ANDERSON — In a typical school year, a relatively finite number of students need socioemotional support because of adverse childhood experience, such as parental divorce, death of a loved one or the fallout of an inappropriate relationship with an adult.
But as the 2020-21 school year nears, Lori DeSautels, assistant professor in Butler University’s College of Education, said it is a certainty that 100% of students returning to school buildings have suffered through an adverse childhood experience because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial upheaval.
“It’s a very, very complex time, with COVID and the racism that has been the focus of the nation over the past several months. There are layers of trauma that our kids are going to carry back as they come back in school,” she said. “What we are seeing from our children and our adolescents across the state and across the country is literally this layering of trauma on families and students who were already struggling because of adverse childhood experiences.”
The social-emotional well-being of students adds to the list of challenges faced by teachers and school administrators throughout Madison County and the state as they plan for the reopening of schools in a few weeks after they were closed around spring break in March.
A specialist in brain-based social-emotional education, DeSautels has worked with school districts throughout the state for several years. Social-emotional learning became a focus for almost all Madison County school districts starting with the 2219-20 school year.
DeSautels said the events of the past several months have placed on children three conditions that can adversely affect brain development: chronic unpredictability, isolation from classmates and teachers, and feeling physically restrained. Because of that, students who otherwise may have been a joy to have in class suddenly may seem aggressive or disruptive, she said.
“That condition is hard on brains and bodies. You don’t know what is going to happen and who is going to be your safe place,” she said. “That was stripped from them, suddenly in mid-March, and there was no closure.”
For some children, that is compounded by additional layers of adverse situations at home, including parental unemployment in light of the pandemic, food and housing insecurity, and the potential for abuse, DeSautels said. For many children, school is their safe place.
“Our children and families of color were disproportionately affected by COVID and the issues of police brutality and protest,” she said.
The adversity for many children already started in the home, DeSautels said, as parents untrained in the education of children grappled with the hardship of continuing their learning.
“There was a lot of anger. ‘You’re not my teacher. You don’t know this. You are so overprotective. I’m going to see my friends anyway,’” she said.
Educational neuroscience and creating safe spaces where students can talk about their feelings will be important tools in helping students get past their anxieties so they can continue to take advantage of the education offered, DeSautels said.
“We are going to have to be very intentional as teachers, as staff members, as administrators,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of practices we’re sharing.”
Commander Jill Barker, superintendent at Anderson Preparatory Academy, said COVID-19 definitely interrupted her school’s initiatives, limiting staff’s ability to monitor and gauge student engagement and success.
“We were able to innovate and continue to engage our students to the best of our ability during remote learning, but the consistency of daily interaction and face-to-face is important for building strong foundational skills,” she said. “Some of our strategies included phone check-ins, journal dialogue, socially distanced home visits, Zoom visits, Facebook Live evening sessions that included bed-time stories and engagement.”
However, staff did not have full access to all students due to a variety of factors, Barker said.
“While we also engaged our students in small groups via Zoom, we were not able to drive home the sense of community in the same sense that we are used to being able to. This significantly impacted the ability to address the SEL competencies of connection and collaboration,” she said. “Additionally, helping students regulate virtually is a whole new world and created many challenges.”
As with the “summer slide” that occurs when students forget some of what they learned the previous school year and have to be re-taught, some of that also is likely in the realm of social-emotional learning, Barker said.
“We will be prioritizing our SEL, especially the first few weeks back, so that we can assess the slide and deliver interventions to help bridge the gap,” she said. “We will need to assess SEL learning-readiness as well as academic learning readiness. Students will have to reengage with self-regulation, relearn how to collaborate and engage with others in a classroom setting, and reestablish connections with their teachers and peers.”
Anderson Community Schools interim Superintendent Joe Cronk said even though his district initiated social-emotional learning in earnest during the 2019-20 school year, he doesn’t believe the students have lost ground with the initiative because of the pandemic.
“Our counselors and social workers continued to check on students and provided services as needed. The challenge was to perform those services at a distance,” he said.
Bobby Fields, superintendent at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools, said much of social-emotional learning is about collaboration and working well together, something that can’t really be emphasized and practiced in a virtual learning environment.
“Our teachers tried to meet with their students as much as possible using Google Hangouts, where they could see their students online and the students could see each other. That was about the best they could do under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
Fields noted these five months will have been the longest period in which students have been away from school, their friends and their teachers, so there really isn’t any evidence-based way to predict how students will fare.
“We don’t really know what kind of social/emotional issues we will see with our students once school is back up and running,” he said.
In spite of the unpredictability, local school officials and superintendents, including Fields, insist getting back to the classroom is one of the ways to help students get back on track socially and emotionally.
“If our school district is in ‘little to no spread’ of the COVID-19 virus, it is important to have traditional school as much as possible, not only for the social/emotional well-being of our students, but also because it is important for students and teachers to have personal interaction for the best learning to take place.”