Last year, I worked with early childhood educators to predict what potential gaps in school readiness would be evident in children who have mostly experienced education during the pandemic. What came to the forefront was social and emotional well-being, and relationships would need to be attended to. Covid restrictions limited healthy student social interactions with peers and adults, impacting their ability to apply and practice typical, real-time friendship-building and conflict resolution. In addition, students are not as practiced in identifying their emotions in the moment, naming them, and either asking for support from an adult or stating their feelings to their peers. The pandemic highly impacted students’ emotional competencies.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can be defined as “processes through which children … understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” (Yoder et al., 2020, p. 6). Pre-pandemic, as students collaborated at tables, negotiated in playgrounds, and learned in close proximity, social-emotional learning took place in real-time situations. For example, when students in Early Childhood 1 (EC1) gather around play spaces, they use language to share toys and take turns. But as is developmentally appropriate, students don’t always have the language available to play respectfully. Child #1 may grab a toy, causing another to cry. This standard scenario is a perfect opportunity for a teacher to intervene and coach Child #1 to return the toy and use their words. Child #1 could be asked to return the toy and taught how to request a turn stating, “Can I play with that toy when you are finished with it?” Another outcome is child #2 could be encouraged to identify and express how having the toy taken away made them feel. That child could be encouraged to say, “That made me feel sad when you took the toy away.” Child #1 might naturally or be reminded to say, “I am sorry.”, and return the toy. In these cases, students not only learn to self-advocate, but they also learn to rely on adults to help them advocate for themselves. Because students were asked to stay 6 feet apart, dynamic SEL situations that promote self-reflection, empathy building, self-advocacy, and signify adults as helpers were not nearly as frequent.
As the world returns to normalcy, I suspect we also need to be mindful of sensory overload. Sensory overload is when your five senses are overwhelmed from taking information at a faster rate than your brain can process. These feelings cause people to inexplicably and unconsciously feel anxious. Although the North Shore is known for big open spaces, students experienced smaller class sizes as more students were absent and had an invisible 6 ft x 6 ft box around them. Classes had less noise, less physical contact, and less wait time because teachers could give more personalized attention. As we opened up, the organic hustle and bustle and organized school chaos returned. Our bodies are processing more information than we were used to over the last two or more years. These concerns led me to question if we accept this to be true, can we catch students up after losing so much time? How do we help “post-pandemic” students self-reflect, identify emotions, and see adults in the community as their mediums for advocacy and guidance?
Fortunately, our educational philosophies provide us with the tools to support healing as we go back to “post-pandemic” normalcy. Responsive Classroom is a student-centered approach designed to increase student motivation and strong academic and social-emotional skills. Responsive Classroom provides practices that involve children in building positive social-emotional behavior skills and actively participate in creating the community they envision. Students intrinsically want to have joyful learning environments and feel included in contributing to shaping rules and norms. Also, as the weeks progress, becoming practiced in naming emotions and voicing needs will help with sensory overload if it exists. But the best outcome will be the trust building between students and teachers, as educators have more frequent opportunities to serve as facilitators for healthy friendship conversations and supportive mediators of conflict. Also, it’s not too late for anyone to incorporate these skill sets for effective emotional regulation and communication. Children and adults can adopt these best practices at any time, provided they use these tools often and become practiced.
Finally, the school–home partnerships are just as essential for growing the community your children envision and create, and you will hear more in the coming weeks about how I will grow those valued partnerships. I can’t express how much I look forward to having more in-depth conversations about Responsive Classroom, SEL, and the toolkit for restoring a healthy “post-pandemic” community, with all stakeholders moving forward together.