As we begin to wrap up an unprecedented school year, several issues weigh heavily on the minds of school and district leaders as they plan for the fall. Concerns about unfinished learning predominate, followed by a recognition that the mental state of both students and teachers has been impacted by the excessive trauma, increased responsibilities, and social isolation caused by the pandemic. Additionally, there is greater awareness of how the education system is failing marginalized students, and how these inequities have been exacerbated over the past fifteen months.
While many leaders are choosing to double down on the issue of unfinished or incomplete learning, a strong argument can be made that a singular focus in this area is not the best course of action. Prioritizing the mental health of students -- and teachers -- is critical to effectively dealing with what the education sector has termed "learning loss". “There is a direct link between mental health and academic performance,” said Jeannine Topalian, president of the California Association of School Psychologists and a psychologist in Los Angeles Unified School District. “Students will not be able to move forward until their mental health needs are met.” Students need time to reconnect with friends, develop trusting relationships with teachers, and feel connected to school. Without a strong sense of belonging, they will not be able to progress academically.
The best planning efforts will center on an approach that intentionally and continuously integrates principles of social and emotional learning with the development of academic and cognitive skills. Most SEL programs are “add-ons”, delivered during a section of instructional time with independent processes and goals. Our Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) Framework at Highlander Institute tightly connects SEL activities to developing a strong sense of belonging, a strong "Academic Mindsets are four key beliefs which deeply influence our behaviors as learners, and which enable learning success. These mindsets affect our motivation, strategies, and perseverance. They are:
• I belong in this learning community.
• I can change my abilities through effort (a growth mindset).
• I can succeed.
• This work has value and purpose for me."
- Mindset Works More, and a supportive academic classroom community that positions students for ongoing academic progress. Embedded in the framework are processes for building awareness of deficit-oriented structures and compliance-based systems that contribute to persistent achievement gaps. Further, an emphasis on both relevance and rigor develops critical thinking skills while grounding learning in topics that are important to students and mobilize them to act in ways that benefit their families, their communities, and society.
The CRSP Framework offers schools a comprehensive approach that centers on addressing structural inequities and prioritizes student wellness as a prerequisite for effective learning. This structure offers teachers a series of proactive strategies and measurement tools that can seamlessly integrate with a variety of high quality instructional materials and flexibly address local needs.
Post-COVID school plans require a long-term commitment to student wellness and a proactive approach to equity as well as an emphasis on skill recovery. Important lessons can be learned from the educational response to the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in August 2005. Students returned to school on average more than two years below grade level having survived a variety of traumas. And fifteen years later, New Orleans schools are still dealing with the aftermath. It is clear that our schools are not one program or assessment tool away from solving this problem. The CRSP Framework offers a comprehensive, holistic, long-term approach to engaging and empowering all students, and transforming our education systems.