Interview: SEL Expert Elizabeth Englander on Preserving Social-Emotional Learning During the Pandemic, the Key to Managing Screen Time — and Why Families Should Eat Dinner Together
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As educational institutions continue to navigate the challenges posed by coronavirus outbreaks, displaced students, and decisions regarding classroom reopenings, the primary focus has been on aiding students in catching up academically after months of virtual learning and limited interaction with their teachers. However, it is crucial to consider the social-emotional development of students as well. This aspect may have been hindered by months of minimal time spent with peers, along with stress related to the pandemic, economic struggles, and racism.
Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor and executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, has dedicated her work to addressing this issue. Her project, "When the Kids Come Back," offers valuable resources and advice to educators, aiming to help them confront the challenges of this unprecedented school year, with a specific focus on social-emotional learning. Additionally, Englander has co-authored a new book called "The Insanely Awesome Pandemic Playbook: A Humorous Mental Health Guide For Kids" on the same subject.
had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Englander via Zoom, delving into various aspects such as the altered nature of socialization online, the importance of teachers understanding trauma and cyberbullying, and the role of parents in setting limits on screen time.
Note: The interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.
: You have discussed how children can differentiate between forming connections with individuals online and building long-term relationships with those they meet in person. Considering the current circumstances, this poses a significant challenge for teachers in terms of connecting with their students and fostering connections between students. Could you elaborate on your research and its implications for education in the present?
Elizabeth Englander: Our ongoing study, which began around 2010, involves around 5,500 older teenagers. We inquire about various aspects of their lives, including social and school functioning, relationships with peers, teachers, parents, and families. The particular issue you mentioned focused on distinguishing between feeling connected to someone during an interaction and establishing a profound and lasting bond over time. Our findings suggest that children are aware of this difference, but prior to our study, many hadn’t consciously considered it.
Developing an understanding of social media’s advantages and limitations is central to our work on social and emotional learning. Raising awareness about this distinction is crucial. It is important to recognize the disparity between how social media is marketed and its actual benefits. While it certainly facilitates connections, there are limitations to the depth of these connections. To be discerning consumers of social media, we must comprehend these limitations and teach children about them.
Do you believe that similar limitations apply to online learning tools? Is there a comparable disparity between connecting with a teacher through platforms like Google Classroom or email feedback, as opposed to face-to-face interactions?
I am uncertain because, except for very young children, I do not think there is an expectation for teachers to form deeply personal relationships with students. However, there is a qualitative distinction that I have yet to fully grasp. There is something distinctly different about conversing with someone in close physical proximity compared to being physically separated.
For instance, if we were meeting in a coffee shop at this moment, engaged in conversation at a table, the experience would feel different. As someone who frequently speaks and provides training in schools, I can attest to the dissimilarity between interacting with someone in person versus virtually, despite conveying the same information and having the ability to see each other’s faces. There is an intangible factor we are striving to comprehend. We aim to equip children with the knowledge of this distinction, although they may already possess a certain degree of awareness. Clearly, it is a complex matter; otherwise, we would handle it effortlessly, which is not the case.
The educational landscape is undergoing significant changes, and students may find it more challenging to establish strong emotional connections with their teachers. This has a notable impact since children learn most effectively from adults whom they are emotionally connected to. Despite a recent shift away from attachment in education, it is actually a healthy and beneficial aspect. However, in the current environment, it will be more difficult for students to form such attachments, which will ultimately influence their learning experience.
It is unclear what this means exactly. Perhaps it implies that we will have to adjust our expectations, which is a thought I dislike. Nevertheless, it is possible that we will not make as much progress as we hope to. Everyone is striving to find ways to navigate around this issue, but teaching children entirely online is incredibly challenging.
The encouraging news is that parents and students now hold a greater appreciation for schools and teachers, unlike any time in recent memory. This silver lining is overshadowed by the difficult circumstances we are facing.
To clarify, what do you mean by lowering expectations?
It is hard to foresee how children will achieve the same level of social and emotional growth that they would through in-person interactions. Children are remarkably resilient, and they might quickly readjust once they return to school. However, we cannot be certain. This is an unprecedented situation, and there is almost no existing research on the matter. The only relevant research comes from Louisiana, which analyzed the impact of extended school absences following repeated hurricanes. However, even in those cases, the absences lasted only three or four months. Now, we are facing a situation where children might be out of school for six months or even a year.
The situation is undeniably chaotic.
In previous discussions, you mentioned the lack of media attention given to how adults can alleviate the risks of children’s isolation caused by the virus. How should we approach and discuss these risks, and what can parents and teachers do to mitigate them?
To moderate the effects of social isolation, we must embrace all opportunities for in-person interactions, even those we would not typically consider. For example, as long as the weather permits, we should encourage children to engage in outdoor activities with their peers, ensuring safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Additionally, there are opportunities within the home environment, such as having meals together, playing board games, cooking, and cleaning as a family. These activities should be incorporated into the daily routine. I understand that this can be challenging, especially when parents are under immense stress trying to balance work and their children’s education. The instinct may be to seek personal space and retreat to one’s room when given any flexibility.
However, engaging in lower-pressure activities can actually reduce stress. Eating dinner together, for instance, is not a high-pressure activity. Our research indicates that children experience better social outcomes when their families regularly have meals together. They also develop more peaceful and positive relationships with their peers, even if their families do not necessarily get along.
Although interacting with family members is not the same as interacting with peers, it is still better than having no social interaction at all. Reflecting on our own childhood experiences, it is easier to interact with family members because they love us unconditionally. Interactions with peers, on the other hand, present more challenges. Therefore, while family interactions may not be a perfect substitute, they remain crucial in the absence of other social opportunities. We must actively seek out every opportunity for our children to interact with other individuals in person, including ourselves, as these opportunities are currently limited.
There are teaching strategies that can serve multiple purposes — benefiting children academically while also promoting their social development. One example is assigning children to work in small groups. Many children claim to dislike small-group work because it can be challenging to collaborate with peers. However, this challenge can actually be beneficial, as it helps to refine their skills. Although it may not always be enjoyable, incorporating small-group work into academic activities can also foster social growth. Therefore, teachers should consider implementing such techniques or designing projects that involve social interactions, such as student interviews. It is important to prioritize face-to-face interactions with children whenever possible.
Currently, parents are concerned about the impact of screen time on both academic performance and social-emotional well-being. This concern is particularly relevant during a time when mental health support may only be accessible online. What advice can you offer in this area?
Navigating this situation is extremely challenging at present. It was already difficult before, wasn’t it? And the transition to online interactions has only intensified these challenges.
I believe there are limitations to what we can achieve. It is unrealistic to expect children to keep up with their schoolwork by only allowing them one hour of screen time per day. Therefore, practical and functional limits need to be set.
Even before the pandemic, I have always believed that the most effective approach is to allocate specific situations or periods of time where screens are off-limits. For instance, you could establish a routine of cooking dinner together every day at 5 o’clock, followed by a screen-free mealtime. During this hour and a half to two-hour span, no screens or cell phones would be used. Some families may choose to eliminate recreational screen time during the week, weekends, Sundays, or restrict usage before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
Regardless of how you structure it, it seems that establishing designated non-screen time periods causes fewer arguments than trying to set a specific daily screen time limit. The latter approach leads to endless debates about what activities count and which ones do not. Does schoolwork count towards screen time? If your 12-year-old argues that reading The New York Times online counts as educational, what do you do? What about texting? Each text message only takes about 10 seconds, but do they add up? Adopting a constant monitoring and quarreling approach seems counterproductive.
As a general rule, I prefer not to implement policies or approaches that increase conflict within families. Conflict can be highly detrimental to children, families, and even parents themselves. I believe it is better to adopt strategies that minimize conflict, even if it means allowing slightly more screen time.
However, it is crucial to ensure that there are scheduled periods of time when screens are not used, allowing for activities like reading before bedtime, sharing meals with others, or engaging in outdoor activities like biking or walking. In our experience, children tend to respond well to the idea that screen time can affect their overall health. They may be more skeptical about safety concerns, as adults tend to exaggerate the dangers of online activities. Therefore, framing the issue as a matter of personal well-being tends to be more effective than issuing warnings about potential dangers.
On a related note, have you noticed an increase in cyberbullying during this period?
I have heard anecdotal reports of increased cyberbullying, although no published research has been conducted on the subject. It would not be surprising to observe an increase in online bullying considering the heightened screen time experienced by children. However, it is important to note that we may also witness a decline in in-person bullying.
Do you have any advice for teachers and parents on how to address and prevent online bullying?
Numerous events over the past few months have likely caused distress for children, ranging from the deadly pandemic and economic crisis to the highly publicized violence against African Americans. Additionally, there are personal issues like child abuse. As we approach a new school year, adults need to consider how to create trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive classrooms.
As part of the "When the Kids Come Back" initiative, we suggest implementing a few steps. Teachers should be provided with a handout on trauma, which includes information on understanding symptoms. This handout can differentiate between symptoms that are likely and those that are less probable. School counselors can also send notifications to parents, asking them to inform the school if their child is experiencing emotional struggles, sleep and eating difficulties, or any related issues. By collecting this information, school counselors can closely monitor the well-being of the identified children. They can regularly check in with them, ensure they are aware of the counselor’s availability and location, and make it known that they can seek assistance at any time. This proactive approach can greatly contribute to a smoother transition.
Furthermore, teachers should be equipped with the knowledge and skills to address these issues, as they are highly likely to arise in the classroom. In our project, we drew from research conducted in Louisiana, which revealed that some children who have experienced trauma may feel compelled to discuss their experiences, while others become withdrawn and discussing the trauma may exacerbate their anxiety. In a classroom setting with 25 students, how should teachers address this disparity?
The solution lies in not forcing non-talkative students to participate in classroom discussions. Instead, alternative outlets should be provided for those who wish to express their thoughts. For instance, teachers can introduce journaling as a way for students to convey their feelings or offer the option to speak with the school counselor. Additionally, students can be informed that the school counselor will visit the class, providing an opportunity for open dialogue in the afternoon. The goal is to give students an avenue to express themselves in a manner that feels comfortable and appropriate for them.
This approach is crucial since some students may have witnessed individuals falling ill, experiencing loss, losing jobs, or even becoming homeless. The potential for trauma is significant, and it is of utmost importance to be mindful and understanding of these circumstances. While social-emotional well-being has always been important, it has now taken center stage in the current year.
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