In the Face of Uncertainty, Social Emotional Training Is a Must
By Addison Old
“‘Hope?’ Why is there a question mark after hope?” I asked Lucy. “Well, is there even hope anymore?” she answered.
On Jan. 7, the day after protesters stormed the United States Capitol, my fifth graders were continuing a project from the day before, when they chose words to define their new year. Confidence. Flexible. Splendid. Better. Hope. Words to cling to when the school year has been so trying, constantly changing how we are learning, all while watching unprecedented events occur across our nation.
On the evening of Jan. 6, I searched social media for ideas from other teachers about how to approach the day’s events with elementary students. How do I do this and make sure I’m not sharing a political opinion? What is OK for me to share with students? Will they have heard the news? After talking with my colleagues, I decided to use an open-ended journal prompt to allow students to share how they were feeling and any questions they had. Even after deciding what to do, my mind was racing all night, wondering how to make sure my students’ emotional needs were met.
With all the challenges of this school year, educators, myself included, are overwhelmed. While navigating health and safety concerns and ever-changing methods of teaching is top of mind for me, my students’ social and emotional well-being is even more important. My students wrote in their journals about being worried that our nation was falling apart and mad that people would do such a thing. They questioned if the rioters would have consequences for their actions. During our whole-class discussion, I left my questions open-ended, so students would feel safe asking theirs. I told them that I, too, felt confused about what had transpired. We ended our conversation by agreeing that our words matter; if we share them with the world, they will have an impact. Not for the first time, I wished I had more guidance and understanding to have authentic conversations about traumatic events with my students.
Teachers like me need meaningful resources and recurring supports to help identify students facing trauma and how to best support them. In the last few years, I have received some training on how to help students deal with traumatic situations but that was not enough to prepare me to talk with my students about the events that unfolded in Washington. I did not feel equipped with tangible resources and support for students facing traumatic events in the world around them. I needed concrete strategies to support my students in times of crisis.
To ensure such programs provide what educators need, they must be tied to a sustainable, recurring funding source. As the 2021 Texas Legislative Session begins, it is essential that lawmakers pass funding measures like House Bill 332 that would allow for compensatory funds to be used for “implementing social and emotional learning programs.” This would provide school districts with the flexibility to offer high-quality SEL and trauma training to educators.
Other efforts must continue as well. This year, to equip teachers with skills for addressing student trauma, the Texas Education Agency began Project Restore in response to the trauma and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need more programs like Project Restore to ensure teachers have a toolbox of strategies to help those students most impacted by the ongoing pandemic and other traumatic events.
Even when I did not have all of the facts about the riot at the Capitol, I knew it was important we discussed it as a class. We needed to do so not just for social and emotional reasons but because we had to acknowledge the civics and history lessons behind the unconscionable acts we witnessed. As an educator, I know my students are watching me for clues on how we react to events around us. I must be ready to process these events with them.
Our students have endured a lot in the past year. We must respect their need for social and emotional support and provide the necessary training for educators to help our students build endurance and resilience during times of uncertainty. In the meantime, I will continue to model appropriate skills with students like Lucy and do my best to support their needs in the wake of uncertainty.
Addison Old teaches 5th grade in Austin, Texas. She is a 2020–21 Texas Policy Fellow.