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Beginning School in a Pandemic: Meeting the SEL Needs of Students and Teachers

Updated: 2 days ago

Over the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in schools. These programs are designed to help students develop positive relationships, personal agency, self-awareness, and decision-making skills. If those seem like important skills to you, you’re not alone. Employers agree. So do learning theorists and brain researchers.

SEL is of even greater importance as we begin this year: A pandemic is raging, our economy is in a recession, and systemic racism continues to create trauma-inducing events for students and families.

CASEL: SEL Roadmap for Reopening School

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defined SEL more than two decades ago. Today, they support schools, districts, and states nationwide - and convene leading thinkers to ensure SEL is a priority in every school.

In response to the challenges facing schools as they begin the 2020 school year, CASEL has created a powerful new resource: Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning Roadmap for Reopening School.

You can download the roadmap here.

The SEL Roadmap was created collaboratively with more than 40 partners. According to Heather Schwartz, Practice Specialist at CASEL, this collaboration was important to CASEL: “We’re including tools and resources from so many other organizations so that people can lift up what they do best.”

Heather joined us for our webinar to talk about the CASEL and the SEL Roadmap. View her bio at the end of the post.

The Roadmap offers four SEL Critical Practices, each with 3-5 activities. Within each activity, users are guided through essential questions, actions to prepare & implement, tools to support the actions, and guidance to sustain the work. For school-level work, CASEL recommends starting with Critical Practice 1. Once that foundational work is done, schools can focus efforts according to their needs & priorities.

On the webinar, which you can view in its entirety at the end of this blog post, Heather shared three of her favorite tools in the SEL Roadmap. Check out the descriptions and links below to find out more.

In the Field: Charlottesville City Schools

Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charlottesville City Schools has six elementary schools, an upper elementary school (5th-6th Grade), one middle school (7th-8th), and one high school. Since 2015, Charlottesville has emphasized SEL in the classroom, led by Patrick Farrell, Intervention and Support Coordinator; and Jodie Murphy, Mental Wellness Facilitator.

Patrick joined us on the webinar to talk about SEL efforts in the district. View his bio at the end of the post.

As they worked to develop SEL guidelines for the district, Patrick and his colleagues understood that teachers were in danger of “initiative overload” when it came to SEL: “We had all these great initiatives,” Patrick said during the webinar, “but they stacked up on each other and teachers felt overwhelmed.” To remedy this, Charlottesville focused on three areas: developing student and adult social and emotional learning competencies; building connected communities; and creating and sustaining safe and equitable school environments.

Charlottesville is beginning the year in a full distance learning model. Because of their previous focus on SEL for students, Charlottesville is well-positioned to transfer many of these practices to a digital environment. But it’s not just students who need help centering their social and emotional well being, adults are experiencing major stressors as they begin the 2020 school year. Patrick described the adults in his district as “filled to the brim with anxiety,” whether because of health concerns or because they feel a lack of fluency in the tools they are using to teach in an online environment.

To meet the SEL needs of adults during this time, Charlottesville is using a toolkit from Transforming Education. This toolkit can be used in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), staff meetings, professional development, training sessions, or for individual learning, reflection, and practice.

Social Studies, SEL, and the Challenges of the Moment

Just as the terms science, mathematics, and language arts are used to group related subjects into fields, social studies connects disciplines focusing on the study of human relationships. These disciplines can provide the rich, authentic context needed to ground the practice of SEL skills:

  • Civics examines our relationship with others within a group, whether it’s a classroom, community, or country.

  • History teaches us to analyze the past to inform our actions in the present and the future.

  • Economics asks us to investigate how we meet our wants and needs and balance them with those of other people.

  • Geography prompts us to consider how we affect our environment and how it affects us.

And the benefit of integration flows the other way as well. The practice of SEL skills can contribute to the ongoing transformation of social studies into a more active, participatory experience for students. When students study the principles of civics and lessons of history, while also using SEL to put those principles into practice in their classrooms and communities, their learning deepens and becomes more meaningful.

But what about right now — at this moment of history, as we face the challenges of a pandemic, systemic racism, and economic insecurity? Social studies is uniquely positioned to respond to these challenges.

Systemic Problems Require Systemic Analysis

The problems facing us today are systemic: public health, racism, the breakdown of our democratic processes. Social studies is one of the few disciplines that can purposefully and powerfully focus its lens on systemic change. Too often in the past, social studies instruction has focused on individual narratives, stories that tie up into narrative bows - with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. And that’s the challenge for social studies teachers: To refocus curriculum on systems and their effects on individuals.

What does this have to do with the social and emotional well being of our students?

A lot.

For BIPOC students, acknowledging and critiquing the systems that have been designed to harm them - or have failed them - allows them to move from self-blame and internalized oppression to agency and action. For white students, this same shift can help them avoid confirmation bias and attribution errors, and spur them toward agency and activism as well.

The Centrality of the Inquiry Process

Perhaps it seems obvious that systemic problems can’t be solved by a single cure, a quick fix, a single action. And yet, the desire for easy answers is one of the main factors driving the spread of misinformation and misguided thinking that are hampering efforts to meet our current challenges. That’s why social studies, and its focus on the process of Inquiry, is so crucial to students’ understanding of the world. In an inquiry-based social studies class, students are presented with complex questions that frame their learning. As they build knowledge, students question, investigate, collaborate, communicate, give and receive feedback, revise and improve their ideas — and then take action to impact the world.

What if our current civic leaders and citizens had practiced those skills since Kindergarten? How much more prepared would we all be to meet the challenges we now face?

A focus on the Inquiry process also benefits the social and emotional well-being of students. Prioritizing the learning process — instead of the final product - creates a shift away from a reward and punishment system of motivation towards the development of a growth mindset. Additionally, as students question, investigate, and take action in an inquiry classroom, mistakes are celebrated instead of stigmatized - and the culture of feedback and revision builds confidence and community.

Below, you’ll find the bios of our panelists and a recording of the webinar. Please email questions and comments to

Heather Schwartz, Practice Specialist, CASEL

Heather Schwartz is a Practice Specialist at CASEL, helping to translate essential learning from the field into resources and professional development that support systemic SEL implementation. Before joining the CASEL team, she worked as an instructional coach in Chicago, helping teachers create intellectually active and engaging learning experiences for students - and working with schools’ leadership teams to improve school culture. As a classroom teacher, Heather taught seventh-grade language arts and social studies. She completed a master’s degree in educational leadership at Columbia University Teachers College, along with degrees from Oberlin and Northwestern. She’s also trained to lead

Patrick Farrell, Intervention and Support Supervisor, Charlottesville City Schools

Patrick Farrell is currently the Intervention and Support Supervisor for Charlottesville City Schools in Charlottesville, VA. Prior to his career in public education, Patrick attended law school in Washington and worked for several national educational non-profit organizations. Patrick has eight years experience as a special education teacher and sixteen years as a special education administrator. Patrick’s work in SEL/mental wellness programming has been cited in national publications from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute.

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More