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Alina Artyunova, who teaches math at the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Massachusetts, says teachers are realizing how important it is to pay attention to the mental health and well-being of students during the pandemic. Credit: Steven Laborde

We all know that what happens outside school impacts a student’s academic performance. Never before have the two been so closely intermingled. School closures and remote learning have upended classrooms, relationships and support systems, putting students at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression.

I teach at the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Massachusetts, a city just north of Boston. The pandemic that sent us home nearly a year ago has become our new way of life. My colleagues and I spent the summer envisioning new strategies— for teaching, engaging with students and becoming familiar with technology to ensure all of us were doing our jobs right.

We hoped that one day, when we looked back, we could say we did everything we could, and there would be no education gap.

But teachers have always worn multiple hats, arguably even more so now. In addition to our teaching and our roles as watchdogs and technology experts, we find ourselves in the critical position of therapist as our students face the ongoing trauma and uncertainty of the pandemic at home. 

Many of our students’ families may be experiencing income loss, which leads to food insecurity and increased risk of domestic abuse. All of this can severely damage a child’s sense of safety.

These problems also switch on the “fight or flight” survival mode, which could make some students less capable of coping with adversity or engaging in the daily task of learning. 

These experiences are difficult for adults to manage, let alone students, whose brains are still developing the capacity for learning and reasoning.

Related: OPINION — Teachers will need to focus more on how students are feeling in these tough times

Even before the pandemic hit, we’d seen how much better our students fared when they knew we cared as much about their well-being as we did about their grades and assignments.

As the pandemic approaches the one-year mark, social-emotional learning, known as SEL, is more important than ever, and must be prioritized at every level in our schools.

Even before the pandemic hit, we’d seen how much better our students fared when they knew we cared as much about their well-being as we did about their grades and assignments.

I have found that transferring familiar routines to an online environment can give students a sense of comfort and continuity. We are used to seeing our students in person, where we can tune into their feelings and provide support and guidance. It’s more difficult over Zoom to pick up on nonverbal cues, body language or micro expressions, making it harder to decipher whether something is wrong or students are just zoned out because of  “Zoom fatigue.

When one of my students turned off her Zoom camera, I sensed something was amiss, so I reached out and made arrangements to visit and make sure she was OK. Sometimes we have to take that extra step in supporting our students. We can also strengthen our bonds virtually through a robust social and emotional learning program.

I’ve seen firsthand how SEL gives students a sense that they can manage stress or connect with someone who can help them manage it. In some ways, Zoom has become something of a telehealth platform. Practices like check-ins, circles, greetings and reminders to turn on the camera and share can help create a sense of security and routine for students.

Related: Early research focuses on schools that develop social-emotional qualities

Sharing can also help teachers build and maintain connection despite the distance from students. Further, there are many SEL practices and wellness activities that we can encourage our students to complete independently or together; these include quick mindfulness and relaxation exercises, like a five-minute conversation during a break or a one-on-one virtual chat with a teacher during weekly office hours. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has compiled research and best practices on how teachers can create environments that promote a positive sense of well-being for students and healthy connections with peers and adults. CASEL’s recommendations include prioritizing strong two-way communication among schools, families and community organizations as part of  SEL programs. We must work closely to provide support where needed, including helping families address their own stresses and anxieties at home. 

Teachers and staff aren’t immune from the trauma of the moment, either. Our connection, empathy and support for one another is just as important as what we do for our students in this crisis. According to the  National Child Traumatic Stress Network, it’s imperative that we remember to take care of ourselves and to connect in meaningful ways:  a virtual coffee break or lunch hour where we can check in with one another on how we’re feeling, or even just talk about books we’re reading or shows we’re streaming. 

Finally, as educators and adults, we can lead by example. Our students are watching and listening to us, so when we practice self-care, we’re showing them how they can take care of themselves as well.

If we neglect to prioritize SEL in our curriculum today, we will not be equipped to meet the varied needs of all our students in our post-pandemic future. 

In the meantime, we’ll keep our Zoom cameras rolling.

Alina Artyunova teaches precalculus and geometry in grades 9 through 12 at the Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Massachusetts. 

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

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