Social Emotional Learning Helps Youth Navigate This Challenging Time

As Oregon prepares to welcome children back to school, OCF is working closely with partners to address the cumulative impact of school closures, the pandemic, and racial injustice on students of color, low-income, and isolated rural students. Regardless of how schools and community-based organizations are structuring in-person or distance learning, it is critical to focus both on academics and on the development of the whole child.

OCF has long focused on working with communities and educators to take a holistic approach to supporting families and children to help them to be successful in school and life. This includes a focus on trauma-informed Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is a process that helps students develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills that foster resilience, persistence and positive relationships. Research shows that SEL is a key determinant of students’ academic success, engagement, and behavior—while also preventing many adverse behaviors. Students in high-quality SEL programs show significant increases in academic performance, including graduation rates.1

A focus on trauma-informed SEL is even more important now. While children appear to be less susceptible to developing serious illness related to COVID, research from past disasters shows that disruptions have adverse impacts on children that can last into adulthood. The trauma of school disruption, stressors at home related to adult unemployment and isolation, increases in abuse or other unsafe home situations, lack of access to food and other services that schools and community-based organizations typically provide, and living with an elevated level of anxiety can have long-term negative impacts on children. This is magnified for children who already experience racial, societal, and historic trauma.2

A grant from OCF is supporting the South Coast Education Service District to train school staff at all 10 districts in Coos and Curry Counties on specific strategies to support students returning to school who experienced trauma exacerbated by COVID isolation. Techniques range from starting or ending a day with a check-in to allow students to voice thoughts, concerns or feelings—promoting a safe, supportive environment, self-awareness, relationship skills and empathy for others—to activities that help students understand they have the capacity to learn and grow.

In addition to the impact of the pandemic and school closures, children of color face disproportionate trauma and stress because of systemic racism and associated factors, regardless of socio-economic status. Many culturally- specific programs offer a roadmap for using trauma-informed SEL models to build resiliency through neuroscience and reflective practice, helping to both reverse the harmful impacts of toxic stress and trauma, and to address barriers to learning.

A past OCF grant to the Warm Springs Tribe in Central Oregon specifically focused on tribal students. The Warm Springs program teaches students native languages and cultural traditions, and blends math and writing with this programming. Program staff speak about the importance of building student connections to their native language and culture as a strategy to support social emotional health (or resilience): “Inside of our language it holds our value system. Once you pick up the language, you become who you are.” “[Students] need to know [academics and culture] to be comfortable in our community and outside our community.” Elders involved in this program note student confidence and cultural agility is increasing due to their participation.

OCF believes SEL-based practices are a powerful strategy to support youth as they navigate this challenging time, especially for those facing a widening opportunity gap. Focusing on SEL will benefit students in the long term and can also help them develop skills to cope with the heightened stress and fear that so many are facing right now. SEL offers the opportunity to improve educational outcomes for all students, and especially youth of color, low-income youth, and isolated rural youth.

OCF grants support several nonprofits that have expertise in trauma-informed SEL. These grants allow them to train school staff and staff at community-based organizations around Oregon that work with youth.
KairosPDX, a culturally specific organization within the African American community, is one of the organizations that is receiving support from OCF to provide trauma-informed SEL training. The organization works to eliminate racial achievement and opportunity gaps by cultivating confident, creative, compassionate youth. The following quote illustrates the power of SEL-based programming.

…I had taught for a while and I had a pit in my stomach that I couldn't shake. The school I had taught at was nice. The staff showed concern for the achievement of students, we spent a lot of time analyzing data and pouring over innovative ideas to propel student success. But our school never addressed the greater forces at play in our work with children.

At KairosPDX, we speak often of and hold dear the Habits of Success. Among the habits…[I’ve] been transformed by Empathy and Optimism. We frame how we navigate the world through the lens of empathy, the idea that … I care about your experiences. I cannot imagine looking through a computer screen at my colleagues and our students and know that great things can come from this moment in time if it were not for the spirit of optimism that permeates the very essence of KairosPDX. 

–Jesse Irvine Sramek, KairosPDX parent and teacher

1. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., et al. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-based Universal Interventions. Child Development. 82(1): 405-432.
2. Newkirk, Vann R., II (2020, March 24). The Kids Aren’t All Right. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/what-coronavirus-will-do-kids/608608/