The return of students to the classroom after the prolonged absence due to the pandemic presents one of the most significant challenges in the history of modern education. The future of tens of millions of students, especially students facing inequalities or vulnerabilities, will be profoundly affected by how we make this critical transition and make up for precious lost learning time.
Students are very capable of making up for lost time. But we also need to recognize the trauma that many students, teachers and parents experienced during this difficult time. As we come back to school full time, we need to understand these experiences and refocus on academic growth. Teachers must also continue to measure their own growth and maintain school standards to better support their students academically.
As an ECE teacher, I deeply value social and emotional learning. Research reinforces the positive impact of social and emotional supports on students’ academic success.
When students are able to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings and express their needs, they are better able to engage in reading and writing. Many students would prefer to write down their feelings or bring them out, which helps them in their academic growth.
Last year when we made the switch from in-person to online learning, online engagement was difficult. Students’ social engagement was affected by the lack of interaction with peers, communication with teachers in the classroom, and interaction with materials.
With parents trying to balance work, they were challenged to support their children as they usually do.
Back in the classroom, it was striking to see the turnaround when the children were able to communicate with their friends, ask for help, or demonstrate when they knew the answers to a question. They are able to actively engage with the material while using the support not only of their teachers but also of their peers. Unfortunately, many schools lack sufficient resources to provide the holistic support that students need.
At our school, KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary in Southwest Denver, we offer mindful discipline that provides specific structures for parents at home to be able to support their students socially and emotionally to help provide more academic support. If more schools provided this resource, I think students would be able to excel faster on both spectra – social and emotional – as well as in academics.
Mindful discipline helps students manage ways of interacting with parents and helps them communicate with peers about their feelings and with teachers on how best to support them in the classroom. And it offers valuable information on how to get students to take action when they are angry or frustrated or don’t want to do something. It introduces students to the choices, supports, and scaffolding they need to make decisions for themselves. Providing students with this form of autonomy in their learning can make a positive difference.
For academic growth as well as social and emotional growth, it is important that parents are on board and simultaneously teach these things at home. Many parents don’t have the tools or resources they need, so as teachers we try to help them support students at home.
At KIPP, our parents frequently interact with the teachers. They have our phone numbers to contact us whenever they need anything. Some parents enjoy volunteering in the classroom. Many of our parents work late and depend on other people to take care of them. But giving them the opportunity to engage with their children in learning, in time and in the way that suits them, is essential.
It is also important to view our students holistically rather than in part. Often we miss this vision of the child as a whole. If we looked at our students as a whole, we would see how well all of these different parts interact with each other.
The focus on social and mental health as well as academics is essential. We need to put it all together and provide teachers with the resources and tools to support students in the classroom and their parents outside the classroom, because these parents are the number one teacher. Students live with and learn from their families, and then at school we help students continue to learn and grow. Seeing the whole picture is important.
Amalia Espinoza-Ochoa is an Early Childhood Education (ECE) teacher at KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary in Southwest Denver, a charter school in Denver Public Schools.
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