What Experts on Kids' Social and Emotional Health Are Overlooking
As kids return from an emotionally tough year, the last thing we should do is continue to make so many of them feel like academic failures for no good reason.
The pandemic has intensified concern about students’ emotional well-being. We need to be careful in addressing children’s needs—and stop routinely inflicting emotional damage through ineffective curricula and instructional practices that make many feel like failures.
Many children have suffered as a result of Covid-19. When remote learning was widespread, some educators complained of “a myopic focus on academics” at the expense of addressing students’ trauma.
Now that kids are returning to classrooms, similar cautions are being issued. One parent has pleaded that rather than just pouring knowledge into children’s brains, educators “must make children’s social and emotional well-being the lodestar,” being sure to “nudge kids into talking about … the struggles and challenges of the pandemic so that they don’t carry all of those stresses with them through the school year.”
This push comes against the background of growing enthusiasm for what is often called social and emotional learning, or SEL. Eighteen states have now adopted standards or guidelines in that area, up from only one state ten years ago.
SEL is generally defined as instilling competencies in areas like managing emotions, building relationships, making decisions, and feeling and showing empathy. But the term is vague and not well understood. A recent survey found the SEL label unpopular with many parents, although there was widespread support for having schools cultivate the component skills.
Some argue that SEL is best implemented through core academic content, but there are also separate SEL curricula. One called Harmony, for example, includes a second-grade lesson that has the teacher read aloud a story about a boy experiencing various feelings. Suggested discussion questions include, “Why is it important to pay attention to our feelings and how our bodies feel?” and “How can you figure out how someone else is feeling?”
Getting kids to think about feelings is important, and some students may well benefit from talking about pandemic-related struggles. But there are reasons to proceed with caution—and to look to the core curriculum itself for causes of emotional harm.
Not all children suffered during the pandemic. One panel of experts has estimated that 30 to 40% of students experienced negative impacts on their mental or social-emotional health during the pandemic. That’s troubling, but it also suggests that as many as 60 to 70% did not. There’s anecdotal evidence that some students thrived while learning remotely. And massive amounts of government aid helped buffer adversity, leading to a decline in the poverty rate last year.
Encouraging kids to talk about trauma isn’t always helpful. If children didn’t have traumatic experiences, being repeatedly “nudged” to open up may make them feel they should have—or even lead them to falsely believe they did. For children who did suffer, talking about the experience may not always be helpful and could even exacerbate the problem. They may benefit more from immersing themselves in a distracting task—like learning about history or science, reading and discussing literature, or working on a math problem.
Standard approaches to curriculum and teaching have long been causing emotional damage to many students. That’s not the fault of individual teachers. As I’ve discussed before, it’s a systemic problem grounded in the divergence between teacher training and instructional materials on the one hand and scientific evidence about how learning works on the other.
The most obvious example is reading instruction. Because of ineffective practices and mistaken beliefs, many students never learn how to sound out, or decode, words or to read fluently. In addition, many—especially those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum—never acquire the academic knowledge and vocabulary necessary to understand complex written text.
Dr. Sheila Clonan, a psychologist who recently appeared on the Science of Reading podcast, used a powerful analogy to conjure the experience of a student who never gets effective decoding instruction: Imagine, she said, that you can’t swim. You go to the pool thinking you’re going to get swimming lessons. But instead, the teacher says, “Okay, everybody get in—start swimming. Go ahead, swim to the other side of the pool and back.” Some of the other kids are going faster than others, but they’re all managing to do it. And you can’t.
“And that’s what you’re doing for six and a half hours a day,” Clonan said. “Imagine what that does to your soul. So of course we’re seeing anxiety, frustration, depression sometimes.” Boys, Clonan said, are more likely to act out. “It’s better to be bad than stupid,” one told her. Girls are more likely to become anxious and depressed.
In schools serving high-poverty populations, almost all students might be flailing in the pool, because reading difficulties disproportionately affect children from less educated families—and in our society, education is highly correlated with income. But the fact that everyone is floundering doesn’t necessarily make the experience less damaging.
Kids can pick up on a teacher’s frustration when—for reasons neither the teacher nor the kids understand—they’re just not “getting it.” In one first-grade classroom I followed for several months, the well-meaning teacher showed her exasperation when students repeatedly failed to remember things like the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, or between a caption and a subtitle—concepts too abstract for many six-year-olds to grasp. The teacher was simply following the curriculum and training she’d been given, but the result was that students were made to feel inadequate on a daily basis.
“I’m smart, aren’t I?” a little boy asked me one day, out of the blue.
Of course I assured him he was, though I barely knew him. But I suspect that a child who felt confident of his abilities wouldn’t have posed that question to a stranger.
I’ve also seen older students become defensive or resentful when they’re assigned books clearly meant for younger children, or when an adult expresses surprise that they don’t have basic information about the world that’s assumed by their textbooks. With the best of intentions, we’ve been making students feel like they’re failures, when in fact the system has failed them.
Experts who study kids’ social and emotional well-being know that feeling academically successful is a key component. Angela Duckworth, a leading authority on fostering “grit” and resilience, has created a “Student Thriving Index” that includes questions like, “Do you feel you can succeed in your classes, if you try?” What these experts may not know is how many students would answer that question in the negative—and why. If they did, surely they’d be sounding the alarm.
We can fix this. But to do so, we need to equip educators to teach decoding effectively; build academic knowledge beginning in kindergarten, preferably through a coherent curriculum; use writing instruction to enable students at any grade level to absorb what they’re expected to learn and think about it analytically; and rely primarily on explicit instruction rather than inquiry-based learning and projects when students don’t yet know much about a topic.
Doing those things won’t address every problem children bring to school, but it can go a long way toward ensuring their emotional as well as academic well-being. Teachers who have switched to a knowledge-building curriculum frequently talk about how students who were previously categorized as low-performing—the ones in the bottom reading groups, the ones diagnosed with learning disabilities, the ones still learning English—blossom the most. And when they’re given access to the same content as their classmates and contribute insightful comments to class discussion, as they often do, these children gain self-confidence. They see themselves differently—and so do their teachers and their peers.
After what may have been an emotionally tough year, do we really want to continue making so many kids feel like failures for no good reason? Especially when it’s not that hard to make them feel—and be—successful.
This post previously appeared on Forbes.com in a somewhat different form.