The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning Post-Pandemic

By: Sadie Janes

            In the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Warren wrote that education “is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.”[1] The Chief Justice goes on to write that, when it is made available, education must be provided on equal terms.[2] A significant amount of the legislation passed since the Brown decision focuses on providing the aforementioned benefits of education equally.[3] However, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is exceedingly difficult to help children adjust normally to our new environment. It is even more difficult to do so when the impact of the pandemic has been so unequal.[4] One possible way to combat this inequality is to emphasize social and emotional learning in schools across the country.

            Social and emotional learning (SEL) is “the process of acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to recognize and manage emotions; developing caring and concern for others; making responsible decisions; establishing positive relationships; and handling challenging situations capably.”[5] Ideally, educating the whole child — not just academically, but socially and emotionally — fosters resilience and enables students to succeed in spite of difficult circumstances. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools were already implementing social and emotional learning policies to better support children who were exposed to violence, crime, abuse, homelessness, food insecurity, and a range of other potentially traumatizing experiences.[6] Children are best able to learn and succeed academically when they feel safe and supported. Therefore, one aspect of implementing SEL policies is focusing on providing supports rather than utilizing punitive discipline.[7] SEL also emphasizes positive relationships, like those between a student and a trusted teacher.[8] It helps to have continuity in relationships and predictability in routines, so moving groups of children up from one grade to the next with the same teacher or creating small learning communities can both be valuable strategies.[9] Of course, explicit instruction in social and emotional skills is also valuable when implementing SEL in a school.[10]

            While the universal approach of adding elements of SEL to curriculum of entire schools will benefit large swaths of students, a more particularized approach is also necessary. While COVID-19 spreads, some students are losing loved ones, having parents lose jobs, and are forced to spend more time in households rampant with abuse, neglect, or food insecurity. Therefore, students whose trauma was introduced or exacerbated during the pandemic should receive Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). The Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) currently entitles students with disabilities to these individualized programs and services, but none of the existing disability categories in the Act mention trauma specifically. [11] However, traumatized students need individualized programs to supplement the social and emotional skills needed to be successful. Our educational system was established before the Brown decision, the IDEA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was established to implement mass education on an assembly-line model meant to prepare students for their “places in life”—judgments made within the context of racial, ethnic, economic, and cultural prejudices.”[12] Modern education should endeavor to meet students where they are and provide better long-term outcomes than the assembly-line model of the past.

            One proposed solution is to add a new trauma-specific subcategory to the Emotional Disturbance designation in the IDEA.[13] Proponents of this solution make the case that the term “emotional disturbance” present in the IDEA is too vague, so it is unclear to educators which students are eligible.[14] Often, students with trauma are going undetected and do not receive the proper services.[15] When outlining a new trauma-specific subcategory in the IDEA, drafters could provide specific examples as to what constitutes trauma. The definition would also benefit from suggestions as to how to identify traumatized students and how to implement their IEPs. Through SEL programs and a trauma-specific approach to IEPs, the American education system could ensure better outcomes for its students and take another step toward educational equality.


[1] Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).

[2] Id.

[3] See generally Americans with Disabilities Act, 104 Stat. 327 (1990); Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C.S. § 1400 (1970).

[4] Lisa Bowleg, We’re Not All in This Together: On COVID-19, Intersectionality, and Structural Inequality, 110 Am. J. Public Health 917 (2020) (highlighting the disproportionate risk and impact of COVID-19 based on structured inequality at intersections of racial/ethnic minority status, class, and occupation).

[5] Joseph E. Zins & Maurice J. Elias, Social and Emotional Learning: Promoting the Development of All Students, 17 J. of Educ. & Psychol. Consultation 233 (2007).2

[6] Linda Darling-Hammond & Channa Cook-Harvey, Educating the Whole Child: Improving School Climate to Support Student Success, Learning Policy Institute (Sep. 7, 2018), https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/educating-whole-child-report.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Eric Rosen, Creating trauma-informed individualized education programs, Am. Psychol. Ass’n (Nov. 2018), https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2018/11/trauma-teaching.

[12] Linda Darling-Hammond, Abby Schachner & Adam K. Edgerton, Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, Learning Policy Institute, Aug. 2020, at v.

[13] Felicia Winder, Note, Childhood Trauma and Special Education: Why the “IDEA” is Failing Today’s Impacted Youth, 44 Hofstra L. Rev. 601 (2015).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.