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Thursday / June 17

Why We Need SEL Now More Than Ever 

Listen to John and Jessica discussing what leaders should know about SEL on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast with Peter DeWitt!


The coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has caused a great deal of reflection in our home. We have a 2020 high school graduate, a ninth grader, and a 3-year-old in our family—we have experienced firsthand the social and emotional impact that the abrupt transition to distance learning along with other significant life changes has had on our own children and the students we serve. As you are aware, in our schools, there were already significant mental health, social, emotional, and behavioral needs before the pandemic. For example, according to research over the past several decades (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2020; CDC & Kaiser Permanente, 2016; MojtabaiOlfson, & Han, 2016; National Institute of Mental Health, 2018; Saeki et al., 2011; Skiba & Rauch, 2006; U.S. Department of Education, 2014; Visser et al., 2014): 

  • One in five children has mental health problems. 
  • There has been a 43% increase in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder cases (6.4 million children). 
  • There has been a 37% increase in teen depression nationwide. 
  • There has been a 100% increase in suicide rate in kids 10–14 years old. 
  • Sixty-four percent of students have experienced trauma, including witnessing violence and being direct targets of abuse. 
  • Educators struggle to address the increasing number of students who have social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. 
  • There is a disproportionate amount of time spent serving a small number of students with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. 
  • Schools commonly address social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties with exclusionary practices such as detention, suspension, and expulsion. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been part of education for decades. It certainly isn’t a new topic; however, we are seeing it affect our students in historic ways. Moreover, we are seeing the need for it in historic ways. Consider just a few developing statistics during the COVID-19 period by National 4-H Council and the Harris Poll (2020) and EdWeek Research Center Survey (Harold & Kurtz, 2020):  

  • Seven out of 10 teens reported struggling with mental health in some way. 
  • More than half of the students surveyed experienced anxiety. 
  • Forty-five percent felt excessive stress. 
  • Forty-three percent identified as struggling with depression. 
  • Sixty-one percent reported loneliness. 
  • Compared to their engagement level prior to the COVID-19 closures, students’ current level of engagement with their schoolwork has decreased significantly. 
  • One out of four students was reported to be essentially truant during the COVID-19 closures: MIA, not logging in, not making contact, etc. 

The gaps have widened, and the cracks in the system in how we support SEL are no longer hidden in the traditional chaos of school. We have some students who may need additional support, some who did not need any prior to the pandemic but who do now, and some who just need to know they are loved and cared for. Essentially, it has become clear that SEL competencies—students having the strategies and real-life skills they need to be successful during this time—is the main focus of schools and districts around the nation and world. 

So what is SEL?

Simply put, social and emotional learning (SEL) is a structure designed to help students understand the relationship between emotions and behaviors in relation to their own self-worth, academic achievement, well-being, and ability to learn how to self-regulate and connect with others. 

There are five core competencies that can be taught in many ways across many settings. The five core SEL competencies for which we will provide tools, processes, and strategies are Relationships Skills, Responsible Decision Making, Social Awareness, Self-Management, and Self-Awareness. 

Why SEL Right Now? 

Social emotional learning… 

  • Creates a climate and culture conducive to learning 
  • Integrates social and emotional skills into teaching practices such as cooperative and project-based learning 
  • Integrates social and emotional skills across academic curricula 
  • Improves achievement 
  • Improves resiliency skills 
  • Develops students’ self-awareness and self-management skills that are essential in school and life 
  • Demonstrates ethical decision-making skills in personal, school, and community contexts 
  • Improves student connectedness 
  • Improves student learning 
  • Increases prosocial behaviors 
  • Improves students’ attitudes toward school 
  • Reduces depression and stress among students 
  • Improves mental health 
  • Improves social skills 

For more details about how to lead social-emotional learning in your school, listen to John and Jessica’s podcast episode or read SEL From a Distance: Tools and Processes for Anytime, Anywhere. 

Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. Together, she and John have authored SEL From a Distance, The MTSS Start-Up Guide, Building Behavior, Don’t Suspend Me!, and The PBIS Tiers One, Two, and Three Handbooks. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan. Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75.

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