It’s been a rocky few months for Canadian educators. Despite their best efforts, there was no roadmap for a sudden and swift transition to digital learning while schools shuttered across the country.
With the school year drawing to a close, teachers are busy drawing up plans for the fall, including staggered school days, reduced classroom numbers and physical distancing in hallways. A question just as worthy of consideration as how to teach students is what to teach students. We have to recognize that there is no “normal” to return to. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is a mental health crisis among young people that will linger, unlikely to flatten along with the curve as children and teens deal with long-term impacts, from lost loved ones and lost jobs to general anxiety, trauma and grief.
The pandemic and its resultant mental health crisis have exposed holes in our academic priorities for young people. This summer, as we reevaluate education models, we should also examine these priorities. Kids need resilience, emotional awareness, stress management and communications skills.
For years, educators, policy makers and the media have focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist and technologies that haven’t been invented. That focus isn’t going anywhere. But knowing how to solve problems in math or science will only get young people so far if they can’t adequately address their own emotional needs.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) isn’t just another subject; it enables all other learning. It belongs alongside STEM in the pantheon of our curriculums.
“If the brain is under stress, if the brain is not regulated, kids can’t learn,” Maureen Dockendorf, a Superintendent with the British Columbia Ministry of Education, once told our team. “The research has never been stronger. How we feel affects how we learn.”
During the pandemic, a surge of articles appeared on how to bring social and emotional learning into the home. Parents were desperate to foster a sense of meaning, connectedness and belonging in their kids. That work can’t end when in-person classes resume. We need to prioritize the emotional health of students.
There’s an academic argument to be made for this focus as well. Social and emotional learning helps students understand and manage their emotions, develop positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Students who journal, participate in class meetings to solve problems, prioritize teamwork, and practice mindfulness—all staples of SEL—show improved engagement and achievement. They score higher on tests, dropout less frequently, behave better, have fewer mental health concerns and use drugs at lower rates.
Put simply: with a focus on soft skills like relationships and communication, students get better grades and lead better lives.
Dockendorf uses another metric when convincing parents. She asks them rhetorically, “What’s Harvard looking for these days?” Every young person who applies is an A+ student; it takes much more than grades to get accepted. “They want social and emotional competencies, the ability to work as a team, to take risks, to think creatively.”
As we revisit classroom models, it’s the perfect time to revisit curriculums. Social and emotional learning is the future of education.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.