COVID-19 shows us the Real Reason for Social-Emotional Learning

I sit quietly, as nine pairs of eyes stare up at me, expectantly. The third graders before me are familiar with me coming into their classroom for special Social-Emotional Learning lessons. In the past, we sang songs, played games, and created art. We discussed how to be active learners, respectful friends, and accepting of differences. But those days were different – at those times, just a few short weeks ago, there would have been 24 pairs of eyes waiting for me to start the lesson. The students would be sneaking sideways glances and smiles or wriggling with energy. Today, more than half the class is missing and those who are left seem tense. Their eyes plead with me to provide reassurance and love…. because today is the last day before schools shutter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I scan the room, I wonder if the nine students left in the classroom are representative of the opportunity gap that exists in our society. It seems that any parent who has the privilege to do so has kept their children home by now. The importance of “flattening the curve” and of “social distancing” has been made clear through science and social media. I figure that the students who remain in schools are those relying on meals served during the school day or those whose parents are hourly workers or in professions essential to the running of the economy. I recognize a few students whose parents, I know, are struggling themselves – struggling with alcohol/drug addiction or who are victims in abusive relationships. I also notice the local nurse’s child and the child of a school administrator. I think about how I sent my own child to school this morning so that I can be here for these kids right now.

Long before any one was talking about the virulence of the coronavirus or debating how many cans of beans were really necessary to last through a quarantine, I learned something that I added to my own emotional toolbox so that I could get through moments like this one. Edith Zimmerman’s article “I Now Suspect the Vagus Nerve is The Key to Well-Being” made sense to me as someone who has experienced unpleasant vagal responses, such as light-headedness and panicky feelings, to specific stressful situations, like having my blood taken. I practice using breath to self-regulate when life is calm and routine so that I can call upon that rhythmic breathing and peaceful sensation when I start to feel triggered by an attack of cortisol. In fact, I found breath to be so integral to my own calming that I have used this visual cue that regulates the timing of breath to start most of my lessons with these same third graders. When teaching the students to notice their breath, I explain that in moments of stress, our thinking brain shuts down, making it harder to learn, to stay calm, to be flexible, to listen, and to care for others. By calming our breathing, we can stop our brains from becoming hijacked by stress. This is great for our own wellbeing, and it benefits everyone we interact with. In hindsight, I am grateful that we have that base practice already in place so that we can access it now.

I have decided that this period, which will probably be our last time together for the 2019-20 school year, will be devoted to creating mindful moments of focused attention and kindness. We start with two evidence-based practices: breathing together, followed by listening to “relaxing music for stress relief.” When I look at each of these children in front of me and then at their devoted teacher, I can feel her love and strength pouring through the classroom. I tell each one of them that they are loved, that they will be cared for, that we are all nervous right now and that is what we are supposed to be feeling. I tell them that one day, things will be normal and we will look back on this time with amazement. I tell them that this is a time for us to gather as a community to make personal choices that will show that we care for people we have never even met. I tell them that I am confident in their ability to do this–to thrive despite the uncertainty of the times, because they have been taught the skills that they need.

The students begin to cycle through stations set up to stimulate their senses, helping them to be present in this moment, and through that presence to experience the moment as a good one. There is one station where each child gets an individual cup of Orbeez jelly-like water beads to squeeze and smush. There is a station devoted to the pleasures of mindful eating. Each child savors the flavors and texture of a single chocolate chip. Students try to guess mystery smells and also try to notice every sound they hear in the classroom and beyond. Students color mandalas. Throughout the hour, I remind students to breathe and I watch as they gradually calm the vagus nerve within their own bodies.

As I observe the students’ movements, it dawns on me that this is the moment…the reason…the proof…the embodiment of the need for Social-Emotional Learning. Here is our opportunity to call up the skills that we have been practicing in classrooms across the country. I recall teaching these students to be active learners. Now they must utilize those skills independently as they are homeschooled by parents as teachers or on their own when a parent is obligated to work.

The SEL skills that we learned in the classroom are now being put to the test in the real world. Together, these students and I listed traits of respectful friendships and talked about how to set personal boundaries while still being kind. In the time of social distancing, these little children are being asked to keep 6 feet apart and play completely differently than they are used to. They show care for each other and their greater community by avoiding the ones they love. One of our last lessons in January was about tolerance, accepting differences and looking for commonalities. Now, these skills are being put to the test as we talk about destigmatizing a virus that infects us blindly, indifferent to race, socio-economic status, nationality or ethnicity. It is easy to practice these SEL skills in isolation, when we are talking about hypothetical situations. This is the time when students need to delve deep into their own SEL toolboxes and show what they can do.

When the lesson is over, the students are laughing about how they could have mistaken the mystery smell of “garlic” for “roast chicken.” They ask each other: how could a roast chicken fit into the tiny mystery smell envelope? For the moment, they have forgotten about the reach of a coronavirus. I long to hug each of these tiny third grade soldiers, left in this classroom to fight a battle for normalcy. This time of crisis will have lasting effects on these children. Their education has been interrupted and their lives have been turned upside down. They are likely to lose someone they love – we all are. Instead of reaching out my arms, though, I bring my palms toward my body and I fold into a deep bow. The symbolism of a bow is strong – stage actors bow at the end of a play to thank the audience for coming, martial artists bow before a match to show that they will obey the rules of the game, members of the royal court bow to show reverence. As I bow to these students, I acknowledge all of these things. I am thanking them for bringing joy to a moment in my day. I realize that they are playing their part in this effort to thwart the spread of disease—and to maintain kindness, care and compassion in the face of it. And I am showing them deep respect because I know the social and emotional burdens caused by COVID-19 will be carried on their shoulders long after the virus has died.

Kathy Batty is School Counselor and Licensed Social Worker from Burlington, Vermont. Currently, she is @onleaveandabsent with her two children. She is a Resource Facilitator for the NoVo Foundation and Education First 2019 SEL in Action community of teacher grantees, and is a recipient of an SEL in Action grant.