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  • Natalie Rebentisch

We Need to Focus on SEL Now More Than Ever

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

Social and emotional learning will be vital for students going back into the classroom.

by Natalie Rebentisch

When schools open their doors again this fall, school leaders and administrators need to recognize the critical role social and emotional learning (SEL) will play in student achievement—not just on an academic level, but on an emotional level as well.

For as long as I can remember, leaders in education have tried to emphasize the value of teaching students “soft skills”—things like teamwork, creativity, and adaptability. One challenge of teaching these skills is finding a way to measure them. Because of this, soft skills often take a backseat to more easily quantifiable content-based skills like reading comprehension and mathematics.

However, with all of the dramatic changes students have endured in the last few months—being separated from their friends and loved ones, adjusting to online learning, possibly even dealing with the loss of a loved one or having financial issues—SEL should be a central part of every school’s re-entry plan.

CASEL, an organization devoted to bringing SEL into schools, defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

CASEL’s framework for SEL identifies five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

To be successful in school, to solve that tricky math problem, or to think critically about an author’s point, students’ emotional needs must be met first. Without a way to process the many changes and challenges they have faced and are still facing with this pandemic, students are at risk of not only falling behind academically but also of developing larger issues surrounding their well-being and mental health.

On a more personal level, I have experienced firsthand the value of giving students a moment to process, reflect, and better understand their emotions. As a college student, I was lucky to have a professor who understood that personal well-being was vital for academic success.

During my junior year, I took on a pretty hefty load—both in terms of course hours and subject areas. In my attempt to graduate early, I signed up for 20 hours worth of courses like Latin American Studies and History of Medicine in the US, courses that on more than one occasion left me thinking, “Wow, the world is really not a great place.”

Anxiety eventually took hold of me and started interfering with my well-being in ways I never would have expected. I developed feelings of pessimism and despair. I would cry in my dorm room for no apparent reason. I felt like I was always carrying an immense weight. And for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like everything was going to be all right.

One day after class, my professor stopped me at the door. She asked if I was OK. I knew I wasn’t, but I didn’t understand why. I explained my feelings to her, thinking it probably sounded crazy or like an excuse for not being as active in class discussions recently. She listened, nodding. After I finished she told me that our next class was cancelled. Instead, we’d use the time to learn something just as valuable—how to meditate.

At class the next day we put all of our books away. After setting up our desks in a circle, and hearing a brief introduction on meditation best practices, we sat in complete silence, repeating, “I am enough, I have enough” to ourselves for the entire class.

Afterward I felt immediate relief—in part because the idea of being and having enough was so incredibly soothing, and also because I felt empowered to take care of my own emotional needs. I had learned how to recognize my boundaries and to take space and time to process my feelings. I had never given myself that space or time before.

To this day, I remember that professor as the one who saw me not just as her student, but as a human being. Even today, when I am feeling overwhelmed, I take a few deep breaths, turn off my mind, and repeat “I am enough, I have enough” to myself. Learning how to meditate, how to practice self-care, how to ask for what I need was not a lesson on our syllabus that semester, but it was just as valuable.

My heart goes out to students who are currently feeling the same emotional turmoil I felt during that semester in college. The ones who have been dealing for months with less-than-ideal situations at home, who have experienced loss in ways that are unimaginable, who are worried about getting sick or their loved ones getting sick, who can no longer see a future for themselves because of all of the uncertainty surrounding this moment. I feel for them and the pain they are experiencing in so many different ways.

When schools open their doors again, I hope they will remember that students need time to process the changes and challenges they have faced and are still facing during this pandemic. They’ll need ways to cope with their feelings and experiences. And while excelling in math and reading are so very important, we must put the well-being of our students first.


In an effort to ensure that schools and students have what they need during this critical time, ScribeConcepts is exploring tools that could support SEL. We have developed a short survey that we invite students to take so they can share their own experiences with us and help us better understand what they need.


Natalie Rebentisch is Lead Project Strategist for ScribeConcepts, an educational publishing team supporting disruptors in curriculum development. She has worked as an embedded partner with Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate Project; EL Education K-8; Great Minds Humanities; Harvard Democratic Knowledge Project; and other passionate content creators.

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