Amid the complex landscape of hurdles faced by educators and students, Rutgers experts shed light on pressing issues in the realm of education

Social and Emotional Learning Alliance, a grassroots organization created five years ago to help students of all ages manage emotions and learn empathy, is holding an online summit March 8.  Ahead of Social and Emotional Learning Day, two experts from the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology Jennifer Foster, director of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Programs, and Alicia Raia-Hawrylak, co-project manager for the School Climate Transformation Project – highlight the intensified challenges confronting the educational environment. 

Emphasizing the far-reaching impact of school climate on students, families, and educators, they discuss the significant hurdles educators face such as burnout, repercussions of COVID-19, and the essential role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in navigating through these adversities.

What are the major challenges teachers and schools are dealing with right now?

Foster: The lack of available resources and budget constraints combined with the shortages across most education professional groups and increased job responsibilities have led to high rates of burnout and mental health concerns among educators.

Additionally, student mental health concerns, increased levels of school violence, the impact of social media and “doomscrolling,” the ever-widening achievement gap, and the socio-political climate that is wreaking havoc on our nation’s education system are all significant challenges that create a synergistic effect.

These challenges put a tremendous strain on the entire system. Unfortunately, this is today’s reality of what it’s like to work in public education.

Raia-Hawrylak: Teachers are under intense pressure to address concerns about student performance and disparities in achievement.

Environmental conditions have also been found to impact student behavior and make teaching and learning more difficult. There was increased reporting of violence, vandalism, harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and substance offenses during the 2022-2023 school year according to the Student Safety Data System from the New Jersey Department of Education.

School climate data collected by our team at The School Climate Transformation Project using the New Jersey School Climate Improvement (NJ SCI) Survey also revealed that negative interpersonal student behaviors were on average the most negatively perceived area of school climate measured for students, staff and parents and caregivers.

So, how do parents fit into this equation?

Foster: The impact of COVID-19 on families cannot be understated. Living rooms became classrooms, educators were parenting and teaching simultaneously, and parents who were essential workers risked their own health and the health of their family everyday they went to work.

In socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, the impact was even greater. Siblings or extended family members stepped in to care for younger children in the household while their parents continued to work throughout the pandemic. 

Raia-Hawrylak: Enabling parents/caregivers to voice their opinion is an important way to identify concerns and areas for improvement to promote a positive school climate conducive to learning.

Where does social and emotional learning come into play?

Raia-Hawrylak: Social and emotional learning has been recognized for substantially benefiting students and the broader community as a schoolwide strategy and when implemented in tandem with others such as trauma-informed practices, antibullying approaches, and positive behavior supports.

Schools can assess the overall conditions for SEL and use other sources of data to help determine the degree to which students require multi-tiered SEL supports. These supports enable all members of the community to understand and deal with their emotions and develop positive relationships necessary for success in school and life.

Foster: As part of a multi-tiered systems of support, schools can build powerful social emotional learning prevention programs that infuse SEL curriculum in the classroom as well as intervention programs to build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In doing so, schools essentially create a resilient buffer to mitigate the development of future mental health concerns. These efforts can also have financial implications such as reducing the cost of out-of-district placements as a result of better in-district programming.

What support systems are there for educators to navigate through these challenges?

Foster: I am a strong proponent of developing comprehensive systems to improve the delivery of student supports. Post-pandemic, it is imperative school districts are provided with the tools needed to regroup, reorganize and take control of the chaos. One way to do this is through the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS).

Simply put, MTSS is a tiered approach to developing a continuum of prevention and early intervention programming across academic, behavioral, social emotional and mental health domains. It transforms chaotic and reactive systems into proactive and organized ones aimed at addressing the academic, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of all students. Recognizing that effective implementation of MTSS requires individuals to develop a wide range of skills, the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology has developed expert level training in MTSS to well-position educators to implement MTSS programs in their schools.

Raia-Hawrylak: Educators can administer a school climate survey to engage all members of the community, including students, staff, parents and caregivers, in an opportunity to reflect and anonymously share perceptions about topics that impact conditions for learning.

The NJ SCI Survey was created through a collaboration between the Graduate School for Applied and Professional Psychology and the New Jersey Department of Education. The online NJ SCI Platform is used to facilitate survey administration, and it supports schools in using the data to set goals, plan for comprehensive implementation strategies, and monitor progress in promoting a positive school climate. Improving school climate can take years, and it often requires consistent support and several cycles of data collection and adjustments to implementation plans. However, collecting comprehensive school climate data is a crucial step in ensuring that appropriate practices are implemented to close gaps in opportunities to learn.


SEL4NJ is hosting a week-long webinar series for those looking to learn more about social emotional learning.