Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has gained popularity among schools and school districts in recent years, and in light of the events over the past four months, the call for increased attention on the mental, social, and emotional wellness of students has spread throughout the country. Focusing on the mental and emotional development of our students with the same vigor as we focus on their academic development has always been a foundational aspect of Thrival Indy Academy, so when Governor Holcomb announced that school buildings would be closed for the remained of the 2019-2020 school year, I got right to work planning SEL activities for our incoming ninth graders. I made a list of mindfulness resources for teens, reached out to our partner at Haven Yoga Studio about focusing our wellness curriculum on healing the trauma our students experienced because of the pandemic, and began revising our advisory curriculum in order to give space and time for our students to process how this crisis has impacted their mental and emotional health.
And then I came across a post on social media which immediately disrupted my plans. The post pointed out that forcing students to sit in restorative circles and discuss how this pandemic has hurt them is retraumatizing and counterproductive to the needs of the young people we serve. Our inclination as educators who care about the well-being of our students is to offer opportunities for our students to talk through their feelings, and in doing so, we may feel that we are being responsive to their needs, especially during this time. Is this really what our students need, though? During a time when we all are inundated with rhetoric, propaganda, and sensationalism surrounding this very real global health crisis, schools, whether in virtual or physical setting, the best thing schools can do for our students’ mental and emotional health is to offer structure, consistency, and rigorous academics.
By no means am I arguing for schools to abandon their SEL curricula; at Thrival Indy, we will continue to engage our students in wellness curriculum, which includes The Mindfulness Journal for Teen: Prompts and Practices to Help You Stay Cool, Calm, and Present. Rather, we must consider how our policies and practices support or deteriorate our students’ (and staffs’) wellness. Circle talks about the impact of COVID-19 can only go so far when our students have no basic understanding of exponential functions, a limited vocabulary to articulate their thoughts, and misinformation about how viruses thrive. Reminding our students of all that they have missed out on over the past four months might trigger reactions of students that most schools are ill-equipped to manage. Instead of triggering our students, let’s arm them with the knowledge and skill set it takes to combat this pandemic and the language to express their mental and emotional state, both during and well beyond this moment of crisis.
As schools and students inevitably oscillate between in-person and remote or virtual learning, leadership teams must be relentless with their commitment to providing structure and consistency to their students and staff. When planning schedules, we must ask ourselves if the routine is sustainable. Will teachers experience burnout? Will parents become overwhelmed? It
is also important that we create schedules which can easily translate from one medium to the other. As educators, we understand how a disruption in a child’s routine, particularly when it comes to exceptional learners, negatively impacts social and emotional wellness as well as academic performance. We should absolutely be ambitious in our efforts to educate students this first quarter, and we have to be mindful of how every decision we make impacts our students, staff, and their families.
From a global health pandemic to a national public health epidemic, next week I will discuss the role schools should play in addressing and dismantle the pervasive systems of racism and white supremacy in this country.
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India Hui is the Founding School Leader and CEO of Thrival Indy Academy, an IPS Innovation High School.