School Districts Need New SEL Support for Older Students, Report Finds

Staff Writer

As school districts across the country continue to grapple with the fallout from the pandemic, K-12 officials see an increased need for social-emotional programs and products to support secondary students, a new survey finds.

A new EdWeek Market Brief special report, New Directions in Social-Emotional Learning: What’s Next for the K-12 Market, asked 158 school leaders and 120 district administrators about where SEL stands in their district now.

The report comes two years after EdWeek Market Brief first floated this question and a series of others to K-12 officials about what they want from SEL products and programs.

Much has changed since 2020, when school districts were in the midst of the pandemic. Now they face pressure to make up for lost learning while coping with staff turnover and uncertain future funding.

When asked in what areas they believe they will need support from SEL over the next year, K-12 officials pointed to a hunger for programs and products tailored to older students.

In 2022, 44 percent of respondents say they will need support for secondary students — a jump from the 33 percent who chose the same answer when asked a similar question in 2020.

Two years ago, the focus was more on elementary students. Today, 43 percent of respondents say they will need SEL support for young students, compared to 45 percent in 2020.

That doesn’t surprise Ron Berger, senior adviser of teaching and learning for EL Education, a nonprofit curriculum, professional development, and SEL provider.

Berger is seeing middle and high school students “breaking down” more than ever before, whether that means getting into fights or arguments, or feeling lonely, or having mental health challenges.

Remote learning likely had a more adverse affect on students in this age range because it separated them from peers and friends at a time when those connections are very important, Berger said.

“For elementary kids, family is a really big part of their sustenance — and a good relationship with their teacher,” he said. “For adolescents, that switches. It really becomes their friends that are their support system.”

Mental Health in Focus

The top answer among educators today when asked where they need support from SEL is in addressing students mental health challenges, chosen by more than half (51 percent) of respondents.

That has also changed since 2020, when the most urgent needs were creating a positive learning environment amid social distancing and easing the concerns of parents and families. That’s probably an unsurprising shift considering schools have reopened and COVID-era restrictions such as social distancing have ended.

However, the demand to have SEL products and programs support students’ mental health challenges has led some educators and researchers to caution that SEL is being asked to do too much — a topic that is explored in the special report.

SEL is not therapy, they say, but rather about building a foundation of self-regulating and communication skills that all students benefit from.

Where SEL providers can help is by supporting educators and other adults in the school building to understand trauma and take an in-depth approach to helping students, Berger said.

District leaders or state-level education officials may be justifiably worried about how students are scoring on national and state tests, he said, but those working with students everyday — such a principals, teachers, and counselors — are worried about their emotional health.

“The big takeaway for product and program creators is they have to take seriously that some kids are really struggling right now,” Berger said. “There is a growing understanding in the field that products and programs need to be thinking holistically of a student’s experience throughout the day.”

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Image collage: Getty and Liz Yap/Education Week

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