What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Social and Emotional Skill Development

Main Author: Kate Walton
Supporting Author: Dana Murano
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

Although it’s typically assumed that nothing good can come out of adversity, history is riddled with anecdotes about people persevering and flourishing during difficult times. During past global pandemics, Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous works, and Newton developed theories of gravity. As we find ourselves in the middle of this current global pandemic, we wondered, ”Are there any signs of growth at a broad level with our students?”. To answer this question, we recently examined students’ social and emotional skill development during the COVID-19 experience. We surveyed 642 American college-bound high school students in early February 2020, before COVID-19 hit the US, and again two months later, after COVID-19 took us in its grips. What did we find?

  • Students showed significant growth on four of the five social and emotional skills we assessed. Students are becoming better at sustaining effort, maintaining composure, getting along with others, and keeping an open mind (see the figure below). The one skill that students are not developing during this time is the skill of socializing with others, which, given current social distancing orders, is not surprising.
  • The biggest gains have been on maintaining composure. This is consistent with what one might expect given the COVID-19-related challenges we are facing. As we saw last week, students are worried about the effects of COVID-19. They are adapting to a life of social distance and online learning. Some are watching their parents lose jobs and worry about paying bills. Some are balancing schoolwork with sibling childcare. Life is filled with uncertainty. These times undoubtedly require adapting and maintaining composure.
  • The gains in the skill of maintaining composure are much larger than what has been reported in previous research examining social and emotional skill development in similarly aged kids, despite a much shorter interval in the current study. In the absence of a major social crisis, on average, we see little change in the skill of maintaining composure, even during spans of one to two years. In other words, in the face of COVID-19, students are learning to be much more composed, and they are doing so quickly. 


Social and Emotional Skill Development During COVID-19

Note. Possible scale scores ranged from 1-6.


Despite the challenges of COVID-19 – or perhaps due to the challenges of COVID-19 – students are showing positive social and emotional development. In addition to requiring resilience and maintaining composure, the pandemic offers opportunities for students to practice and sharpen their skills related to pursuing goals and persisting in the face of challenge, having empathy and showing kindness to others, and exercising curiosity and flexibility.


How can social and emotional skills develop so much in such a short period of time?

Research shows that social and emotional skills change naturally over time and that intervention efforts work to improve social and emotional skills. The onset of COVID-19 essentially represents a natural experiment in that it has introduced changes to students’ environments. Our results offer additional evidence that students respond to environmental factors, further illustrating the malleability of social and emotional skills. Sometimes environmental factors necessitate rapid development; for example, as a response to COVID-19, students are quickly becoming more resilient, simply, because they must. If students can develop positive social and emotional skills under such trying conditions, imagine how students respond to the experience of a positive, controlled social and emotional learning program. Indeed, abundant research now shows that these programs are effective in improving student skills. We are encouraged to know that students are prevailing in the face of adversity, and we are encouraged to see additional evidence supporting social and emotional learning interventions.


Given that students are showing social and emotional skill development in the face of COVID-19, does this mean that everything’s okay?

No. We want to be clear that, although these findings are encouraging, this doesn’t mean that we think everything is okay. As we wrote last week, students are justifiably worried and anxious about COVID-19. Programs that support students’ social and emotional development can help them deal with this worry and anxiety in healthy ways. Although our findings suggest that students may be developing their skills naturally over time, they still need as much help as we can give them right now. Furthermore, programs designed to develop social and emotional skills are not only important during the current crisis, but they will also prepare students to deal positively with future adversities.


Explore more resources to continue supporting your students’ social emotional development now and in the future:

Kate E. Walton, PhD

Kate E. Walton, PhD

Kate Walton is a principal research scientist in ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. Prior to joining ACT in 2017, she was Associate Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University. She received her PhD in Personality Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota in the Psychology Department’s Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research Program. She is interested in social and emotional skill assessment and development.