Social-Emotional Needs First. Standards and Accountability Later.

Last week we connected with a frustrated school leader who has been valiantly trying to put into place a robust distance learning plan aligned with college readiness standards, all while attending to the mental health and social emotional needs of her students and staff. She shared stories of her high school students going to work to financially support their households, students serving as the primary caregivers to younger siblings, and families navigating housing insecurity and homelessness.

With the sobering reality of these basic needs juxtaposed with the virtual learning mandates coming from her district, feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness began to set in:

My kids are dealing with way bigger issues here. Focusing on virtual learning and an instructional plan, without paying attention to the human condition, is just plain wrong.

We know that many teachers have been saying the same thing. Across the country, schools are beginning to come to a shared understanding that pushing academic content at the pre-pandemic pace needs to stop. Instead of focusing so intently on standards and accountability, this moment calls for education leaders to reground in common sense and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory posits that basic needs must be met in order for individuals to have capacity to engage in deep cognitive thought and learning. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We would be remiss not to acknowledge efforts by schools to address food insecurity. But at the same time, we see numerous examples of school systems who desperately continue trying to meet grade level expectations and standards in English Language Arts, Math, and Science at the expense of attending to the social-emotional health and well-being of students.

Many teachers and parents are in a hamster wheel of anxiety about somehow failing their kids if they are “not on pace” — a task the even best of teachers grapple to achieve for all of their students within pre-pandemic circumstances. In a time of stress and anxiety, we are creating more stress and anxiety, which is not conducive to teaching or learning.

As educators we have long known that meeting individuals’ social-emotional needs and establishing a safe space must take place before learning can occur. Yet in this moment, we see some schools and districts ignoring what research and our instincts tell us. If human needs related to food, physical safety, health, emotional security, and financial security are not being met, then we cannot reasonably expect our students to meaningfully engage in complex academic tasks.

If our most vulnerable students are experiencing homelessness, abuse, or threats to their safety and stability, how will they have the focus and stamina to complete a set of learning tasks across 4-5 subject areas online and with limited support? If our staff members are caring for and educating their own children and/or caring for sick family members, how can they simultaneously plan and deliver meaningful and engaging learning experiences in an attempt to replace the in-classroom experience?

Schools often use state testing and accountability as their purpose and indicators of achievement, however most states have opted to waive testing for the 2019-20 school year, and there are many emergency policy waivers in place for accountability requirements based on students’ academic achievement Given these waivers, our education system should focus on the immediate needs of students: their well-being and adjustment to a new learning environment.

What our children need now is social and emotional support and trauma-based practices (including these offered by Teaching Tolerance for educators during COVID-19). A critical part of a great learning plan should focus on helping students understand their emotions and process the world around them in developmentally appropriate ways. Beyond these essentials, now is not a time for an overly complex instructional plan. Now is a time for activities that look most akin to enrichment, keeping and nurturing students’ natural interest. At the end of the day, we can’t forget that we are in the people business first.

For other Bellwether blog posts on COVID-19, click here, or see a list of external resources on our website.