A Multi-Tiered Approach to Social-Emotional Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Lauren English-Mezzino, Senior Consultant

This year’s return to school is unlike any other in our nation’s history. Educators across the country are contending with extraordinary circumstances, as they welcome students back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators, students, and our communities, have all been impacted. The realities of the 2020-21 school year require the prioritization of safe and supportive learning environments, as students learn best when they feel physically and emotionally safe and supported.

Early research suggests that, after just one month in COVID-19 quarantine, more than 22% of students exhibited symptoms of depression, and nearly 19% exhibited symptoms of anxiety.[1] During virtual learning, students who were receiving counseling and other mental health supports may not have been able to access those during the period of school closures. In addition, an unprecedented number of students have experienced additional stress during this public health crisis, including social isolation, economic stressors, and family stressors. It is for these unique reasons that schools must respond using a framework that supports not just academic achievement, but also the social-emotional needs of students.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) recommends that schools create “an adaptive and responsive system of tiered supports” that offers “[u]niversal support (Tier 1) focus[ed] on developing learning environments with protective factors at all levels, including supportive relationships and integrated social, emotional, and academic skill-building” and identifies and provides support to “the potentially increased numbers of students who need a wide range of targeted (Tier 2) and intensive (Tier 3) supports.”[2]

While many school districts are familiar with tiered supports for academics, integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into a multi-tiered system of support, especially during remote learning, may be a new challenge. A tiered model for SEL during this period of remote and blended instruction could include the following:

  1. Tier 1 - Universal Supports – Tier 1 is inclusive of universal supports that address the needs of 80% of students. These universal supports include preventative and proactive approaches such as SEL curricula and programming embedded into both in-person and virtual lessons and parent training and teacher professional development on how to identify “look-fors” when children are struggling with their mental health. Tier 1 also typically includes the use of a universal screener to proactively identify students in need of SEL, mental health, and behavioral supports. However, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) advises that screeners “may demonstrate more utility a month or two after school resumes to better understand students functioning after a period of adjustment back to school.”[3] According to NASP, within the first few weeks, it is essential for schools to provide universal social-emotional and behavioral supports to students to “ensure that students feel physically and emotionally safe at school.”[4]

  2. Tier 2 – Targeted Interventions – Tier 2 is inclusive of intensified classroom and small group supports and services that address the needs of students with moderate mental health needs and at-risk behaviors. These interventions can include services such as group counseling via telehealth, virtual mentoring, virtual social skills groups, virtual check-in check-out, behavior contracts, and self-monitoring.

  3. Tier 3 – Intensive Interventions – Tier 3 is inclusive of individualized supports and services that are highly targeted and based on identified areas of need. These supports provide for more intensive intervention and monitoring and can include services such as individual therapy via telehealth, functional behavior assessments (FBA), behavior intervention plans (BIP), wraparound supports, and crisis response.

As school districts continue to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on students, the social and emotional wellness of students must be addressed in a comprehensive manner. Through a consistent approach to prevention and intervention, multi-tiered systems provide for a continuum of supports to improve outcomes for all students. This year, more than ever before, including social-emotional learning and mental health supports in your tiered support frameworks will be critical to ensuring safe and supportive learning environments, regardless of if your return to school is in-person, blended, or fully virtual.

How PCG Can Help During an Unprecedented Time

COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts across the country. PCG is always looking for ways to support districts and students.

Special Education Research, Action Planning, and Facilitation. Subject matter experts and consultants can research best practices, inventory resources, guide action planning, and facilitate the development of digital learning instructional continuity plans to help you address emergency situations that result in interrupted education for students with disabilities.

Online Special Education Paraprofessional Courses. Whether just getting started or a seasoned paraprofessional, these courses provide practical, universal tips and strategies that can be immediately implemented. Each three-hour course is self-paced and develops knowledge and skills to better understand role and responsibilities, improve communication and collaboration, and maintain high expectations by using the right tools to support students.

Virtual Instruction Toolkit. This toolkit contains a library of tools and resources to help educators establish Online and Distance Learning instructional models based on best practices.

Virtual Staffing Solutions. Provides trained professionals to augment staffing needs and work directly to support your efforts to deliver continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period using your available digital learning solutions or by providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.

About the Author

Lauren English-Mezzino is a Senior Consultant with Public Consulting Group's (PCG) Education practice. Lauren received her Master's Degree in Educational Leadership from George Mason University with a concentration in K-12 supervision and administration. As a former teacher and school administrator, Lauren has expertise in school administration, data-driven instruction, school improvement planning, curriculum, instruction, and assessment, inclusion and co-teaching, school safety, and professional development. Based out of our Princeton, New Jersey office, Lauren focuses on offering innovative solutions to complex school issues, managing PCG's relationships with New Jersey educators' professional associations, and helping New Jersey school districts solve the biggest challenges faced by today’s educators.


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