Skip to main content

Leveraging Social and Emotional Learning to Support Students and Families in the Time of COVID-19


This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

This is the first in a two-part series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the time of COVID-19. Read Part 2 here.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for social and emotional learning (SEL) was clear: A large body of research has demonstrated the effectiveness of SEL for supporting students’ academic and long-term success. Principals, teachers, researchers, parents, employers, and students themselves have been calling for SEL in education. At the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), we were working closely with districts and states across the country to systemically integrate SEL across classrooms, schools, homes, and community partnerships.

The pandemic has further illuminated the need for SEL to care for ourselves, our students, and their families. COVID-19 has also exposed existing inequities in education and may fundamentally change how we conceive of school. Now more than ever, we must call upon our empathy, resilience, relationship building, and collective resolve as we innovate and rebuild our education systems.

Already, school systems across the country have taken on many innovations while drawing from research-based SEL practices to support students and families during building closures. These include providing developmentally appropriate strategies for understanding and regulating emotions and practicing self-care, guiding families on how to create supportive home environments, and fostering an overarching commitment to creating connectedness across physical distance.

Already, school systems across the country have taken on many innovations while drawing from research-based SEL practices to support students and families during building closures.

“Because of our SEL work, we’re probably better positioned because we know the benefit of relationships and SEL routines and rituals,” said Superintendent Ed Graff of Minneapolis Public Schools, which has been partnering with CASEL since 2017 to implement SEL. “We can leverage SEL now, whether it’s setting up Google Classrooms for morning meetings or reinforcing the importance of connections and relationships,” Graff said.

Before COVID-19, Minneapolis schools had prioritized their partnerships with students and families as a key strategy for supporting SEL. They had met with students and families early on to plan how SEL would look, feel, and sound in their schools. Since school closures began, the district has continued engaging families and students in SEL as part of distance learning plans for elementary, middle, and high schools.

The district’s Jefferson Community School, for example, has adapted its daily morning meeting practice to a virtual format and staggered meeting times throughout the day to allow more flexibility for families who are sharing devices among multiple children. The principal, Holly Kleppe, said she’s heard from families and students that continuing this SEL routine has helped motivate them to attend distance learning for the rest of the day. The team has also created a parent webpage specifically focused on SEL, which includes family activities and resources to use during school closures.

Similarly, Baltimore City Public Schools built upon existing SEL implementation efforts and developed SEL lesson plans aligned with grade groupings and weekly themes around compassion, connection, and courage. Teachers facilitate these lessons, which are sometimes as simple as check-in prompts or mindful breathing techniques, at the start of virtual meeting times with k–12 students. They pair this with virtual professional learning for school staff on how to promote SEL and community building during distance learning. Through weekly webinars, the district SEL team also provides ongoing guidance and answers teacher questions on how to facilitate the virtual SEL lessons. Meanwhile, “wholeness specialists,” who serve as their school’s point person for coordinating SEL implementation, call at least 20 families each day to ensure ongoing touchpoints from the school and conduct Google Classroom “office hours” daily to keep up connections with students.

Establishing these connections is critical right now as districts attempt to reach every student, particularly those who may be most vulnerable to trauma or disengagement.

“The single most important thing we can do right now is to care for our students and families,” said Superintendent Eric Gordon of Cleveland Metropolitan School District, noting that together district staff have contacted every student and family to check in on their mental and emotional well-being. Gordon is counting on these individual relationships to help bring students back when schools reopen. “I know we will make up the learning that we’ve lost.… But we’ve got to check in and make those connections with parents and students. It has to be individualized connections.”

State, district, and school leaders, using a variety of social media, are sharing similar messages with students and families about the importance of SEL during this time, while teachers and counselors have led their own efforts to connect with students and continue SEL programming from afar. And adults aren’t the only ones leading these efforts to connect: In Chicago, students at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School developed a podcast that brings together students, family members, teachers, counselors, and others to discuss strategies for dealing with stress and maintaining relationships.

All of these responses demonstrate how moments of crisis and uncertainty call upon us to express the depths of our social and emotional competence in order to support our communities, including those who may be most harmed by disruptions to schools and work.

But after schools reopen, the embrace of SEL must continue as we grapple with the long-term impact in our schools and communities. One of the biggest priorities we’ve heard from school system leaders is the need to create supportive, responsive learning climates that will ensure students and adults can thrive when they return to schools. This will involve not only developing robust plans for bridging academic learning loss, but also acknowledging and addressing the complex ways in which we experienced the past months.

District leaders are beginning to plan a variety of strategies, including staff-wide professional learning in trauma-informed practices, dedicating the first few weeks to community building and re-engagement activities, and redesigning class assignments to minimize transitions and foster stronger teacher-student relationships. Regardless of the approach, prepared school and district leaders will be paying close attention to the social and emotional needs of both children and adults and intentionally setting up environments that foster belonging and community.

The impact of COVID-19 has also given new perspective to what and how we teach in schools, as well as of the conditions that best support student learning. With all its challenges, distance learning has highlighted questions about how to leverage family partnerships and reenvision classrooms around student-centered instruction. The disruption to our schools and daily lives has underscored that resilience, relationships, agency, and emotional security are not “nice to haves” in education but rather are foundational to learning and productivity.

The pandemic has also called into focus the increasingly global and digital nature of today’s society. Our next generation of leaders will need deep levels of self- and social awareness, dynamic relationship-building skills, and thoughtful decision-making that takes into account the impact of our individual behaviors, systemic challenges, and collective action. While SEL alone will not resolve all the needs of our education system, it will be a key component in helping schools and districts prepare students to contribute to the post-COVID-19 world.