For years, social emotional learning instruction, and to an even greater extent mental health counseling support- was considered a “nice to have.”
Despite the fact that for decades schools have been providing dental visits to kids, helping them get glasses and even meals over the weekends, anything more than once a month group counseling sessions and SEL-focused readers was not often provided.
When I was an educator in a high-needs school in the early 2000s, we were fortunate enough to have a Communities in Schools grant that provided a social worker. She worked tirelessly to serve the kiddos who had the greatest needs- and was able to regularly work with about 20 out of the 750 students in the school. As the Assistant Principal at the time and focused primarily on discipline, I can tell you that many, many more than 20 students would have benefited from counseling and mental health support. (However, our school counselor was relegated to managing state assessments and benchmarks, which left only enough time for crisis counseling and the once-a-month visit to each class.)
I do remember hearing about CASEL during training around PBIS; I worked on grants around intervening to support dropouts (who leave school for emotional reasons as much as academic reasons), and Title IV focused on Safe and Drug Free Schools. We had a wonderful Student Services Director who helped families when they needed clothes, help with an electricity bill, help finding jobs, etc. However, a concerted effort to provide social emotional support to students was not present as late as 2011; addressing mental health for all or most students wasn’t even a blip on the radar in my district.
A note: The Collaboration for 21st Century Skills and the Common Core Standards included collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc- but even then collaboration and problem-solving were not framed in the social emotional sense.
When I moved into EdTech in 2013, districts were not asking us for SEL support in the core curriculum. In 2016, we started seeing integration of social emotional skills such as teamwork and decision-making included in literacy rubrics for large urban districts. Then, in 2018 the floodgates opened. As we launched new literacy programs, conversations with educators at all grade bands indicated that alignment with the CASEL competencies was going to be a huge priority, especially in larger districts. This focus was still pretty much centralized in the larger districts until the pandemic hit.
Very quickly, every district we worked with needed SEL support and resources– understandably! Social emotional learning became a priority for every district, every school– kids were struggling, and we all wanted to help. Pandemic or no pandemic, the SEL competencies shared by CASEL are critical for success in school and life in general.
Fast forward two years: SEL as part of the core curriculum is not enough. As noted in the December 2021 Surgeon General report Protecting Youth Mental Health, students need support from all sides. And as much as our schools do not need one more layer of responsibility piled on- whether in person or virtual our kiddos spend most of their day in an academic setting. If we are going to help kids get through this, mental health support– not just SEL– must be part of the core curriculum.
Every single student would benefit from guidance on how to manage their emotions, how to calm down, how to ask for and accept help, recognizing stress, etc. Heck- we would all benefit from such guidance!
Our schools are already asked to do too much- our educators are superheroes, tired superheroes. The last thing we need to do is pile on one more responsibility; however, addressing student mental health is, dare I say it, more critical than addressing learning loss. So rather than release a list and let districts figure out (through trial and error) how to implement it, let’s implement systems to help them do so. The money is there through ARP funding- but throwing money at a problem doesn’t make it go away. Federal, state, and local organizations need to step in and offer programs and systems to help districts fulfill what is being asked of them. The time is now- we cannot wait.