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Perspective | As remote learning continues, educators must prioritize social emotional learning

Remote learning has now solidified in pre-K through 12th grade systems and within the homes of students. Parents routinely ask, “Are you logged on? Did you see your assignment? Are you really in the classroom or are you gaming?” 

The learning curve that has occurred since mid-March remains steep as planning for the 2020-2021 school year occurs. We’ve mastered a variety of virtual platforms, navigated systems, and acclimated to our virtual reality. If you don’t have a few fun backgrounds for your meetings, you have something new to learn!

However, it still feels like a new existence which has begun to fatigue me, because more and more, I’m realizing just how much energy I draw from human interactions at work and from daily outings as a parent. Dinner conversations are frankly boring these days. No drama from the bus. No conflicts with friends to sort out. No misunderstandings that require thoughtful planning. 

While this might seem like bliss to some parents, I see it as weeks of missed experiences my children and every other child needs. I navigate my adult world based on having had to work out problems in my childhood and young adult life, imperfectly even now, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some of my truest friends are those I refer to as “unintentional” or “accidental.” I love having a handful of friends that made me bristle at first because I recognize that they forced me to practice self-reflection, even if I didn’t want to do it in the moment.

Pre-closure, I was very confident in my professional role most days. Now, I’m thrust into a redefining period at least until we know what a return will bring. For educators not to have personal contact with students and each other for more than 10 weeks is difficult. Our daily interactions are energizing to an entire school. We’re in a caring profession, and not being with people is challenging. 

I’ve had many thoughts of where our profession is headed, both school systems in general but also school psychology. Which changes might remain with us when there is a return to normal (or something that resembles normal)? How might remote learning offer a way to alleviate the educational impact of lost instruction for events related to weather, public health, or medical conditions?

We should consider the unintended consequences as well. Many students are missing the daily buffer schools provide for life events that may be traumatizing or unhealthy. For school psychologists and others, remote learning restricts us from reading social cues, picking up on behavioral patterns that help us solve problems, seeing children interact, and completing screenings for self-injury, suicidal thoughts, and threats.

Our thinking must shift into creative problem-solving to match the shift that occurred in mid-March, because this is far from over and is all a delicate balancing act right now. Social emotional learning (SEL), behavioral health, mental health, and school safety are all moving into the forefront as we experience schools prioritizing SEL within a Whole Child framework.

It feels as if North Carolina is truly maturing into an understanding of SEL and a better understanding of why it’s being prioritized in schools. A mindset that moves away from an emphasis on letter grades and test scores to an emphasis on performance feedback and portfolios to support students in understanding their growth and helping them meaningfully engage with their learning is refreshing to see. It is long overdue for reasons of equity in education.

Professional learning for building schools’ understanding of SEL and for conceptualizing how to embed SEL into instructional time is occurring across North Carolina. Specialized instructional support personnel are trained to provide SEL, consult, and coach educators.

It’s becoming clearer that the best academic resources may not reach students who are missing caring connections with educators. I’m not sure “normal” is a word that should be bantered around much anymore, but when I return to my schools and can greet my incredible students in the hallway during arrival, “normal” sure will feel like an old friend.

Leigh Kokenes

Leigh Kokenes is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and the 2019 National School Psychologist of the Year.