Why Investing in SEL Now May Be the Key to an Equitable Future

Earlier this year, studies confirmed what many teachers already know: Students have suffered major academic setbacks caused by the pandemic. Research by McKinsey revealed that, on average, K-12 students lost up to four months of math and four months of reading progress in the past school year.

With newly distributed federal stimulus funds on hand now, school districts across the country are preparing to put learning recovery plans into action. The US bailout requires local education agencies (LEAs) to spend at least 20 percent of federal funding on evidence-based initiatives to mitigate the problem. In response, districts are deploying a multi-pronged approach to learning recovery. Summer and after-school programming, tutoring, truancy intervention, teacher recruitment and training, and data systems improvement are all part of the solution.

Perhaps the most vital initiative among them is the focus on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). The mental health crisis among America’s youth precedes the COVID-19 pandemic, with depression and anxiety rising long before the first shutdown. However, the pandemic has only complicated matters. A recent meta-analysis revealed that depression and anxiety in adolescents have doubled since pre-pandemic periods and that mental health challenges have continued to worsen during the pandemic period. Now, one in five young people suffers from anxiety, while one in four suffers from depression.

Research has shown a direct link between students’ mental health and their academic performance, putting SEL at the forefront of learning recovery efforts. A student’s emotional well-being plays an important role in their academic engagement, motivation, and relationships. SEL interventions have been shown to enhance students’ emotional intelligence while reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies also show that SEL programs help students more effectively manage stress and depression, boost self-esteem and encourage positive attitudes about school — ultimately leading to improved academic outcomes.

These benefits are widely recognized by educators; The Promethean State of Technology in Education 2021/22 report found that SEL is the top priority for schools across the country. Consensus about the importance of SEL in state federal funding plans is evident where SEL initiatives feature prominently. It is clear that SEL is fundamental to student success; However, our report also revealed that schools face many formidable challenges on their way to supporting students’ mental health.

The first set of challenges revolve around school budgets. While teachers considered SEL a top priority, the report found that only one percent of schools included SEL in their budgets. With money earmarked for SEL interventions, federal assistance will help correct this controversy. But the report highlights a deeper and longer-term issue: a fundamental imbalance between the school’s goals and budgets. Federal aid will allow schools to fund core SEL programs for now, but until SEL goals are more accurately reflected in school budgets over the long term, stimulus funding will still be a helpful solution.

Our report also found areas of opportunity in district investments in educational technology. Edtech is playing an increasingly important role in the classroom. And with 83 percent of teachers agreeing that technology is a highly effective way to engage students, its ability to facilitate self-directed learning makes it an essential part of a learning recovery solution. In addition to driving collaboration and productive social interactions, innovative education technology can enable personalized learning based on a student’s individual SEL needs to support differentiated educational recovery. Edtech can also free up teacher time to focus less on administrative tasks and more on building relationships with students.

Schools generally agree that learning technology is a high priority – as reflected in their budgets. But some are skeptical about spending money on the most impactful education technology. The report found that more than a third of teachers believe that schools are investing in suboptimal technology solutions. To achieve their learning recovery goals, schools must prioritize the adoption of technology designed to maximize the impact of SEL.

The State of Technology in Education report also emphasized the challenges associated with teacher training. The success of SEL programs depends on teachers’ ability to implement them; Adequate support for teachers is essential. The report revealed that only a small percentage (16 per cent) of employees receive full training. When asked about the lack of teacher support, many respondents (40.4 percent) cited budget issues as the root cause. Half of the teachers surveyed say technical training in the classroom or modern learning technologies, such as SEL, are the highest training priority. But some respondents noted that “any technology professional development is as simple as it can be to save time and money”.

Download the full Promethean report, The State of Technology in Education 2021/2, and speak to the experts.

Overcoming these barriers is critical to our schools – enabling them to address the learning loss associated with the pandemic and overcome deep-rooted educational inequalities. Students from marginalized communities are more likely to experience emotional distress associated with poverty, racism, and discrimination. These students will benefit from SEL interventions designed to provide them with the targeted support they need.

SEL can help schools foster a culture of understanding and acceptance. It can also be used as a framework for understanding bias and confirming the full spectrum of students’ cultures and identities. Through continuous evaluation and improvement, SEL programs can move schools toward more equitable outcomes. Prioritizing SEL means aligning budgets to invest in necessary resources, from SEL-focused technology to teacher training. With a robust SEL program in place, schools can address learning loss while reframing the achievement gap through a new, more nuanced lens for an equitable future.

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