What should schools be more focused on: Academic learning loss or “social emotional learning loss”?

While academic learning loss is real, and something we should be trying to mitigate as much as possible, the biggest and most important focus in schools should be on “social-emotional learning loss”. We are facing what many mental health experts are expressing as the biggest mental health crisis since World War 2. The ripple effect (more like tidal waves) that come from the pandemic, the economic crisis, the isolation, the lack of connection, and the unbelievably challenging times families are having with balancing distance learning and their professional lives is already beyond traumatic and stressful. On top of this, communities are experiencing continued social injustices, hate and violence, an attack on our democracy, and a society that is deeply divided. It is impossible to even fully comprehend how many layers of challenges there are right now. So this begs the question, what could be the deepest lasting effect of this time on our students and schools? 

Let’s look at what was happening pre pandemic. Over the last decade or so, mental health challenges across all ages have risen, and for youth and young adults this has been even more significant. In a study done by the US Department of Health and Human Services that surveyed over 600,000 Americans, these startling and deeply concerning data points were found. From 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts. The increases were also found to be more pronounced among girls and young women. By 2017, one out of five 12- to 17-year-old girls had experienced major depression in the previous year. 

It is clear, as California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris often says, adverse childhood experiences (ACES) is the “single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today” and the pandemic has only escalated this to even more tragic levels. So while, as always, academics in schools should be a key focus, the need to make mental and emotional well-being the foundation for students, teachers and families has never been greater. Historically, as teachers and schools become more overwhelmed with the needs of their youth, stress grows, and this tragically most often happens in our most vulnerable communities where systemic oppression has led to generational trauma and poverty. When schools continue to prioritize academics before mental and emotional well-being, schools often find themselves in cycles where the ecosystem is embedded with stress and overwhelm which tragically escalates student stress and trauma and creates unhealthy learning environments. Academic learning, or for that matter any learning, can’t happen when people are in their stress response. The fact that most of our lower income schools are also often the most under resourced leaves schools in extremely challenging situations. So here we are in the middle of multiple “pandemics” and the time is now to prioritize and invest in mental and emotional well-being for all in the school ecosystem. It’s time to take a big PAUSE. 

Let’s take a huge societal shift when it is needed the most and not turn back. Let’s once and for all start to resource and support schools in having the social emotional learning and mental health supports that bring mental and emotional well-being to our students, teachers, staff, and families. It is time to create systems that prioritize mental health before anything else. Let’s also make sure that we embed our schools with the framework for supporting the whole child in order to achieve the goal of academic success. After all, we know that stress and trauma reinforce the survival mode of the brain and literally shut down and minimize the density and activity of the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is where attention, self-regulation, higher level thinking, problem solving and everything that makes us human happens. We also know that mindfulness is proven to increase the activity, engagement, and density of the prefrontal cortex as well as reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline and other stress hormones. 

If we as a society, and specifically as an education system, don’t fully and undeniably put mental and emotional health as the main focus of our schools, the short term mental health of our youth (and the educators) will continue to escalate in tragic ways, and the long term negative effects could cause a generation to play “catch up” on their health due to the insurmountable stress and trauma of this time. So, in conclusion, while academics are important, and should be focused on, let’s not make our youth and educators be overwhelmed or stressed in it, because academics is much easier to get caught up on than mental and emotional well-being. 

About JG Larochette: JG Larochette is a former classroom teacher in Richmond, CA. After  a decade of focusing on creating the healthiest learning environments for his youth, he founded the educational nonprofit Mindful Life Project with his last third grade class.  Mindful Life Project supports schools across the Bay Area and beyond through highly impactful mindfulness based social emotional learning programming. Their comprehensive approach supports the mental and emotional well-being of students, teachers, staff, leaders, and families and helps transform schools from the inside out to create cultures and climates where mental and emotional well-being is the foundation of everyone’s experience. MLP’s goal is to provide everyone the skills and practices to thrive, leading to everyone feeling a deep sense of belonging and connection to themselves and each other. 

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