As educators consider all we’ve done to support our students this past year and now glimpse a post-pandemic future, let’s not forget what we saw — and did — here.

Prior to COVID-19, mainstream K-12 students either adapted to a curriculum or struggled. That’s quite different from the special education environment I work in, where our teachers adapt to our students’ needs to ensure their success.

Over the last year, we’ve all had to reconsider where and how students learn, and teachers nationwide stepped up to support their social-emotional needs. Certainly, mainstream and special education pedagogy calls for different tactics, though there has been an outsized level of empathy, understanding and support that I’ve seen across the education spectrum, and it’s been heartening. I sure hope it continues.

Earlier this month, Connecticut Board of Education Chair Allan Taylor and Vice Chair Estela Lopez said in a joint statement that, “In order to fulfill our promise of equity and excellence for every student, we must provide for both the academic and non-academic supports they need to show up happy, healthy and ready to learn.”

I couldn’t agree more strongly.

At the High Road School of Windham County, we provide structured and individualized special education programs aimed at strengthening students’ academic and organizational skills, social and emotional skills, sense of responsibility, job skills, and self-esteem. When we returned to the classroom last fall, our students were ready and eager to learn. They had missed the day-to-day structure and social-emotional support that our school provides.

The pandemic shined a light on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) including self-awareness, self-management, relationship building, responsible decision-making, and social awareness. These social-emotional competencies can help cultivate the 21st century skills all students need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Educators in general education settings must understand and develop instructional practices that support students’ social-emotional competencies and provide coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma we all experienced over the last year. It’s important that moving forward, all teachers can help students acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, behaviors, and skills necessary to manage emotions, set and achieve goals, demonstrate empathy, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

I believe it is imperative we equip all of Connecticut’s students with the tools they need to navigate the demands of the classroom and their daily lives. Prioritizing SEL provides us with a unique opportunity to address the needs of each child while ensuring that they are adequately challenged and supported outside of the classroom. SEL activities also help to create a sense of normalcy and routine for students who may be feeling anxious because of all the changes during the last year.

As educators and parents, we must always strive to create brighter futures for all children, regardless of the challenges they may face, including living through a year of upheaval caused by a global pandemic. As we optimistically move closer to normal times, it is my hope that the current focus on emotional needs remains at the forefront for all students, regardless of ability.

Ronda Turcotte, M.Ed., is the executive director of the High Road School of Windham County.

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