Shifting Social and Emotional Issues to the Foreground

Many of you are contending with students who need more than academic support and guidance; they also need social and emotional support. Young people naturally gravitate toward adults who offer or even simply represent stability. We are living with and educating kids in a time of unprecedented stress, and an increasing number of our students are in crisis due to a variety of events and forces.

Since this school year started, major national disasters have come in quick succession: devastating hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Marie that directly hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively; the mass shooting in Las Vegas; and deadly wildfires in California.

Hundreds of thousands of students have been directly impacted by these events, and educators had to act quickly in response to traumatized students. Even for those students who have not been directly affected, the sense of an unstable world can play a role in their behaviors, attitudes, and mental health. Further, more localized crises stemming from the opioid epidemic, a divisive social climate, and the escalation of mental health-related challenges add to the overall rise in student stress.

We at ICLE have been training school administrators in Puerto Rico and have seen firsthand the devastation to the schools throughout the territory. As difficult as it is to scroll through the pictures of the after effects of Hurricane Marie, they pale in comparison to the enormous stress the disaster brought to the lives of the children and educators we have the privilege to work with. Their level of stress is nearly incomprehensible.

Many school districts are calling a collective time out to think carefully about how schools should assist students in dealing with trauma and loss. For example, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents has made social and emotional development a priority for the year. Many individual districts, such as Troup County, Georgia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, are having deep discussions on social and emotional development as well.

As I have been crisscrossing the nation this fall, I have concluded that we are entering the post-standards and assessment era. Standards and assessment will not disappear completely but they are not dominating the discussions in and around schools as they have over the past several years. The focus is shifting to other concerns with the understanding that high-quality learning and student performance rely on students’ well-being. Social and emotional development is emerging as a growing priority in schools as they realize the need for comprehensive plans. The field of social and emotional learning is rapidly evolving as educators focus on helping students build skills beyond academic knowledge. Programs address not just mental health and response to catastrophic events but also school climate, anti-bullying initiatives, and positive behavior supports, among other topics.

Responding to crisis—whether a natural or human-caused disaster or a school-based tragedy—is just one element of being responsive to students in holistic and productive ways. We all need to have a comprehensive plan that moves us from prevention to intervention to treatment.

Now more than ever I cannot stress enough the importance of relationships in building and sustaining a supportive culture that not only supports rigorous and relevant learning, but also meets the social and emotional needs of our students. At Model Schools Conference 2018, one focus will be on successful and diverse programs and practices in this critical, multi-faceted area. Learn more at

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