Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom and Teaching During COVID

Cindy has been a family friend for as long as I can remember. Her daughter Lauren and I attended the same elementary school together, watched her little brother grow up from babyhood to current adolescence, and have celebrated nearly every birthday with her parents and mine over burgers and ice cream sundaes. In all that time, Cindy has taught kindergarten and entertained us with stories - hilarious, sweet, and thought-provoking all at the same time - about her latest class of kids. Lauren and I even volunteered as teaching aids for several summers in her classroom and left with stories of our own. 

However, when Cindy and I sat down this week to discuss her latest experiences teaching online due to COVID-19, I found her stories completely unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I interviewed Cindy not because she is a family friend or because she had fantastic stories to tell and years of experience teaching young children, although all of those things are true. Rather, teachers and their personal health, safety, and perspectives on current times and shifting trends in education have rarely been covered in the media. Justifiably, most of the coverage has focused on the impact of COVID on students, especially those who come from low-income neighborhoods and families of color, and how the pandemic has “uprooted their whole stability of school and community,” as Cindy described.

Yet rarely do we hear from teachers like Cindy who are teaching those very children. In fact, Cindy teaches in Long Beach where many of her families are bilingual English-Spanish speakers or who only speak Spanish. Cindy, luckily, is fluent in both, but a sizable number of parents are not computer literate. She has spent many hours helping every family log onto Google Meets and maneuver the district’s system to turn in student work. “Even though our district is working really hard to make technology accessible to all our children”, she said, noting her students’ Chromebooks and Hotspots they were given earlier in the school year, “it is still really difficult for parents.” 

It is also incredibly difficult for teachers such as Cindy who are navigating online teaching for the first time, and on top of that, instructing five year olds who long to be active and require considerable amounts of supervision, arguably even more so than in standard teaching. In the last half of the spring semester, she described the difficulties of keeping her kids’ attention, changing the activities constantly to keep them engaged, and even dealing with children who would not show up on time, whose laptops died, or whose Internet went out in the middle of class. All this occurred in the middle of innumerable distractions that swayed their attention from the lesson - pets, noise, and even parents who would whisper answers to their children offscreen. One day, a power outage occurred in Cindy’s neighborhood and she had to call every single household explaining why her class had ended without warning. Despite all these challenges, however, one of the saving graces for Cindy has been the district’s emphasis on social-emotional learning in the curriculum. 

Social-emotional learning has become a crucial aspect of child development, not just in education but also in social work and other fields that work specifically with children and childhood trauma. The field is wide and vast in its definition and areas of focus, but it primarily helps children understand, regulate, and express their emotions in healthy ways; make responsible decisions; and develop empathy for others. Lack of positive social-emotional development and an over-stimulus of childhood trauma has even been linked to the development of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders later in life. 

This ongoing pandemic has been an arguably traumatic event, especially for young children who may not entirely understand what is happening around them or what they hear on the news. In response, Cindy’s district “gathered our psychologists and therapists who put together a social-emotional learning component” for teachers with videos, slides of stories and picture books, mindfulness lessons, and even movement activities such as stretching and yoga. “Kid yoga - can you believe it?” she said with a laugh. It surprised her how well the kids took well to the new SEL component that allowed them to open up, express their feelings, and understand how empowered they truly are, even during a time when everything is constantly changing course. Especially in the wake of police brutality and the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Cindy understands the cruciality of allowing her kids to vent, discuss, or just simply exist in a safe virtual space outside of a divided and unpredictable world. 

“Who’s got time to add another 15, 20 minutes to their day when you need to teach them how to write?” she said. “But if the kids aren’t ready to write because they’re worried about what’s going on outside…that’s more important, you have to deal with that.” 

With Cindy’s new district-mandated training - which includes modules on new curriculum content tailored to online learning and a thorough overview of the district’s online management systems - and her incoming class of kindergarteners, she could not be more excited for the online fall semester starting September 1st.  Yet she still has concerns, mainly with technology and how well her kids will thrive and connect with her as a teacher in this new virtual setting. For kids, especially those at the young age Cindy teaches, learning online is “like you’re looking at a television show, so you don’t make the connection” that is so crucial to form between teachers and students. The district has arranged for the kids to visit Cindy’s physical classroom the day before school starts to pick up their books and greet her in person, which she hopes will help her kids adjust to online classes. However, it is without a doubt an uncharted territory, as last year’s kids had the benefit of already knowing her in-person before switching online. For this new class of kids, however, this will be their first time in school ever. 

So, I asked her, “What can we do as parents and families of students to better support teachers during this time?” Cindy’s answer? “Have your kids up, make sure they have their breakfast, make sure they’re dressed, have them on a schedule the same way they would be for in-person learning. And be patient!” she added. “Because we’re learning, too.” 

by Sofía Aguilar, Inner Flower Child Intern

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