school lunch.

Children also faced the stress of the pandemic itself. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of June 2021, over 140,000 children in the United States had lost a parent, grandparent, or caregiver to death from COVID-19. Many other kids watched relatives battle the virus.

Other kids might have been in constant fear of a relative contracting COVID-19. A parent‘s job loss, lockdowns, and the unpredictability of the pandemic are just a few of the other factors that many kids have been dealing with over the past few years.

So it‘s no wonder that the United States is seeing a youth mental crisis. Data gathered since the start of the pandemic has demonstrated a sharp rise in kids of all ages seeking mental health care:

  • In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children‘s Hospital Association declared a state of emergency in national child and adolescent mental health.
  • Between March 2020 and October 2020, mental health related emergency room visits spiked 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent for children ages 12 to 17.
  • In 2020, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children‘s Hospital of Chicago surveyed 1,000 parents around the country. 71 percent of parents felt the pandemic had a negative impact on their child‘s mental health and 69 percent called the pandemic the worst thing that had happened to their child.
  • In a 2020 survey of high school students, nearly a third of respondents said they felt much more unhappy and depressed than usual.

As kids return to school, SEL programs will be especially important. Kids have been through a hard few years. Many will need extra support. SEL programs are ideal for providing that support.

SEL programs can help kids manage the overwhelming stress and emotional impact of COVID-19 and can help them readjust to the school environment.

You can use SEL in a number of ways. Some teachers choose to incorporate it into their classrooms throughout the school year. There are ways to work using SEL monthly, weekly, or even as part of daily teaching.

For instance, one key component of SEL is helping kids identify the emotion they‘re feeling that day. Teachers can use age-appropriate tools and journaling prompts to have children do a quick daily assessment of their own feelings.

More time-intensive SEL activities include:

  • writing prompts about fears, goals, and problems
  • reading passages from diverse perspectives and discussing them empathetically as a class
  • theoretical problem-solving activities
  • teamwork activities

SEL can be a powerful tool to help kids learn everyday social skills and emotional intelligence. These skills can improve how kids perform in the classroom and improve their interactions with other people. They can also improve their self-esteem.

SEL and emotional intelligence have always been highly important, but this educational tool will be more important than ever as kids return to the classroom after COVID-19.

The pandemic has been rough on the mental health of kids of all ages, and the skills taught in SEL programs are a powerful way schools can support their students as they readjust.