The past two years have been an incredibly difficult time in the field of education. With constant shifts in instructional norms as a result of the pandemic, the social and emotional stress of students has greatly increased – and our return to in-person learning has been fraught with heightened conflict and disruptive behavior. In response, the Mission Society educators are looking for new ways to address the changing needs of students with sensitivity and care, while keeping order in the classroom.
A Student-Centered Solution
When one of our Program Directors, Waleska Salcedo, noticed that the 5th graders at PS 33 were constantly bickering, she knew the remedy needed to center their thoughts and feelings. She held sessions to create strategies for emotional decompression, and had students write about what would help them interact better with their peers.
One solution, it turned out, was to take a trip down memory lane. Students were missing the hands-on activities they enjoyed in 1st and 2nd grade, such as coloring, and wanted to play more games like Kahoot. Having rewards to look forward to helped curb the quarreling, motivated students to finish their homework, and has resulted in a happier and more relaxed group, Waleska says.
“By having these conversations, I supported students in finding ways to help them create routines and engaged them in strategizing to develop solutions. What struck me was that they figured out what they needed and knew how to express it positively.”
The physical separation likely worsened the anxiety of students who thrive in social settings, Waleska added. Mental health distress is on the rise in general as a result of the pandemic. Behavioral health referrals for youth ages 6 to 18 are up 65% from March 2020, according to the Yale Child Study Center and the Scholastic Collaborative for Child & Family Resilience.
Given these challenges, maintaining a safe and nurturing environment where students can learn and grow is top priority this year.
“Students need to have adults who support and understand their needs and challenges. We create an atmosphere that is supportive and inclusive for all students. Focusing on each young person individually makes a difference in their life.”
Program Director Emanuel Roderick agrees. When the middle schoolers at Harlem Village Academy begin to act out, Emanuel makes sure to validate their feelings, and then help them find healthier ways of managing their emotions.
“I always let my participants and students know that their feelings are real and it's okay to be angry.”
Setting our Scholars Up for Lifelong Success
The Mission Society’s proprietary social-emotional learning curriculum, Mission: Success, was designed to help our youngest students develop important life skills like emotional regulation. The benefits of mastering these lessons are clear. According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, SEL protects against adverse risk-taking behaviors, emotional distress, and conduct problems, and contributes to health, academic achievement, and success later in life.
“If our young people can master these skills now, they'll be well off as they go to college and become young adults,” Emanuel notes.
To ensure students have these foundational tools throughout their lives, Mission Society’s educators work hard to build trust, identify and manage behavioral triggers, and give them – and their families – individualized attention, Waleska says. Emanuel adds that the most valuable support, regardless of the pandemic, is family engagement. When caretakers engage with the struggles young people are navigating in school, it can go a long way in helping them feel seen and understood.
The Path Forward
But Waleska emphasized that educators and families can only do so much and more mental health specialists are needed. To that end, the Mission Society plans to hire a social worker who will assess the social, emotional, and life needs of children and their families, and connect them to necessary services. This will also help students focus on school and not further offset their learning during a challenging time in academics.
In our work, it is vital that we focus on the whole student - assisting with their academic goals and their well-being beyond the classroom. To learn more about our efforts and why they matter, hear directly from a Mission Society social worker, read self-care tips developed by our educators for students, and discover the impact of social emotional learning in our schools.