Opinion

Opinion

MARY ANN WOLF: Serving students' critical social and emotional needs to assure success

Posted November 16, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

Yvette Richardson, School Social Worker, Nash-Rocky Mount Schools

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is Mary Ann Wolf's "Final Word" from the Nov. 14, 2020 broadcast of Education Matters: "Student success during, after pandemic requires N.C. to invest in school support personnel." Wolf is president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.


Long before COVID-19, educators, administrators, and school systems across our state had a deep understanding that successfully educating our students must include addressing the academic, social, and emotional learning needs of our students.

Addressing the needs of the whole child is not only the right thing to do, it is critical to ensuring that each child reaches their academic potential. Today additional needs are emerging related to students’ fears and realities stemming from the pandemic, as well as the obstacles so many face due to systemic racism and profound inequities that shape our communities and world.

When I was a teacher 20 years ago I understood that my role went beyond academics. But at that time educators didn’t quite have the language, data, or information we needed to implement the elements of strong social and emotional learning.

Today, however, we know so much more about the foundation that this plays for learning and the neuroscience behind it. We know that when a student’s stress response system is activated their prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain needed for higher thinking and learning -- is “offline” and not in a state ready to take in new information and process it.

Research shows that students who experience three or more Adverse Childhood Experiences — also known as ACEs — score lower than their peers on standardized tests are:

  • 2.5 times more likely to fail a grade;
  • 32 times more likely to be labeled as learning disabled;
  • More likely to be suspended and expelled.

This group of high-need students, which includes significant numbers of low-income and students of color, suffers disproportionately under traditional approaches to school discipline. Addressing ACEs through trauma-informed practices can help to mitigate some of the risks for our students.

Supporting educators and student support teams to learn about ACEs and trauma-informed instruction through resiliency and social and emotional learning work are important for supporting our students.

Research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and other scholars published in the journal Child Development shows a strong and sustainable benefit to implementing effective social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. For example, students engaged in SEL programs performed an average of 13 points higher on academic measurements than their peers who were not exposed to SEL programs, a finding that persisted years later.

It is clear that the investment can have a big impact on individual students as well as on our workforce and communities.

Our teachers are very involved in supporting the whole child, but they cannot do this without the support of the psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses.

These are the people who help students and their families propel toward success, providing physical and mental health support while working with students to understand their learning needs and differences.

These instructional support staff make the important connection between school and home, especially within the context of remote learning. Social workers are critical to pinpointing which students struggle with food insecurity or are in need of other outside of the classroom supports.

School counselors are the ones who connect with students who are struggling in their classes, have challenging situations at home, or may need additional mental health supports.

While many of our schools have school support personnel, in the majority of cases in North Carolina we do not have the number of qualified psychologists, counselors, social workers, or nurses that is recommended.

In recent months we have made efforts to invest more in these critical support personnel through the federal COVID-19 relief CARES Act. Gov. Roy Cooper directed $40 million of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction so that districts can hire more school nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists in our public schools.

This is important progress, but we know we need to do more — the June 2020 action plan that defendants and plaintiffs in the Leandro school funding case have agreed to calls for an additional $40 million in flexible funding for Student Instructional Support Personnel to meet the academic, physical, and mental health needs of students.

As we move forward, it is critical to understand that addressing the whole child, including social and emotional learning and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), is not optional or a nice to have but instead an important foundation for successfully educating our students.

As we strive to have the education system that ensures that all of our students graduate ready for college, career, and citizenship and on their way to postsecondary pathways, we must acknowledge and act in accordance with the science and research that demonstrates the need for these integral supports for our students.

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