Reopening: How SEL for Equity Can Move Us From Surviving to Thriving

Beyond masks and Lysol, we need to meet the Social-Emotional Needs of our Students. Here’s where to start.

Reopening our schools and youth-serving organizations may seem like a daunting task. The unknowns are innumerable, the risks are real, and the concept of “normal” is no longer applicable. Aside from distancing protocols, sanitizing routines, and enforcing mask policies, there is another factor that must be considered when bringing youth back together post-shelter-in-place: the social and emotional impacts of what pandemic life has meant for our youth. It’s our job to hold a space that is not only clean and safe, but also one that will promote equity, community, empathy, and healing. We’re going to have to be strategic and intentional: social-emotional learning and healing-centered engagement cannot be “nice-to-haves,” but they must be the drivers of how our spaces operate. Now is a vital time to center these needs in the service of all our youth.

We’re going to have to be strategic and intentional: social-emotional learning and healing-centered engagement cannot be “nice-to-haves,” but they must be the drivers of how our spaces operate.

If you’re sitting here thinking to yourself, “That sounds great, but where do I even start?,” you’re probably recognizing that this is going to take more than a couple of tweaks: this is a cultural shift. But the silver lining to the time we’ve spent away from our community spaces is that breaks create natural transitions. If your classroom, school, or community-based organization hasn’t had an emphasis on social-emotional learning or healing-centered engagement, now is the time to pivot and reimagine. We will all be re-learning how to gather—everything will feel “new.” We will need to take care of each other and shift to a more collectivistic practice.

How are we addressing compassion fatigue and burnout among our staff?

How are we promoting a healing-centered space?

How are we assuring that we create structures and systems that promote equitable outcomes for all students?


Instead of trying to wedge our new reality to fit into old expectations, we can step back and ask ourselves, “What if?”

What if we started every day with student-centered check-ins?

What if we created a cool-down room?

What if we shifted discipline from a punitive model to a restorative model?

What if we shifted our focus on teacher evaluations to teacher support and coaching?

There will be urgency to address the academic fallout of being out of school. It’s important to know that expecting academic growth without deliberate measures to ensure emotional safety and stability for all students is not only unrealistic, but harmful. This is especially necessary for us to understand when serving our Black students, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and are also experiencing the ongoing and heightened impact of anti-Black racism. Students who have been navigating extreme concern for their health and the health of their families due to COVID, in addition to the chronic trauma of anti-Blackness—from state-sanctioned murder to microaggressions—are enduring increased threats to their survival. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

We can think about the bottom of the pyramid representing the most basic needs for survival, and each need building upon the others until we reach the top of the pyramid, where we can thrive. If we are exclusively focused on the very top of the pyramid, self-actualization (where academic achievement lives!), then we’re missing the big picture of what our students need to get there. To tell a student who is navigating housing, food insecurity, or oppression of their rights that their grades should be their number one priority is not addressing the problems preventing them from academic success— it’s only further serving to alienate and isolate them. Schools cannot operate as islands; we need to be in partnership with organizations in our communities that support the most immediate needs of our students so we can focus on creating opportunities for them to thrive.


Thriving, not just academic success, should be the name of our game. As we re-open, students will be hungry for those love and belonging and esteem needs, and this is entirely within our locus of control. We have to start with an awareness of the psychological impact on ourselves and our students of being told for months that all people are dangerous and the only safety is in isolation. How this messaging plays with our own ingrained biases will show up in our interactions with each other as we re-open, and we must get ahead of it.



Building anti-racist practices and bias intervention into our policies, protocols, and professional development is going to be paramount to the success of our re-opening and creating spaces that are healing-centered not only for our students, but for adults, as well. Imagine the love and belonging and esteem needs we can meet when we interrupt our systems that are leading to inequitable outcomes, and prioritize student well-being, connection, relationships, agency, and leadership. What if, instead of detention, we wrote notes of encouragement to our struggling students and offered office hours? What if we recognized conflict as an opportunity for better mutual understanding, and prioritized conversations and reparation of harm over referrals and suspension? What if we created a peer mentorship program to build relationships between students of different grade levels and create a wider web of support?

Dr. Bettina Love’s work around allies versus co-conspirators is a great place to start. Listen to her explanation here and buy her book here.



As these needs are met, we create more space and opportunities for self-actualization. Students can focus on achieving at their highest potential when they know they are heard, seen, valued, and belong to their community. This doesn’t mean we cancel algebra and replace it with group hugs; this means that in algebra class, we use culturally responsive and trauma-informed practices, amplify student voice and choice, and build a sense of cooperation over competition. We utilize social-emotional learning to create an environment that serves the needs of our students so that we can thrive, together.

As you begin this work of shifting to social-emotional learning for equity, the National Equity Project has compiled a chart of common pitfalls and recommendations on how to avoid and address them. Education Week has lessons that educators and policymakers can glean from other major disasters on how students will react and what kind of supports they will need. And we know that teachers of color are leaving the profession at staggering rates. A new study highlights some of the reasons why.

This shift will take a collective effort. In support of schools and youth-serving organizations working to make the changes to meet the needs of all students as we move towards re-opening, Girls Leadership is offering a selection of trainings, workshops, and curriculum with concrete strategies for implementation.

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