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Teaching students the skills to express their emotions and modeling healthy relationships helps shape a future of transformational leaders

3 reasons social-emotional learning is of paramount importance

Teaching students the skills to express their emotions and modeling healthy relationships helps shape a future of transformational leaders

These are certainly unprecedented times, and as we close out 2020, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that relationships are top of mind for everyone.

With the abundance of disruptions this school year, one important component of learning remains critical: social-emotional learning. The benefits have always been evident. Social-emotional learning provides educators the means by which they create strong and compassionate relationships while tending to the needs of each learner.

Related content: 3 steps for returning to school with social-emotional learning

The importance of social-emotional learning is threefold during this time. First, students are reporting that they are more alone, anxious, and depressed than ever before. The pandemic has forced learning to look different this year, with students not having the same amount of social connection from which they have previously benefited. Above all else, we need to be intentional about building and maintaining relationships that will help support students through difficult times.

Second, we as educators need to model what healthy relationships look like. In a time of division and polarization, students need to see adults modeling compassion, respect, and empathy to cultivate strong relationships.

Third, as evidenced by young people voting in record numbers, students truly are our future. This is not a cliché. Relationships between adults and students will shape a future of decision-makers, leaders and change advocates that will be critical in helping others appreciate similarities and differences. This is vital to the health of our democracy.

The obstacles students faced before the pandemic are now exacerbated as families attempt to find a new sense of normal. Whether students are watching younger siblings, trying to establish internet access, or balancing a job and schoolwork under increased family financial pressure, they face a plethora of hurdles.

As educators, the support we provide and our modeling of relationships — right now — is critical. Social-emotional learning is a skillset that educators play an important role in helping students develop. In order to enhance these lessons for students, we need to model healthy relationships for our learners that may not be conveyed in public discourse.

Relationships are a key ingredient to provide this optimal support. Creating stronger relationships inside and outside the classroom involves the following:

1. Show compassion

Stress has never been greater for students and families. Caring adults in the classroom foster positive emotional and social climates for students, which are foundational to learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020). These student-adult connections build trust and protect students from the many impacts of stress (Cantor & Balfanz, 2020). When strong relationships are cultivated, it releases a hormone, oxytocin, in the brain that is healthy for brain development (Cantor & Balfanz, 2020). The emotional, social, and cognitive factors impacted by positive relationships often result in improved student outcomes (Osher, Cantor, Berg, Steyer, & Rose, 2018). By the time students wrap up another day, they should feel seen, heard, and cared about. It has never been more essential for students to feel compassion that reminds them they are supported and that we are here to help them through this difficult time in history.

2. Center our work around student experiences

Prioritizing time to ask students about their personal and academic lives is transformational to their success. Students need to know that educators care about them on a personal level. When teachers take the time to ask students and their families about their lives, the obstacles they face, and the resilience they are showing, they create enhanced rapport. Whether schools are in a distance learning model or operating in-person, asking students questions is a small but mighty step forward in providing a sense of ease and comfort. This may mean the difference between a successful school year for students, as it can be the ounce of motivation they need to put their best foot forward.

3. Establish steady methods of communication

We need to reach families where they are to create equitable learning environments, both during and after this pandemic. Families need to have reliable communication platforms established with the school so they can communicate easily. With distance learning being utilized by students across the country, this has provided a new opportunity to expand communication between families and educators. By establishing consistent methods of communication, educators can offer critical support to families to model healthy relationships.

These three approaches are just a starting point to establishing strong relationships. While this pandemic has presented us all with a unique set of challenges, it has also provided an insurmountable opportunity to dive deeper into conversations about having an innovative mindset to make a difference in the future of our society. The importance of modeling the development of healthy relationships is essential to carrying out a future that upholds respect, open-mindedness, and empathy.

During this challenging time in history, students will develop a sense of resiliency that will set them apart from generations to come. By teaching students the skills to express their emotions and modeling healthy relationships, we are shaping a future of transformational leaders.

By starting here and continuing the journey, we will strive together to ensure that each student feels empowered and supported, thereby helping every young person to truly thrive and succeed.


Cantor, P. & Balfanz, J. (2020). Cantor & Balfanz: Relationships Can Fuel Student Growth, Resilience and Educational Equity. Bringing Caring Adults Into Schools Can Help. The 74.

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97-140.

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 1. DOI: 10.1080/ 10888691.2017.1398650

Author’s Note:
Angela Jerabek began her career in education as a licensed K-12 teacher and secondary school counselor. Now, Angela serves as the founder and executive director of the BARR Center, a national school improvement network based in Minneapolis that is delivering positive results in schools across the United States.

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