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Nearly 2 1/2 years into a deadly global pandemic, our nation’s children are in the midst of a mental health crisis that we have failed to adequately address.

Students, parents, health experts and educators all point to forced isolation and the interruption of everyday life as the root cause of distress.

Even the U.S. surgeon general has warned us about this alarming and widespread mental health crisis. In some cases, experts have declared that the pandemic is causing trauma-like symptoms.

The pandemic has also affected students’ social and academic development. Nearly 60 percent of parents in Massachusetts said their young child’s learning has been harmed by the pandemic. Statistics show that third-graders across the nation are scoring significantly lower in math. Some 77 percent of educators have noticed negative behavior changes in early learners.

That’s why it’s time to double-down on social-emotional learning, or SEL, programming, something we advocate at the New York City public school network The Urban Assembly.

We can no longer wait for our leaders to realize that SEL programs are the best tools educators have to simultaneously address the growing mental health crisis and learning loss.

SEL provides students with the fundamental emotional skills and competencies to advocate for their mental health needs. It also encourages academic success when things get challenging.

Data on the benefits of SEL is clear, yet SEL programming remains inaccessible for most of our nation’s students. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, put it best in describing the current approach to SEL programming as making it an “add-on” “luxury” that is only offered after students succeed academically.

That approach misses one of the most important benefits SEL has: It can help students achieve academic success.

Research studies have shown that SEL programming can increase academic success by as much as 11 percent, and SEL can have a positive impact on social behaviors and relationships, as well as reduce psychological distress.

We can no longer wait for our leaders to realize that SEL programs are the best tools educators have to simultaneously address the growing mental health crisis and learning loss.

Related: 10 ways for schools to gain traction with social-emotional learning programs

The Urban Assembly is committed to making SEL programming accessible to all students, no matter their background or academic performance. We’re extremely proud that our programming serves as the framework for SEL across 1,600 New York City public schools (paid for by the New York City Department of Education).

Our SEL approach helps students develop confidence and self-awareness while promoting general social competence. It also helps students develop skills to reason through a wide variety of social and emotional situations. These tools often outlast academic learning.

This work is being done through the Strong Resilient NYC initiative, the largest SEL initiative in the country.

We put an emphasis on student voice and on prioritizing SEL both within special education and as a way to help our students respond to and recover from the pandemic.

As we extend our efforts to foster SEL equity, we recently hosted our annual symposium to share ideas with the broader community and demonstrate how SEL works, and how it doesn’t just benefit the top students.

Put simply, SEL is not a reward or a luxury, it is essential. As educators, it is our duty to advocate for the well-being and success of our students. We owe it to our children to provide them with nothing less.

Brandon Frame is director of social-emotional learning at The Urban Assembly, Inc., a school support agency and consulting firm in New York City.

This piece about social-emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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