Teaching emotional intelligence

"SEL" education is increasing, but pandemic causes challenges

Illinois was the first state to create standards for "social and emotional learning" – also called SEL – per the Children's Mental Health Act of 2003. But in a year like 2020, its importance is crystallizing.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, SEL is the process children and adults use to gain skills to manage their emotions, act responsibly and show care for others. We're all facing increased stress and decreased emotional bandwidth due to the pandemic, and those working with kids say SEL is more important than ever. But as many teachers and students engage from home these days, there are challenges.

For "at-risk" kids

In Springfield, Compass for Kids provides summer and school year programming for "at-risk" children – that is, youth experiencing homelessness or facing other challenges usually related to poverty. From its inception, SEL has gone hand-in-hand with the academic support it provides.

Teaching people how to regulate their emotions is about more than feeling good. There is a host of other potential benefits. Cindy Thayer is the nonprofit organization's assistant director. "Kids do better in school – their academics improve, their attendance improves, their behavior improves," she said about what can happen when SEL is taught. New to Compass for Kids this year is SEL curriculum that uses motion and activity to make the lessons "fun and interactive," said Thayer. The curriculum was chosen before the pandemic hit.

Michael Blitstein is a board member and volunteer group leader, which means he has a Compass classroom of seven kids where he is joined regularly by at least two other adults. "One thing that's important is consistency." He said the movement component also helps, since usually by the time kids get to Club Compass after school, they've been sitting most of the day. Moving gets them "energized and focused."

But how do you reach at-risk kids and address their emotional wellness in the middle of a pandemic? District 186 has provided each student with their own iPad or Chromebook for remote learning, so the kids are able to use those devices for Compass as well. How do you get kids to move around from the other side of a screen? Blitstein is trying to figure that out.

He starts each lesson by asking the kids to describe their day with either thumbs up, down or to the side, then he welcomes them to share more about how they're feeling. "I will go first and share how I'm feeling. It's really important to me that I let the kids know that not every day is a good day," said Blitstein. "Feelings are complicated."

During a recent Zoom meeting, Blitstein and the kids watched a video lesson involving a "trip" to India and a Bollywood dance. He said even from Zoom, the kids can interact with each other. They can complement each other on their dance moves, or laugh together at the teacher. Lesson themes include understanding emotions, empathy and stress management. The lessons are relevant for adults too.

Blitstein works with second and third graders. Each week they have a 45-minute Zoom class, a separate online book club, as well as a hands-on enrichment activity that they can do from home. While there are challenges in the current virtual setup, meant to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Blitstein said Compass is more important for students than ever. "The social isolation and the lack of engagement with their peers and grown-ups" are things Compass is helping address, he said.

District-wide SEL

SEL is important regardless of a person's socioeconomic status, said Gail Capps. She is the support leader for Springfield Public Schools' Braided Behavior Support Systems, a multitiered system that includes SEL. Capps said over the past few years the focus on SEL has increased, with SEL curriculum just introduced and required in pre-K to second grades. Some higher-grade classrooms are piloting it as well. "All students need social-emotional skills. All adults need social-emotional skills. We see that today more so than ever."

"Since we're virtual, we've had to increase the amount of brain breaks and mindfulness opportunities," Capps said of the remote learning during the pandemic. And self care is being promoted for staff and parents as well, she said. Medical experts have warned the pandemic comes with increased chances of mental health challenges for adults and kids.

The district has offered an ongoing "family support series" via streamed video, with topics such as managing stress and supporting students during remote learning. Archives of the sessions can be accessed at: tinyurl.com/y4t77tp3.

Contact Rachel Otwell at


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