It’s not just the “COVID slide”: Why we also should worry about our students’ social emotional well-being

You’ve all heard the reports about how we’ve entered into the “COVID slide,” where students are predicted to retain only about 70% of what they had learned the previous school year. When it comes to math, this number drops to 50%. These rates eclipse those associated with normative summer slide (also called summer learning loss or summer setback).

Many attribute this significant drop-off to the demands of online learning. Not only do students have to regulate their own learning, but they have to do so under circumstances where they may not have the resources to engage with school, which includes everything from access to high speed internet and a connected device to textbooks, paper and pencils, art supplies, child-sized chair and desk, and a space where they can focus.

With the prolonged closure of schools and uncertainty about what school will look like for the rest of the 2020/2021 school year, the extent of students’ academic slide only grows. This has massive implications for teachers’ and for students’ workloads and agendas. In the spring, hard-working teachers took their classrooms online at a moment’s notice. Now they will need to dedicate more time and resources towards recouping the academic gains drained by summer + COVID. For teachers who will continue to teach remotely or via a hybrid model, they also must develop strategies for cultivating community and establishing norms. In other words, teachers — in partnership with administrators and families — must pioneer setting up the social and emotional contexts in which learning can occur.

Meeting students’ social and emotional needs looms large as the number-one challenge and imperativefor this school year.

Schools tended to be woefully understaffed even before the crisis, often lacking the necessary counselors, psychologists, and nurses to support students’ wellbeing. COVID-related hardships have exacerbated students’ levels of anxiety, depression, and experiences with trauma, ballooning the breadth and depth of students’ needs. Simultaneously, COVID has wreaked havoc on school districts’ budgets, reducing available personnel equipped to meet these significant needs. The shortfall lands on teachers.

Additionally, students must find a way to connect to their peers and school community — no easy feat. Prior to COVID, students already reported feeling disconnected at school. And the data indicated huge discrepancies in student-reported sense of belonging along gender and racial/ethnic lines. Specifically, Black girls reported the lowest sense of belonging compared to their Asian, Latinx, and White peers. Student reports of sense of belonging is highly associated with other social emotional constructs, like self-efficacy, growth mindset, and self-management. And without social and emotional learning skills, students are at a huge disadvantage in learning academic skills.

If students’ social and emotional well-being is not supported, how do we expect them to learn?

We must put social and emotional well-being first. I propose the following ways to continue to support students’ social emotional well-being, aimed at three different audiences: (1) researchers, (2) school districts, and (3) parents/caregivers.

1. RESEARCHERS: We need you to build programming that addresses students’ social and emotional well-being.

Researchers can support students’ social emotional well-being indirectly by continuing to develop high-quality programming and resources.

I recommend continuing to engage in research-practice partnerships. Research-practice partnerships are long-term collaborations between education researchers (often universities) and practitioners (often school districts or other organizations) that are designed to be mutually beneficial relationships aimed at solving issues around education and student learning. The research needs are dictated by the partnering organization ensuring that the problems that are being worked on are an authentic need of that context. These long-term relationships allow the researchers to become deeply embedded in the practitioner’s context and steer educational research towards solving practical problems.

Research-based organizations can also develop resources and programming to address students’ social and emotional well-being. The Center for the Advancement of Social Emotional Learning has developed resources for parents, teachers, and educators, to continue to support students’ social emotional learning. Learning Policy Institute and Emerson Collective have also curated similar resources.

2. SCHOOL DISTRICTS: We need you to collect data on students’ social and emotional well-being

With the continued uncertainty of what education will look like during the school year, this slide could be detrimental for our students in ways not yet captured by our current measures. Several groups such as the CORE districts, and Transforming Education have been collecting repeated measures of students’ SEL for a number of years. Efforts around measuring students’ social emotional learning on constructs like growth mindset and sense of belonging once or twice a year over a number of years have resulted in rich datasets that allow us to understand trends in students’ reports of SEL over time.

Much of this data collection, however, has stopped now that students are no longer physically in school. However, there are other ways we, namely schools, can continue to gather data on students’ social and emotional well-being. Schools could administer their own measures of students’ SEL on a regular basis, such as once a semester or once a month. Given the budget schools have to work with there are cheaper or “free” options on how to continue to survey students. Here are some steps schools can take to continue to measure students’ social emotional well being:

  1. Develop a survey for students using freely-available questions from resources such as the International Belonging Research Library.
  2. Use Google forms or another platform to administer the surveys. The resulting data can be exported to an excel spreadsheet.
  3. Conduct a“quick and dirty” analysis of the data by computing means across grade-levels. This information can provide schools a sufficient pulse of what is going on. It is in no way the same detail that can be gathered with other types of data analysis, but will still be able to serve as a broad understanding of students’ SEL over time.

If we make this kind of data collection as part of our status quo or normal lives we are able to more accurately understand the long term effects of SEL on student’s academic outcomes, and in cases like this (meaning cases where we have an unprecedented pandemic), we can better understand which dimensions of SEL need to be most supported and understand how quickly SEL changes over time.

3. PARENTS/CAREGIVERS: We need to adjust our academic expectations and prioritize supporting students’ social and emotional well-being

Most importantly, we need to adjust our academic expectations and prioritize supporting students’ social and emotional well-being during this time away from school, teachers, and friends.

We need to accept that right now, learning may not happen at the same rate as it once did and reorient our language so that we focus on the positives (what our students did learn) and not on the negatives (what our students are behind on). This can be communicated to students in the messages that parents and guardians give. For example, instead of asking:

“what grade did you get?”

it would be helpful to ask students:

“what did you find most interesting today?”

Parents and caregivers could also use these times as a point of reflection with:

“what do you think you will remember about this one year or three years from now”?

Parents and caregivers can also shift conversations to interests their student may have with questions such as:

“what do you want to learn more about?”

and use this as an opportunity to spark curiosity in their students.

While many students are trying their best to continue to adjust to self or online learning parents and caregivers can support their students by helping them build or strengthen their self-regulated learning skills. Self-regulated learning is the process by which a learner plans and sets goals, monitors his/her performance on those goals, and reflects on his/her performance on those goals. It is a cyclical process whereby the learner may make adjustments to the goals they have set for themselves and the way they approach those goals. It includes using feedback to make changes to that system. Students’ self-regulated learning can be supported through structured feedback and helping students plan realistic goals. During COVID, parents/caregivers can ask their student about instances where they were or were not able to concentrate or whether he/she has been blocked. Instead of focusing on always improving the outcome of learning, parents can help their student acknowledge what kinds of things may prevent their student from being able to concentrate or monitor their learning.

Finally, and this is easier said than done, parents and guardians need to also focus on their own social emotional wellbeing. Just like the instructions given on an airplane that instruct “placing the oxygen mask over your own mouth and nose before helping others”, parents/caretakers’ own social emotional well being should be prioritized.

To sum it all up

We are juggling so many priorities gearing up for another semester online. The challenges we faced in our initial “dry run” of going online last semester and the lack of equal access to technology have exacerbated the stark differences in academic and achievement due to socio economic class. As such, we need to be mindful of the academic expectations we place on our students and continue to support them as best we can. Researchers, school districts, and parents/caregivers all play a unique role in that.

Katerina Schenke, PhD. is Founder and Principal at Katalyst Methods, where she works with educational media companies to design and evaluate games, software, and assessments. She also works with organizations that care about learning, like Facebook, the Connected Learning Lab, and ISTE, to run research projects that help them to improve educational policy and practice. Learn more at

Katerina Schenke, PhD. is a researcher | learning designer | data scientist

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