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Social Emotional Learning: Making the Most of the Shifts

By Laurie Forrester
Social Emotional Learning: Making the Most of the Shifts

CASEL Framework: The CASEL 5 addresses five broad and interrelated areas of competence and highlights examples for each: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. (

As we wrap up the school year, another one with variable COVID-induced conditions for most, it is opportune to reflect on how our work has necessarily shifted. How have schools pivoted to meet the needs of students and families in the last year? What have we learned about ourselves, our students, and our supports in complex times?

One way to visualize three shifts in social and emotional learning (SEL) since March 2020 is with the CASEL framework of Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) was founded in 1994 with the mission of making SEL an integral part of education from PK through high school. This framework fosters knowledge, skills, and attitudes across five areas of competence and multiple key settings. We can frame the shifts in the key settings. Many schools base their core counseling curriculum on these competencies. 

The first two shifts are in SEL instruction and classroom climate and schoolwide culture, practices and policies placed in the first two concentric circles around the competencies. The counseling curriculum, pre COVID, was largely delivered through face-to-face counseling classes and advisory programs. These meetings continue to happen in distance learning through synchronous classes online, facilitated by the counselor.  Many schools have prioritized social and emotional learning, requiring some type of synchronous class/community meetings or advisory at all grade levels. Classroom teachers now have a daily, active role leading these meetings with activities from all five areas of competency. Teachers are collaborating with counselors, planning and facilitating group discussions and activities that promote connections among peers, and identifying and guiding students to: recognize and regulate feelings and emotions, develop a growth mindset, develop empathy, compassion, openness and curiosity.

The third shift has occurred in the next concentric circle, Authentic Partnerships with Families and Caregivers.  These partnerships have been reinvigorated during distance learning.  In Pre-COVID days, parents were kept abreast of topics covered in counseling classes through presentations by division counselors and class newsletters.  During quarantine and distance learning, parents are not only aware of what students are talking about in counseling classes and community meetings, but they are listening to and sometimes participating in the classes. They are having in-depth conversations with their children in the many hours they are together in quarantine. While they teach their children at home, they talk about COVID-19 facts, what is in our control during the pandemic and resulting quarantine, staying safe and healthy, and connecting with people we love.  All the while parents are modeling these behaviors at home.  Parents have reached out to teachers with information about how their child is managing school from home, observations on the parent/child relationship while the parent is also the teacher as well as input about peer relationships. They have asked for feedback and advice from teachers, keeping the lines of communication between home and school open and positive. 

Many resources are available to support and strengthen this collaborative work. Trusted organizations such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Child Mind Institute and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offer a plethora of COVID-19 related resources for parents and educators attempting to understand behavior-related signs of anxiety, depression, and trauma and as they talk to children about the pandemic, helping them process their feelings.  A common thread in these resources, and a further sign of the strengthening of the partnership between school and home is that of self-care for adults. The example of the rule of air travel of the adult putting on the oxygen mask first (in an airplane emergency) has been used time and again to emphasize the importance of taking care of ourselves before we attempt to take care of others. Adult self-care practices are positive models for children as well.

The new school year will undoubtedly look different than the present one.  Our job is to encourage teams of students, parents, and educators to collaborate as they observe and evaluate the shifts in the new scenario.  New questions arise: What changes will we keep? In doing this we will meet the social and emotional needs of our stakeholders.

Laurie Forrester is the elementary counselor for students in grades 3, 4, and 5 at Lincoln School, Argentina. She has a long history at AEL in the areas of counseling and learning support and has worked in schools in Virginia (USA) and Colombia.

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