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Re-engage Students by Incorporating SEL and Resiliency

  • Joanna
  • June 12, 2020

Ron Gibbs
Director of Professional Services – Graduation Alliance

Last month, Graduation Alliance hosted a webinar on Resiliency—managing stress and grief during COVID-19. Dr. Scott Solberg, a Boston University Professor with a background in Counseling Psychology, led the discussion, and following the webinar, he was asked a question about how we should look to transition our students back to school after such a major crisis. Dr. Solberg emphasized the importance of taking a trauma-informed approach. Our students are experiencing a major disruption in their lives—and experiencing that disruption in different ways. “We need to recognize that we have a major stressor, and as a result there is going to be a lot of grief and loss. And we need to be vigilant for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our students, for our families—and for many, it is going to shift over to a traumatic experience, and we need to be able to support them, and make sure they have resources.”

As schools across the country adapted to the abrupt closures, many navigated the unique challenges of remote or distance learning. Engaging students in that new environment immediately presented a major struggle across the country that schools are continuing to work through. Now, as many districts begin to shift the focus towards moving forward with summer programming—and even plans for the uncertain start to the 20-21 school year—the challenge of re-engaging students who will be coming back from unique and difficult circumstances is still a major obstacle that must be faced. Students will need to be resilient now more than ever in order to bounce back and be successful in school—regardless of how summer programming or the upcoming fall semester might look. For educators, it will be crucial to foster and strengthen students’ resiliency skills from the get-go.

Key Resiliency Skills

Research has established that the six interrelated resiliency skills discussed here are associated with positive student development and academic success. Providing students with opportunities and experiences to develop these skills will better help and prepare them to successfully navigate their academic and life challenges. Educators should consider how they plan to address these areas in summer planning, and during the 20-21 school year. How will these skills be addressed on the school wide, or program-wide level? How about on an upper tier or individualized level?


Consider your students’ academic self-efficacy, or the degree to which they feel capable of successfully performing a variety of school-related tasks. Educators across the country have had to look at their own self-efficacy and confidence in utilizing often unfamiliar technology and tools to facilitate learning, and this will be especially important to focus on with students as they adjust to the new environment as well. Often, when students lack confidence in accessing resources, class material, test-taking, or in social situations, it is easier to give up rather than forge ahead. Research shows that individuals who possess higher academic self-efficacy beliefs are more likely to persist when challenged with difficult academic materials and perform better during tests.

Intrinsic Motivation

This particular skill is derived from Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory which stresses that intrinsic motivation occurs when students choose to perform a behavior because it is perceived as meaningful or enjoyable. As students return to school, it will be vital to focus on building their self-determination. Do your students want to attend school? Do they see the value that not only attending school offers, but also what their academic success offers to them and their future? Are real-world connections and rationales being explored alongside lesson objectives? When students have a sense of autonomous motivation, teachers need to rely less on methods to control motivation. This helps with classroom management, but, more importantly, it helps students become resilient. They can overcome obstacles in life and in school because they see how it benefits them, and they have something to strive for.


In overcoming the obstacles brought about during this crisis, students will need the ability to conserve emotional, psychological, and behavioral resources. A big focus will need to be placed on building stress-management skills. What do your students perceive as “stressors” when it comes to their academic abilities and social interactions? Outside of school, do students worry about where their next meal might come from, or whether their parents have enough money? Some students take on the financial stress of their parents or other adults close to them. These areas of stress can begin to impede students academically and socially. Research has consistently found a very strong correlation between academic self-efficacy, confidence, and academic stress. This means that individuals with stronger academic confidence have the personal resources they need to manage the pressures associated with performing academic-related tasks.


During the COVID-19 shutdown, students have experienced a drastic change in their social lives and regular interactions. There have likely even been disruptions in key social supports some students rely upon. Educators will need to look closely at the availability of social support in future plans—regardless of whether or not students return to their school buildings. A tremendous amount of research links students’ perceived sense of quality social support systems to their own development and health, especially during times of stress. Further, a student who feels connected to their teachers and peers is more likely to regularly attend school and more likely to put forth effort in their classes in order to maintain positive relationships with their teachers.


Educators will need to recognize the psychological and emotional distress experienced by their students. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in different ways, and as mentioned previously, it will be important to take a trauma-informed approach to re-engaging students. It can be a major challenge to understand and address each student’s underlying well-being concerns, especially given that many of those concerns may be taking place outside of school, but living in situations characterized by high cumulative risk can result in chronic stress and health concerns. Students need to be healthy, well-fed, well-rested, and emotionally stable in order to be successful in school. What school and community resources will be available and in place to help students be aware of and manage their well-being?

Value of Education

For students to really engage in learning, they need to perceive education and post-secondary opportunities as being valuable to their future success. When students learn to focus their academic efforts in support of their self-determined goals, they find relevance in the educational process and develop the intrinsic motivation necessary to succeed. Students benefit from a culture where they are exposed to and can explore many different educational pathways and understand the vast amount of opportunities to which those different pathways may lead.

Graduation Alliance previously compiled a list of SEL At-Home resources aimed at helping schools address these areas in a remote or distance learning format. In addition to that, Graduation Alliance also offers Social Emotional Learning tools that directly focus on student resiliency. For schools and programs looking to build these crucial skills with their students, the ScholarCentric Resiliency Assessment and Curriculum will likely be of great interest. ScholarCentric’s quick online assessment measures students’ skill levels in the six Resiliency Skill areas described above and provides actionable data utilizing predictive analytics to provide schools with targeted root-cause data on their students—cohort-wide trend data, and individual student data so schools may more efficiently and effectively focus their SEL tiered interventions. The ScholarCentric assessment data can also, with a high degree of accuracy, identify students that are more at risk of dropping out or facing academic failure. Student resiliency growth can later be measured through a resiliency post-assessment to analyze the effectiveness of any SEL interventions.

Moving forward, however school may look over the coming months, an immediate emphasis on planning and resources geared towards social emotional learning will have a major impact on how well we ease the transition for our students back to our previous norm and their re-engagement with school. We have all had to show great resiliency throughout this pandemic, and for our students, it is vital that we build upon those skills, so they can continue to overcome challenges, inside and outside of school, and find success in their education.