Social and Emotional Learning

Online SEL Can Help Students Overcome Struggles and Barriers

A school counselor explains how technology can be paired with relationships to improve mental wellbeing for today’s stressed students.

Lately, it’s impossible to miss the news stories about the pandemic and the resulting long-lasting effects on student mental health. The last year and a half have taken a toll on all of us, and especially on our nation’s young people.

Whether students were in-person or remote, school was hard last year — and this year may not be easier. As a school counselor, I am always amazed at kids' resilient ability to adapt. But I continue to see the effects of social isolation and learning loss walking through the school doors every morning. The chatter in school halls, sharing in my office, and social media feeds full of parent worries tell the same story. So many of our students struggle with focus. They feel overwhelmed and lost. They are struggling to learn. Given what I am hearing from students, I can imagine that this is the same reality every school faces today.

School-based counseling teams are finding the need to support students is the top priority — and an incredibly challenging one. We’re all wrestling with trying to find a solution to help teach our students how to calm fears, re-engage, and thrive. It can feel overwhelming, especially as the pandemic persists.

A national shortage of highly qualified professionals to support students compounds the challenge. The American School Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, roughly half the national average of 464 to 1.

Despite all the challenges, there is a good reason for hope. New social-emotional learning (SEL) solutions are emerging, and with the support of technology tools, schools and teachers can support more students. Technology has the power to remove barriers, and effective SEL technology can offer three things learners need for long-term growth:

  • Equitable student support;
  • High fidelity of implementation; and
  • Learning that delivers long-term behavioral change.

Equitable Support for Every Student

There are many barriers to accessing appropriate mental health services: stigma, cost, transportation, and access, among others. School-based supports can overcome these considerable hurdles by providing timely, effective services to students directly through the school systems.

Before the pandemic, a 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that nearly 60% of the 3.8 million youth aged 12–17 who reported a major depressive episode received no treatment. Of those who did get help, the majority of these students got it at school.

Education technology can help bridge these gaps. For example, a plug-and-play curriculum centered on real-time student needs can effectively empower classroom teachers to lead Tier 1 SEL lessons.

Fidelity of Implementation

Teachers are tasked with much more than their content these days. And relying on these busy professionals to manage growing workloads, continual pandemic shifts and student mental health supports is a recipe for teacher burnout. Evidence-based lessons delivered via educational technology allow teachers to reach students in a personalized way without requiring hours of preparation. With the necessary resources curated into short lessons, teachers can quickly meet students where they are, rather than relying on generic YouTube videos or exercises.

Multi-tiered systems of support are the foundation of a strong SEL program. For example, teaching students to take charge of their thoughts and feelings, learn healthy relationship and communication skills, and talking about goals setting during elementary school will help them thrive throughout their learning career. Students who understand their internal locus of control are more likely to thrive in school, in work, and in their lives. That is the promise of strong, effective, integrated SEL programs.

Learning Designed for Long-Term Behavioral Change

Brain research demonstrates that learning happens best when new concepts are broken into small puzzle pieces that, over time, build a bigger picture. Guiding students through a process of repeating, reflecting and relating the learning to their life is effective and successful. The data and outcomes I’ve seen from EmpowerU, a curriculum that is built on brain research, provide hope for tackling a growing problem of youth mental health. EmpowerU’s brief daily exercise prompts students to reflect on their learning, either individually or with their class, and invites students to apply their learning to their own lives and goals.

When students are supported with daily SEL lessons, the data shows they’ll notice a change: less anxiety and stress and increased motivation, resilience, and self-regulation. SEL lessons aren’t meant just to be taught and remembered; they’re meant to be experienced and felt. The goal is to help students develop lasting behavioral change so they can adapt and thrive when faced with life’s ups and downs. Schools that use a data- and research-driven online learning platform that pairs technology and relationships to deliver SEL, we genuinely can provide the necessary support to all students and transform the success of our students and schools.

About the Author

Kelly Curtis is an elementary school counselor, EmpowerU instructor and recipient of the 2021 Wisconsin Equity in Action Award. She can be reached at [email protected].