The Importance of SEL in Education: Pandemic Outcomes and Beyond

Jaclyn Baharestani
Special Projects Coordinator, Winston Innovation Lab

The pandemic brought significant changes to education, with notable declines nationwide in academic skills. Despite funding efforts, learning loss persists and students with learning disabilities have been disproportionately impacted. However, social-emotional learning (SEL) shows promise in boosting outcomes for the students who need it most. Winston Prep's research highlights SEL's positive effects, emphasizing problem-solving skills and parental support as crucial components for success.
Main Points:
  • Pandemic led to nation-wide academic declines, despite funding efforts.
  • SEL can boost outcomes for students with and without learning disabilities.
  • Winston Prep's research shows consistent academic growth linked to SEL skills.
  • SEL skills like problem-solving are crucial for long-term success and satisfaction.
  • Winston Prep integrates SEL skills into its program and supports parents in doing the same at home.
  • Parental support, including reflective listening and modeling, is key for developing problem-solving skills.
  • Teaching problem-solving skills can lead to greater independence and success in navigating challenges
The pandemic reshaped our perspective on nearly all aspects of our world. Education has felt some of the most significant, and therefore well-researched, lasting outcomes. National findings demonstrated acute declines in students’ academic skills, particularly those related to reading and writing. 

The trend began with the pandemic but persists today. This is despite many schools receiving funding to work to reverse the learning loss.

Our research into learning loss yielded one beacon of hope: the powerful role of SEL in education. It may not be too late for schools and families to implement social-emotional learning. These skills have the power to boost outcomes for students with and without learning disabilities.

What Does SEL Stand for in Education?

SEL stands for social and emotional learning. It refers to the way parents and educators teach students to develop and apply behavioral skills. It includes an emphasis on metacognition, in which learners identify their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Notably, these skills help students beyond the classroom as they pursue higher education, careers, and satisfying, fulfilling adult lives. 

The Lasting Effects of the Pandemic

The nation-wide decline in academic skills led Winston Innovation Lab leaders to ask the following questions:
  • How did the pandemic affect the academic development of Winston Preparatory School students? 
  • What factors, if any, contributed to potential gains or losses?
What we discovered was that Winston students achieved consistent academic growth. We saw improvement in both reading and math problem solving throughout the pandemic. Notably, these positive outcomes were directly and statistically linked to specific social emotional skills. Such skills are prioritized in the Winston Prep program including Resilience, Self-Advocacy, Self-Reflection, and Problem Solving.

These same qualities have been tied to long-term life satisfaction. We found this in previous research conducted by the Winston Innovation Lab. Their importance and value are clear, and further underscore our desire to prioritize social emotional learning in our program.

This evidence of the efficacy of this work for students with learning disabilities drives one of the cornerstones of Winston’s program.  We promote the explicit development of these social emotional skills using a framework Winston Prep developed: the Qualities of a Sustainable and Independent Learner (QSIL).

Research to Practice

To leverage and integrate information gleaned from our research, the Winston Innovation Lab continuously considers how our instructors can directly target these key social emotional skills with our students. Further, we consider how we can best support families in continuing this critical work at home. 

We looked at Problem Solving as one key example. It is clear that this particular skill and what it requires of us has shifted tremendously over the last several years. We, and our children, have been taxed with becoming more flexible, adaptable, and creative. 

At Winston Prep, this is precisely the kind of Problem Solving skill set that we aim to build. Such skills lead to greater independence and long-term success.

Building Creative Problem Solvers

At Winston Preparatory School, Problem Solving weaknesses are explicitly addressed and remediated through direct instruction. Our goal is to break down the Problem Solving process into manageable parts.  Additionally, we encourage active reflection to build self-awareness and self-understanding. 

Problem Solving skills and strategies are applied not only in a one-to-one context when practiced with an instructor or peer, but across the board in all content areas. You’ll even see SEL in physical education.  This allows our students to employ malleable, solutions-oriented thinking when thinking about a complex concept or navigating challenges. 

For example, students may examine and analyze historical problems.  They use step-by-step thinking to brainstorm their approach to solving the issue either as applied to the historical time period or as applied to the present day. Such work may be done in pairs or  small groups. Evidence suggests that team-based problem solving presents the most significant opportunity for personal growth and collaboration.

Skill Building at Home

It is beneficial to continuously support the development of social emotional skills at home, just as we do in the classroom. To encourage social emotional skill building around Problem Solving at home, it is crucial to allow for, and even create, learning moments.  Likewise, parents and caregivers must resist the urge to swoop in and rescue.

Listen and Mirror

The most impactful learning very often occurs in the struggle itself. For example, if your child is having difficulty navigating a complex dilemma with friends, talk them through the issue without solving the challenge for them. 

Start with reflective listening as they explain the situation. Mirroring back what they share not only ensures your understanding but also helps them feel understood. In fact, it may actually elucidate new elements of their feelings. 

Deepening their own sense of the problem is an important aspect of reflective discussions, as it helps them break the problem down into a meaningful sequence. This is key to strengthening perspective taking skills and bolstering their awareness of the impact of their actions. 
As a next step, supporting the brainstorming of possible solutions fosters the ability to think hypothetically and flexibly.  It’s a way to help them better understand cause and effect. 

You can also help them relate the current issue to past challenges, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in those previous experiences. This technique supports their ability to learn from past challenges. 

Effectively, we do not want to solve the problem for our children, but rather to help them cultivate the tools to do so on their own.

Thinking Aloud and Modeling

Leading with a ‘think aloud’ style discussion is also proven to be a useful tool for explicitly developing Problem Solving skills. While it may feel instinctual to conceal our own encounters with adversity, modeling our own Problem Solving processes exposes our children to an understanding of challenges that are sure to lie ahead. Further, it normalizes the experiences of facing setbacks and difficult situations. 

By candidly sharing our experiences and talking through the solutions and healthy coping strategies we, ourselves, have employed, we provide a supportive, valuable learning opportunity for our children. By implementing SEL in education, we have the power to prepare them to meet future obstacles with creativity and resilience. 

Learn more about how Winston Prep can help your student get the most out of learning. Begin by viewing a location near you.
Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

WPS does not discriminate against applicants and students on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin. The Winston Preparatory School provides programs and services and equal opportunity in the administration of its educational and admissions policies, financial aid programs, employment, and the selection of its governing board without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, or any status recognized by federal, state and local civil rights and non-discrimination laws.