5 Reading Resolutions for Educators: #4—Focus on SEL Now More Than Ever

How are you? It’s a question you probably ask and get asked frequently. And now as we go through this unprecedented and challenging time in education, this simple greeting has taken on renewed importance as a way of checking in with ourselves and others.

Our heightened concern for how children and youth are doing preceded the pandemic. In the 5th Annual Educator Confidence Report (ECR), a survey of more than 1,000 teachers and administrators published by HMH and YouGov, three-quarters of respondents indicated that the increasing social-emotional needs of their students was their top concern. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made social-emotional learning (SEL) more important than ever—for our students, their families, and ourselves.

Amid the ongoing pandemic and with racial justice issues in the spotlight, what is happening now bolsters the need to ensure that SEL is addressed as part of instructional planning. The resolutions in this blog series are based on what research reveals about what can be done to improve student outcomes for reading.

It is good to know that we can simultaneously promote student well-being and develop reading, writing, and thinking skills. Indeed, addressing SEL in the context of coherence with academics, physical development, and the practice of good citizenship is both efficacious and practical.

Here’s how we can bring reading and SEL together and reach both brains and hearts.

Read for Comfort and Care

Have you noticed how important reading has become as a way to cope with social distancing? Families are reading books together, and I have seen so many wonderful examples of reading to kids as teachers reach out to their students. When reading aloud to students—or recommending books for families to read or for students to read independently—look for variety. Some students will need a laugh, some will need an escape, and some will need information that helps them better understand what’s happening. In all cases, books are helpful tools for self-soothing.

Reading practice provides the opportunity to improve academic outcomes and is time well spent. It can help stem the predicted learning loss caused by interrupted school. Also, reading serves SEL goals by providing time to focus and reflect on one’s self and others.

Students need books to help them better understand the world, especially now, when adults may be lacking for the right words. And while we are facing serious issues, children and youth will also need books that provide an escape, a laugh, or a DIY project.

"Reading serves SEL goals by providing time to focus and reflect on one’s self and others."

Today’s students need to be biliterate, as teacher and scholar Dr. Maryanne Wolf says—that is, able to read competently using both digital and traditional print. Since students will read and work online for school, plan on some time for them to read from traditional books as well. Each format has its own unique attributes. Students may be able to receive additional support online, but when overused, this support can be distracting. With traditional print, the reader may have to depend on external sources to scaffold, such as when looking up the meaning of words, but reading print books may make it easier to keep the reader’s attention. In short, both formats have their own challenges and advantages.

Practice Bibliotherapy

I have described myself as a bibliotherapist, meaning I try to make recommendations of books that meet the social and academic needs of students. We all expect that the next school year will be very different from the one that preceded it. We are living in historic times that will be long remembered. While this generation of learners is living history, books can help prompt conversations and provide role models of other history-makers and how they not only survived challenges but also thrived and indeed made the world better.

Write About It

People who are giving advice to others about living through history suggest that they write about it. Reading and writing have a positive reciprocal relationship on literacy achievement, and this is a good time to encourage journaling and writing one’s own story. And writing is a way to show empathy toward others, such as when my stepdaughter had her second and third graders write thank you letters to frontline workers. So, writing reinforces reading and supports SEL by helping students put their emotional experiences on paper or the screen and can close some of the gaps created by social distancing.

Use the ABCs of SEL

Use books to give students a vocabulary for naming and talking about SEL skills and strategies. From Agency to Zest, children and youth can define and describe these competencies.

There’s something else research tells us: “Take care of yourself if you take care of others,” as stated by educator, consultant, and author Dr. Bryan K. Harris—who is also a speaker on SEL issues—in 2020 as part of the "Learning and the Brain" conference series. It’s the same message we get when we fly—put your own mask on first.

Thank you for all you’re doing for the next generation of readers. I firmly believe that by reading, children and youth will read the world, understand their place in it, and be motivated to make the world better.

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This is the fourth in a series of five blog posts based on Francie Alexander's recent webinar, “The Five Big Research-Based Ideas That Will Have a Positive Impact on Literacy Outcomes.” Read resolutions one, two, and three. Stay tuned for the last Reading Resolution.

Learn more about HMH’s literacy programs.