As we settle into the new school year, it is clear that our students remain impacted by pandemic-related unfinished learning. Perhaps most notably, with state after state reporting troubling gaps in last year’s annual assessments, it is apparent that unfinished learning has had a catastrophic impact on student academic progress—particularly for students of color and economically disadvantaged students who struggled academically before the Covid-19 pandemic. But academic recovery is not the only crisis our educators and parents are facing. Students are reporting significantly increased anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts, leading many to label the mental health fallout of Covid-19 the “second pandemic.” Not surprisingly, the confluence of these dual crises is straining school system capacity during what has been a particularly difficult “back to school” season this fall as educators struggle to address the wider range of their students’ academic and social-emotional needs.
These challenges may seem unrelated, in part because we’ve created a false dichotomy between academic and social-emotional learning. But developmental and learning science tells us that they are, in fact, inextricably linked, and that one factor in particular—strong positive relationships between students and teachers—may drive academic and so-called non-academic outcomes. Indeed, it may be more accurate to view our current “unfinished learning” challenge as a by-product of “disrupted relationships” and not just lost instructional time.
For instance, research demonstrates that one of the strongest predictors of resilience for children is the presence of at least one supportive, caring adult relationship. Positive relationships increase oxytocin, a “love hormone,” and reduce cortisol, a “stress hormone,” calming the brain and helping students engage more deeply in learning. According to a working paper from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, when students have strong relationships with school-based mentors, they are more likely to pass their classes, earn more credits and earn a higher grade point average. A study from the Search Institute shows that young people have fewer risk indicators and more thriving indicators when they have strong support, including warm relationships with their teachers.
The significance of this research for our educational systems is clear: To meet the academic and social-emotional needs of our students, teachers—now more than ever—must know their students. They must understand their students’ lived experiences along with their passions and dreams, appreciate their learning contexts and value what they carry with them to foster learning environments where they can thrive. Strong relationships are the only way to make that happen.
And where there is research and clear need, innovators and entrepreneurs soon follow. For all the chaos and damage brought about by the pandemic, one potential “silver lining” is that it may be a catalyst for innovation in this most human of areas. We are seeing this in the workplace with a new crop of tools designed to help employers stay connected with and support the well-being of an increasingly remote workforce.
Perhaps nowhere is this trend more noticeable than in K-12 education. Gradient Learning recently launched its Along solution, a free digital journaling and reflection tool that enables educators to better connect with their students to make sure they’re both seen and heard. New well-being check-in tools enable educators and administrators to better understand student needs, their learning and living contexts and the quality of their relationships with adults and their peers in the classroom. Online monitoring tools review students’ online activity, then alert schools when kids may need social-emotional or mental health support. And digital simulations are being used to train teachers to identify and address signs of student distress.
Similarly, the organization I lead, LEAP Innovations, has worked closely with educators for years to more deeply understand their students as a starting point for deeper personalized learning experiences. Based on that work and a growing body of research, we are developing tools that will be piloted in the Distinctive Schools charter school network this fall to help teachers build positive relationships that translate to more individualized learning pathways tailored to students’ needs, interests and ambitions.
If we are serious about tackling our dual crises—the academic and the social-emotional—we need to address them in tandem. Just as science has proven the impact of teacher-student relationships on learning, science and innovation can guide us as we seek to strengthen those relationships during this turbulent time.