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
- 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
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.
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].