By Adrianna McQuaid

Back to school season is here, but there’s nothing familiar or predictable about it. School closures in 2020 affected 1.5 billion students around the world. The ability to navigate the unforeseen, and prepare the students for learning, is more critical than ever. The question is how.

School leaders around the globe are wondering: How do we empower learners with different experiences and needs to face these ongoing challenges? Will students be able to achieve academic standards? How will we keep students engaged with potential ongoing disruption? How will we sustain a sense of community?

The temptation of students to “doom scroll” the headlines means that what is often the backdrop of their lives is now front and centre, leaving them feeling easily overwhelmed and discouraged. It is becoming clear that we need to affirm our priorities within a hierarchy of needs — putting empathy, compassion and connection centre stage in the learning experience.

Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards for the U.S. National Association of School Psychologists agrees that the priority this year should be upon building students’ soft skills and sustaining relationships within communities.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has long been the go-to as an interventionist approach for these kinds of social learning issues. At their best, SEL programs are offered in the day-to-day curriculum. And yet, the potential to leverage SEL as a self-empowerment tool embedded in the standard curriculum is immense and largely untapped.

But the reality is these wonderings are not just about the short-term. The impact of lockdowns and other measures has simply brought to the fore the role of wellbeing in a way that we just can’t ignore anymore. We know from long-standing research that soft skills are said to influence life skills and outcomes more than the hard skills that inform academic achievement, according to University of Chicago Professor and Nobel laureate Dr. James Heckman.“We need a much more comprehensive notion of what education means today — the key is attachment, engagement, and a deeper understanding of mentoring and learning. It also means when we measure education, we have to go beyond academic measures and measure non-cognitive skills,” Heckman said.

“There is certainly going to have to be a new way of thinking about everything that goes into the start of a school year,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, assistant deputy executive director of the American School Counselor Association, in anticipating school opening for 2021 amidst the ongoing pandemic. “Everybody was affected to some degree, which makes this a universal trauma.”

And, in many communities, there is a need for healing that goes deeper than the wounds of Covid-19 and the 2020 school year: witness the Black Lives Matter movement and the discovery of mass graves at residential schools in Canada, to name two predominant events in recent North American history.

What we need more than ever is a living curriculum that encourages us to build safer and more engaging classrooms and school communities. Seeing, hearing and connecting to the stories and experiences of others generates collective healing organically and serves to further enhance a more inclusive learning environment.

Captains & Poets is designed to do just that. The program enables greater self-discovery and inspires a sense of agency which is severely hindered in times such as these. By strengthening a sense of self and connection within and amongst students, we open up the possibility of more emotionally intelligent and responsive classrooms in general. Students are better able to bring themselves more fully to the classroom, to articulate ideas and conflicting feelings, and to develop the resolve that is required to dig deep to act in a way that’s inspired by self-awareness, and compassion for self and others.

This vision requires that we not treat SEL as another thing on teacher’s plates but instead view the wellness of students as the plate itself. Everything else rests on that.We cannot truly learn when we are traumatized or disconnected or overwhelmed or preoccupied by bigger issues in our lives.

Noble goals of well-being and community start on an individual level. A big part of this paradigm shift is about how each and every one of us, when looking inward and being honest, can authentically express what is going on internally and what really matters in our lives.  Teachers and parents need to model the prioritization of well-being, healthy self-awareness and expression in day-to-day life. We have all had our struggles to stay focused and well through this shared experience and we are all supporting people around us through the same. We need to acknowledge the reality that well-being needs to be front and centre if we are to keep students on track amidst a backdrop of distraction in the theatre of life.

Suddenly, the peripheral sideshow of SEL is going mainstage. What was often a tokenistic treatment of well-being in our school communities is coming into sharper focus and gaining attention as a foundational aspect of learning.

Taking a “the show must go on” mentality is wearing thin for all of us. This school year is a curtain opening upon a scene of the new normal. It is only with our hearts and minds engaged that we can forge a better set of outcomes for what is our most important audience.

Adrianna is an experienced educator and school administrator. Her diverse experience working in public and private schools, government, and the publishing industry gives her a unique perspective on leadership, curriculum design and methods of inquiry in Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.

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