(This blog post is by our colleague Laura Hamilton. Laura is associate vice president of research centers for ETS, overseeing the organization’s foundational research on a number of cross-cutting domains to help inform decision-making and advance the science and practice of learning and assessment. Her own research has focused on producing evidence-based guidance to inform K-12 education policy and practice, particularly in the areas of social, emotional, and civic learning. A behavioral scientist, Laura previously directed the RAND Center for Social and Emotional Learning Research.)

As the 2021–2022 school year got underway, much of the debate among the nation’s educators and the media focused on the public health and academic-learning implications of the pandemic: How would schools reopen safely? How would they address missed learning opportunities and ensure that students were prepared to succeed academically?  

Although academic concerns have been at the forefront of many discussions, it is clear that the pandemic took a heavy toll on students’ mental health and on their opportunities to grow socially and emotionally. Specific circumstances varied, but most students lost access to supportive networks of peers and adults. Many faced stressful family circumstances stemming from health concerns, loss of employment, and the effects of having to homeschool without adequate supervision, space, or technology resources. Other societal factors, including the protests for racial justice and the fallout from the 2020 election, almost certainly exacerbated mental health challenges for many students. Educators, too, struggled with threats to their well-being. And of course, all these effects exerted inequitable influence across schools and student groups. 

As part of an effort by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to take stock of how youth across the U.S. have fared, we convened a panel of experts to review evidence of the pandemic’s effects on students’ mental health and their social and emotional learning (SEL) opportunities. The group’s work resulted in a report that summarized the evidence and identified implications for research and policy.  

What did we find?  

We had access to dozens of data sources, including surveys, qualitative data, administrative data, and information scraped from web pages. This work was made possible by the enormous number of researchers and funders who quickly pivoted to collect a variety of data shortly after the pandemic hit and who continue to monitor its effects.  

The review of research and data corroborated what many of us have heard from young people, their family members, and educators. At least one third of youth reported negative impacts on their mental or social-emotional health, and these impacts were larger for students who engaged in extensive remote learning and for those from historically marginalized groups. Despite some reports of students benefiting from remote learning, the vast majority of impact appears to be negative, and it increased over time. Moreover, teachers, principals, and district leaders identified supports for SEL and mental health as a critical area of need. The CRPE report provides more details about these findings. 

At the same time, there is much that we don’t know. There’s a particular need for evidence regarding the pandemic’s effects on students with disabilities, many of whom lost access to the supports typically provided to them, and on the experiences of students who were too young to participate in surveys. We also know little about how changes to instructional models and content influenced students’ opportunities to develop key social and emotional competencies such as social awareness. Another crucial concern is how the diverse social and cultural contexts youth bring with them to the learning environment have interacted with their pandemic learning experiences and their developmental stage and how educators and others can provide the tailored supports and instruction needed. 

What next? 

The variety, quality, and scope of data-collection efforts that launched shortly after schools closed in spring 2020 enabled educators and policymakers to identify the most significant challenges and begin marshalling the resources to tackle them. But the lack of clear guidance to address many of the needs that have been identified, along with the important questions that remain unanswered, points to the urgency of policymakers, funders, educators, and researchers coming together to engage in a systematic, comprehensive approach to monitoring and supporting students’ and educators’ SEL and mental health. 

Of course, the benefits of attending to SEL and mental health were well-known and widely acknowledged prior to the pandemic, and educators in schools across the U.S. have expressed a strong commitment to supporting whole-child development. ISA’s SEAD (social, emotional, and academic development) initiative provides one example of an approach that considers the multiple dimensions of youth development and well-being. In this work ISA supports educators as they establish authentic relationships with their students; develop tangible practices that build students’ social, emotional, and academic skills; and implement techniques that help students reflect on their learning. 

The contributions of all the educators, young people, and others to the research have helped us get a handle on the most urgent needs for the education community to address. We can also learn a lot from efforts like the ISA SEAD initiative. Although solutions must be tailored to the local context, it is possible to offer some general guidelines based on work that’s been done to date. 

First, although SEL and mental health are related, it is important to recognize that all youth and adults can benefit from development of social and emotional competencies, just as they can benefit from academic learning. Educators should avoid approaching SEL from a deficit perspective or using SEL as merely a set of strategies for addressing mental health or behavior problems.  Moreover, it’s important to ensure that adults with the right expertise are involved in supporting these many dimensions of well-being. For some mental health challenges, it will be important that students have access to trained providers of mental health services – certainly not a given, and an area where there are clear disparities among schools. 

Second, supports for SEL and mental health need to be tailored to students’ developmental levels and to their sociocultural contexts while also building on opportunities to connect with families and community-based organizations. A team from CASEL describes an approach to “Transformative SEL” that makes these connections explicit and provides some useful guidance. 

Third, efforts to promote students’ social and emotional well-being should not be viewed as detracting from time spent on academics. To the contrary, as the Aspen Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning reported, evidence strongly indicates that academic learning benefits from attention to learners’ social and emotional needs.  

Finally, I return to the topic of measurement. The evidence discussed earlier would not have been available in the absence of the significant efforts that educators and researchers undertook to gather a variety of data on students’ experiences. But limited data were available to help us understand how the pandemic influenced students’ social and emotional well-being. As the CRPE panel wrote:  

Simply measuring student learning is not sufficient. Without some effort to ensure that users of that student achievement data understand the factors that might have contributed to outcomes, we run the risk of misinterpretation and stigma, especially when disparities across subgroups are large. We cannot make sound decisions about interventions and support without accounting for the impact of students’ circumstances. Data on learning must be accompanied by data on students’ opportunities to learn through formal schooling as well as information on their broader sociocultural context (CRPE, 2021, p.15). 

Such an ambitious effort will need to be designed in a way that does not impose a heavy burden on our already stretched systems. It will also need to be socioculturally responsive and equity-focused and geared toward identifying assets rather than simply diagnosing challenges. This effort will require close collaboration among educators, young people, researchers, and others from diverse backgrounds to develop and implement a data-collection strategy that maximizes benefits and minimizes harm.