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School isn’t just about academics — it’s about socio-emotional learning, and Covid-19 is stealing that from our children


Mike van Haght is the principal of Cannons Creek Independent High School in Pinelands, Cape Town.

A huge part of school is the humanity of school. School is a place where children and teenagers spend a large part of their waking hours. School is where we learn so many of the social skills which are as important as the languages, mathematics and sciences taught from school curricula. Socio-emotional learning has become the unnoticed victim of Covid-19.

As we look back on almost 18 months of lost opportunities, we can’t help but be aware of how much valuable academic time has disappeared thanks to Covid-19. Various sources report that South African schoolchildren may be lagging behind academically by (on average) between nine and 12 months compared with where they normally would have been.

It is therefore understandable that massive efforts are being made to catch up and keep up as best as possible. Some of the strategies have included:

  • Online or distance teaching;
  • Work packs being sent home;
  • Curriculums being trimmed so as to focus on literacy and numeracy — the so-called “essential” academic areas. Subjects such as technology, creative arts, music, history and life orientation have been trimmed down to make space for the “essential” subjects;
  • Extra catch-up lessons over weekends and during holidays; and
  • Teaching “to the exams”, ie narrowing the focus and doing away with enrichment.

The danger is that we are seeing schools and school education as a place and system for imparting certain academic skills and knowledge only. Schools are much more than that. The subjects and how these subjects are taught entail more than merely memorising certain facts, mastering prescribed skills or applying various principles.

A huge part of school is the humanity of school. School is a place where children and teenagers spend a large part of their waking hours. School is where we learn so many of the social skills which are as important as the languages, mathematics and sciences taught.

Socio-emotional learning (SEL) has become the unnoticed victim of Covid-19. SEL broadly refers to the acquisition of a set of skills and attributes which help with self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making — that which makes us human.

SEL is not consciously taught at school. It is subliminal learning which happens when we interact socially with peers and other human beings. It’s in the hugs, arguments, disappointments, hurts, victories, defeats, sports practices and matches, concerts, shows, celebrations, tears, jokes, laughter and so much more of what happens at school, where socio-emotional learning happens.

Yes, we have to find the time, opportunity and space to catch up on the formal curriculum. However, we must ensure that we do not do this at the expense of SEL. Unfortunately, the nature of Covid-19 channels us into doing away with the SEL opportunities: we have to wear face masks; we have to social distance; we curtail socialising; we cannot sing together; we limit sport; and we cut back on cultural activities.

Also, in a desperate attempt to catch up with the formal curriculum, we exchange SEL opportunities for formal teaching:

  • We use physical education lessons to catch up on maths;
  • We do away with life orientation;
  • We run extra holiday and weekend classes;
  • We move our children into online schools; and
  • We propose cancelling October school holidays.

I am not saying we must not find the time to catch up with the formal curriculum — I am guilty of this myself. However, we need to be aware of the dangers of sacrificing SEL time and constantly remind ourselves of this and the possible negative consequences of doing so.

Research seems to indicate that improving socio-emotional development improves mental health and wellbeing. (Schools are reporting a massive increase in pupils suffering from anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic). There also appears to be a strong correlation between pupils’ socio-emotional development and their ability to catch up on academic deficits (ie the best way to equip our pupils to “catch up” may be to give them opportunities to develop their socio-emotional skills).

Admittedly, living in a Covid world does not encourage social interaction. That’s why schools need to make every effort to safely “get back to normal”. While the health of our pupils, staff and parents is our first priority, we have to look for and create opportunities to re-introduce the “normal”:

  • We need to get some fun-filled events back on the calendar, even if they’re adapted for Covid compliance. Everyone needs something to look forward to;
  • Rules and regulations which were relaxed because of Covid need to be brought back. Actions and consequences are an important part of SEL;
  • If we can’t play inter-school sport, then introduce some sort of intra-class sport — let’s keep it in the bubble, but let’s play; and
  • It’s OK to go for a walk on the beach. We can still have picnics. Riding a bike does not cause Covid.

Humans are social creatures. When we’re sad we need a shoulder to cry on, not a room to lock ourselves away in. When we celebrate we like to do so with others. Covid makes it difficult to do the things that make us human. Let’s not exacerbate the problem. Yes, we have a lot that needs catching up on, but let’s not forget to nurture that which makes us human. After all, it’s our humanity that will get us through this pandemic. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Mckay says:

    SEL learning at school does teach one how to engage with fellow humans but as adults, we have a broader range of choices available to us if we are faced with a negative social environment. If our friends are behaving like jerks we can leave, if our neighbour is a satanic worshiper we don’t have to engage with them, and if our work environment is toxic adults generally have the skills to navigate that environment or the resources to seek help to figure out how to engage with the Q-anon or Antifa supporter sitting opposite us.

    Not so school.

    A child, tween, teenager all have to endure the daily froth of banter, slights, insults, bullying and even physical and sexual violence. In 2010 I was fortunate enough to visit the US on an ISASA grant to investigate online schooling. My chats with students revealed their relief at not having to deal with the “darker” side of schooling. They did not miss out on SEL, on the contrary, they formed “pods”, met up at different houses and were part of social groups of peers that they could trust and feel safe with.

    I had a similar experience during COVID while working as a teacher (in the USA), and my anecdotal experience suggests that in-person schooling is not for everyone and that COVID has accelerated alternatives to in-person schooling where SEL can still take place in the context of sport, clubs and other non-school activities.

    I am relieved my own kids are heading back to in-person schooling, but there are other effective options.

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