Social Emotional Learning & Why It Matters in the Wake of COVID-19

Social Emotional Learning is critical for success in college and career. Here’s why it matters and how to support mental health during remote learning.

By Dr. Lauren J Bierbaum

Photo by @femtakesphotos for #ByStudents ForStudents

As all of us confront the realities of school closures—likely through the end of the academic year—we are coming to realize that high school students may be losing more than their daily academic routines. Students are just beginning to feel the impact of missing out on milestone events like prom, sports tournaments, spring drama club performances, end-of-year band concerts, graduation parties, and informal opportunities to chill with friends.

These might seem like frivolous concerns to adults, but these events are not just superficial experiences. They can be core to students’ identities. That’s because they’re spaces in which students explore the world with their peers, develop talents, cement relationships, and build social emotional learning skills.


Read these 7 tips for supporting students who have experienced trauma


What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning (SEL) refers to a constellation of skills and mindsets that allow learners to navigate interpersonal relationships, self-regulate their emotions, persist in the face of adversity, and understand their own learning. Social emotional learning is sometimes referred to by other labels, such as:

  • Non-Cognitive Skills
  • Social Emotional Academic Development (SEAD)
  • Executive Functioning
  • Soft Skills
  • Character Development

While there is no single standard definition of social emotional learning, researchers more or less agree on the skills, knowledge, and mindsets that comprise social emotional learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) lays out five core competencies that make up SEL:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Responsible Decision-Making
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Social Awareness


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The Aspen Institute’s SEAD Commission organizes their core social emotional learning competencies into two buckets, but the concepts are closely aligned to CASEL’s:

SEAD Social and Interpersonal CompetenciesSEAD Emotional Competencies
Navigate social situationsRecognize and manage one’s emotions
Resolve conflictsUnderstand the perspectives and emotions of others
Demonstrate respect toward othersDemonstrate empathy
Cooperate and work on a teamCope with frustration and stress
Self-advocate and demonstrate advocacy

At XQ, we relied on experts at CASEL, Aspen Institute, and others to inform our own approach to social emotional learning. Our 5 XQ Learner Goals are organized in a way that lets us talk about Generous Collaboration and Lifelong Learning as core social emotional areas. But those social emotional learning goals are deeply integrated with academic learning, and vice versa.

XQ Learner Goals: Holders of Foundational Knowledge, Masters of all fundamental literacies, original thinkers for an uncertain world, generous collaborators for tough problems, learners for life

Why Is Social Emotional Learning Important?

No matter which definition you use, you can see that social emotional learning consists of a set of skills and mindsets that we all must develop in order to navigate the world around us, build lasting and sustaining relationships, and perform well in school, at work, and in life.

Without social emotional skills, we would struggle to understand what a teacher means when they cross their arms and tap their foot while staring pointedly at our classmate fiddling with an app on a cellphone. Without social emotional skills, we couldn’t plan a surprise party for our best friend. We couldn’t even follow the recipe to bake the cake! We couldn’t collaborate on group projects, learn from our own mistakes, or stand up for what we believe in.

But social emotional learning isn’t only about relationships and emotions. We also need social emotional skills to tackle rigorous academic content, to puzzle through thorny problems, to build and to make, to learn anything new and challenging, and so much more. Social emotional learning is inextricably tied to academic learning, because all those skills—social, emotional, and academic—must work together for any type of learning to occur.

Quote: "Social emotional learning is how we develop our identities as learners and as individuals." From Dr. Lauren J. Bierbaum, Managing Director of Data, Research, and Policy at XQ Institute

Social emotional learning is part and parcel of understanding and succeeding in the world; it’s how we create the mental bandwidth to navigate academic content and relationships and how we make sense of the vast amount of information that comes at us every moment of every day. Social emotional learning is how we develop our identities as learners and as individuals.

Social Emotional Learning in Schools

We know from research in developmental psychology and neuroscience that adolescence is a time of rapid development. The adolescent brain behaves differently from the brains of younger children, but nor does it operate in quite the same way as adult brains. Adolescents are exquisitely attuned to peer dynamics, learning how to assess risk, exploring their own identities, and figuring out their place in the world.

This makes high school the setting for crucial developmental activities. High school is a place where students learn the core academic material that will set them up for college and career. But high school is also a place where students engage with trusted adults—a favorite teacher, coach, or counselor.

Research tells us that these types of relationships bolster healthy development in adolescence. The presence of even a single grown-up to whom a teen feels they can go to for support or whom they can ask for guidance, is a protective factor for adolescents as they begin to understand what it means to live independently themselves.

This is why XQ schools—including Latitude High in Oakland, CA—have strong advisory models in which every student has an adult dedicated to knowing them well as a whole person, not just in terms of their classwork or grades. According to Latitude, Advisory is where students:

  1. build important relationships
  2. develop their socioemotional skills, including a focus on well-being
  3. explore their interests and create a sense of purpose for the future

High school is also a setting in which students nurture relationships with their peers. We all joke about the perils of peer pressure, but peers really do have great influence on each other in adolescence. High school students are learning—every day—how to navigate relationships with peers in ways that are new (or newly salient) compared to their relationships in childhood.

Certainly romantic relationships are part of this, but it’s not just about dating. Adolescents also learn how to collaborate effectively for group projects, listen empathically as their friends confront new struggles, and resolve conflict productively when friends (and frenemies) disagree.

Communication becomes more critical to peer relationships than ever, in the absence of adults mediating on behalf of children. If you’re six years old and you want to hang with your friends, your caregiver sets up a playdate. If you’re 16, however, asking for time and support from peers is something you learn to do all on your own.

And, it’s important to note, peer pressure is not only negative. Young people are highly attuned to the judgments, likes, and dislikes of their peers, which means adolescents can influence their friends to engage in positive behaviors just as much as they can pressure them to partake in dangerous behavior. 

At Círculos, all students belong to learning circles. These small groups of teachers and students operate as learning communities which support each individual student within a close-knit group of peers and mentors. Within their circles, peers push each other to succeed, and work together to build the kinds of supports they need to excel. Peer pressure within a Círculos learning circle works to help students along the path to college and career, not hinder them.

Finally, high school is the setting within which adolescents develop, explore, and solidify their own identities. You might think of “identity” as something wholly internal to a person’s psyche. But identities actually form within social spaces; identity development is not just about who you are in a vacuum.

Identity does include your sense of self, of course. But it also entails learning about where to find your place in the world. And that larger world is populated by other people, some of whom you will identify with, some of whom you will distinguish yourself from. But regardless of which groups you identify with you will learn from every social interaction you have. Only within the social space can you figure out how to be yourself as an individual and as a member of a larger society.

Crosstown High in Memphis leverages the process of adolescent identity development in order to help its students embrace the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that Crosstown requires students to master in order to graduate. Crosstown does not merely tell students, “You will master mathematical concepts” or “You will be a self-directed learner.”

Instead, Crosstown articulates its twelve competencies as statements of identity:

  1. I am a self-driven, self-directed inventor of my own learning path
  2. I am a data-based problem solver and mathematical thinker
  3. I am a critical reader
  4. I am a curious sense-maker
  5. I am generative and creative thinker and designer
  6. I am a compelling writer, speaker, and creator
  7. I am a reflective builder of self-knowledge
  8. I am a self-aware team member, essential, co-creator, and talent-seeker
  9. I am an intentional champion of my own wellness
  10. I am a proactive and purposeful community member
  11. I am a holder of foundational historical and cultural knowledge
  12. I am a fully engaged citizen

Some of these competencies are more obviously related to social emotional learning (for example, being a self-aware team member or developing self-knowledge). But all twelve competencies interact to support academic, social, and emotional development.

For example, a curious sense-maker must mobilize social emotional skills to cultivate feelings of curiosity, but must also have core content and academic challenges to apply that curiosity to. Furthermore, by presenting each competency as an “I am” statement, Crosstown makes it clear that their students will develop identities that have these competencies baked into a sense of who students are, and how students want to show up in the world.

In this way, Crosstown honors the integrative nature of social emotional learning and academic learning. From the very first time a student walks through Crosstown’s doors, they’re treated as both an individual who will master these competencies, and as a member of a community that is organized around the values that those competencies represent.

What Can Schools Do to Support Social Emotional Learning During COVID-19 School Closures?

Social emotional learning is critical to adolescent development, and social emotional learning requires—as its name implies—social ecosystems. So, what can schools do to support students’ social emotional learning after COVID-19 prompted school building closures across the nation and ultimately, disrupted everyone’s social interactions?

First and foremost, staying in touch—even if adolescents cannot gather in person—will help mitigate the challenges of social distancing. Our friends at Common Sense media have compiled a list of recommended communication tools and a list of learning apps that encourage peer collaboration that can support adolescents in feeling connected to the adults and peers they are accustomed to seeing every day.

CASEL has compiled a set of resources for educators, families, and students themselves that support social emotional learning during times of social isolation. CASEL recommends a number of actions that adults and adolescents can take in order to promote positive social emotional development. These include:

  • Practicing self-care to manage anxiety and to create bandwidth to support others who are also struggling with isolation, disrupted routines, and additional stressors.
  • Seeking and activating solutions, such as promoting health behaviors like handwashing, setting a good example for younger siblings on stress management, and providing research and recommendations from trusted sources to their peers via online social networking, in order to support teens’ feelings of agency and self-efficacy.
  • Creating consistency by having adolescents help set an at-home schedule for learning, physical activity, household responsibilities, and social time.

In XQ’s home state of California, the Department of Education (CDE) has issued guidance to schools on how to transition to effective remote learning. CDE’s statement on what constitutes high-quality pedagogy and practice in online learning environments is full of suggestions for providing integrated social, emotional, and academic support. For example, CDE recommends that online coursework incorporate more of:

  • Collaborative group work to support peer-to-peer learning in both the social emotional and academic domains
  • One-on-one time between teacher and students using online office hours to cement relationships
  • Hands-on activities that support exploration and creativity for students to do offline 
  • Formative assessments such as report-outs and more formal presentations that provide students an opportunity to “show what they know” while building verbal communication skills

At XQ, we are also thinking and learning from others about ways to create virtual spaces that mimic the social spaces to which students have lost access to in the wake of COVID-19 school closures. Students can’t re-enter their school buildings right now, but that doesn’t have to mean that they must lose the opportunities that are traditionally housed in those buildings. 

Here are some examples:

Can’t have a…Have this instead!
Sporting eventDesign challenge, online game tournament, or other friendly competition amenable to remote learning environments, managed by school faculty and coaches
Drama club production or band concertScheduled stream of plays, musicals, and concerts that all students can attend via video conference (see PBS’s listings for a sample of what’s available)
In-class final examsPortfolios and performance tasks that generate artifacts of learning that students can upload for teachers—and possibly peers or community experts—to review
Senior promDedicated Instagram account for seniors to post photos of themselves in their dresses and tuxes, and a curated prom playlist for students to dance to (or complain about!) at home
Graduation ceremonyIn addition to setting up virtual ceremonies to honor the Class of 2020, schools can also make use of NPR’s archive of commencement addresses

Making Social Emotional Learning Opportunities Equitable

So much of the guidance to families, schools, and students about transitioning to remote learning and maintaining social distance presumes that students have internet access, safe and accessible physical space, and family support to continue learning at home. But we know that many—perhaps most—students lack the infrastructure they need to continue their school experiences from home.

The challenges that high school students face in pursuing academics during social distancing also impact students’ social emotional learning. In order to make sure that students have what they need for all their learning—social emotional and academic alike—communities have started thinking about ways to increase access and maintain social cohesion.

Public libraries have closed their doors, but they’ve left their public WiFi on so that, transportation and weather permitting, students can hop on those signals when they need to transmit schoolwork or check in with friends. Schools have transitioned to food distribution centers to make sure students don’t miss breakfast and lunch—because we know hungry students have trouble learning. Educational publishers are making books and reading guides more readily available, and suspending restrictions that usually prevent teachers from distributing digital or photocopies.

We have seen states and districts remobilize WiFi-enabled school buses as rolling hotspots to provide internet access. Districts have partnered with tech companies to get hotspots and devices to thousands of students. And internet service providers have made access more available—at least temporarily—to ensure that families without home internet can get online at least as long as school buildings remain closed.

But there are also old-school ways to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development in this moment:

  • Educators: Call your students or their caregivers to make a connection, reinforce your commitment to their learning, assess needs, and set up touchpoints that don’t require the internet.
  • Families: Think about letter-writing to loved ones near and far, in order to maintain emotional well-being but also to build writing skills.
  • Students: Don’t be afraid to document your experiences—for others to read or privately for yourself—by journaling, taking photographs, drawing, or otherwise translating feelings into artifacts. And regardless of how you approach your own learning at this time, keep front of mind the needs and solutions for our friends, peers, neighbors, and family members who may be challenged by lack of technology, limited mobility, and extreme isolation.

Staying the Course on Social Emotional Learning

COVID-19 has upended our daily routines, our expectations for what the next few weeks (or months) will look like—and most importantly—our social spaces. But, by being a little bit clever, a little bit flexible, and a little bit creative, schools can find ways to support adolescents in social emotional learning even in a time as discomfiting and disrupted as we find ourselves in right now.

We can—and we must—find new ways to support social emotional learning for adolescents. The events that followed the COVID-19 pandemic—and any challenge we face—makes social emotional development all the more important for young people who must weather such challenges and come out the other side as resilient, agentic, efficacious young adults.