Back to School, Back to SEL: Balancing SEL and Academics during Back to School 2020

Authors: Dana Murano, Jeremy Burrus, & Kate Walton
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Research

With the start to the 2020 school year right around the corner, we are all in unchartered territory. We know administrators are faced with difficult decisions over whether to return to school in-person, virtually, or in some type of hybrid model. Furthermore, we know that there is an ongoing debate regarding which content areas to prioritize for instruction. No matter the path, we’re all united in the desire to ensure students’ academic and social and emotional needs are met.


Maslow Before Bloom

“Maslow before Bloom” is something we have heard repeatedly in our professional circles and from some of our partners in guidance surrounding the return to school this fall. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs portrays that students must have their basic needs met first before they can pursue more complex needs such as academic learning. Bloom’s taxonomy outlines different levels that lead to student learning. What’s meant by “Maslow before Bloom” is that it’s likely that students cannot engage in effective learning strategies until their basic and psychological needs are met. We know that all students experienced some loss of learning time as a result of COVID-19 school closures last spring. As a result, many educators are feeling that they need to focus solely on academics to make up for learning loss. However, students have also been living through unprecedented times, many have faced loss and other trauma at home these past few months. They will likely be feeling anxious, confused, and worried as their back-to-school routines are disrupted. A belief we hold, and one that many in this line of work share, is that students’ social and emotional needs should be at the forefront of back-to-school in 2020.



What do the Data Say?

Last week, we wrote about how social emotional skills predict important student outcomes such as academic achievement, attendance, and positive conduct. These data came from pre-COVID times (if anyone can remember such a thing) and show that under business-as-usual conditions, social emotional skills help students succeed in school.

But what about during COVID times? Back in April 2020, we surveyed 642 college-bound American high school students who had previously taken the ACT. We asked them to report on typical behaviors they were engaging in at the onset of the pandemic.


Basic Needs

We were interested in how students’ basic needs were being met at the onset of the pandemic. We asked students to report on how often they had trouble sleeping at night. Not surprisingly, about 70% of the sample reported some trouble sleeping.


Research shows that the social emotional skill Maintaining Composure is most highly related to a student’s ability to stay calm, adapt to new circumstances, and manage emotions – all factors associated with not staying up worried all night! We were interested if students at higher levels of Maintaining Composure reported less trouble sleeping at night. We broke students into quartiles, with the lowest quartile of students (Q1) demonstrating the lowest levels of Maintaining Composure and students in the fourth quartile (Q4) demonstrating the highest. We found that students highest in Maintaining Composure reported the least trouble sleeping at night. We found this pattern to be true, both for White and non-White students, despite higher worry levels in minority students we had previously seen in this sample. Furthermore, sleep trouble remained constant across quartiles of academic performance.

Note. A score of 1 indicates no trouble sleeping, 2 indicates trouble sleeping 1-2 nights per week, and 3 indicates trouble sleeping 3-5 nights per week.


Psychological Needs

Belonging needs, such as the need for interpersonal connections with others, was also a salient need at the onset of the pandemic and continues to be as social distancing continues. When asked if they missed interacting with others in social settings, 93% students in our sample agreed to some extent. Though feeling isolated was almost universal, we wondered if social emotional skills were also associated with students actively seeking out connection with others. We asked students to report how many times they had initiated phone or video calls to stay connected with others during the pandemic. Again, we broke students up into quartiles based on levels of Getting Along with Others and Social Connection, with students in the first quartile (Q1) demonstrating the lowest levels and students in the fourth quartile (Q4) demonstrating the highest. We found that students in highest quartiles of Getting Along with Others and Social Connection were most likely to engage in such behaviors in order to meet their needs for connection. Behavior did not significantly differ across quartiles of cognitive ability or between White and non-White students.

Note. A score of 1 indicates initiating calls never, 2 indicates initiating calls 1-2 times per week, and 3 indicates initiating calls 3-5 times per week.


SEL in Action 

In total, we asked students to respond to 15 questions about their typical behaviors during the pandemic, each one represented a productive way of coping during these trying times. They reported frequencies for the number of times per week they organized their schedules to stay on task, used coping strategies like meditation or gratitude to help regulate their emotions, and found creative ways to spend their time. Overall, we found that students in higher quartiles of all social emotional skills engaged in more positive, constructive behaviors during the pandemic.


SEL in Back-to-School 2020

What we see is that social emotional skills can help students meet their basic and psychological needs and help them to effectively cope with the new realities brought on by the pandemic. What does this mean as we consider priorities for back-to-school? Working on solely academics won’t help students deal with these things but focusing on SEL can. Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which we will share some strategies for incorporating SEL into your school’s re-opening plan.

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.