As professors who teach future principals and superintendents, we have our “students” share their weekly triumphs and tribulations for the first 15 minutes of each class. This year in particular, each week the refrain was the same: educators are tired. In the current school year, more than any other, we have heard that “kids have no idea how to be students” as a result of being in and out of school for the last two years. Add to that increased screen time for kids and social media for tweens and teens, which can worsen anxiety and depression (Wells et al., 2021), and it’s easy to understand why educators are exhausted today.

Specifically, the social and emotional health of kids has been compromised the past two years due to:

A Disruption of Routines

Kids need routine and a level or predictability to thrive. While some laxity in routines is okay, months and months of it is not. Kids are resilient, but they are resilient because they have a baseline to bounce back to, and months and months of disrupted routines took away that baseline.

Fewer Opportunities for Peer Interaction

Human brains, and especially teen brains, are hard-wired for connection and interaction and that was taken away from many kids for months (at a minimum) and years (for some at high-risk). Building perspective-taking and empathy is an interactive process, and the pandemic took away that in-person interaction.

Masks Mean Masked Emotions

Masks effectively mask students’ ability to learn and process emotions. Masks became ubiquitous in society. Regardless of political leanings, faces were covered, and are still covered in many states, which means kids cannot effectively see the emotionality of those around them for large amounts of time during the school day. Kids cannot process what they cannot see.

The Challenge with Social and Emotional Learning Programs

To counteract all of this, what students really need is deliberate social and emotional instruction and care. Even though programs like PBIS or Character Counts can provide that, academics often wins the battle for time. What gets tested gets taught, and schools don’t earn a “grade” on how well their students function socially and emotionally. If district and school leaders are pushed to focus on addressing pandemic learning loss in the traditional reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic sense, SEL gets pushed to the side in a time where it should be at the forefront.

Now more than ever, districts need to support the social and emotional needs of their students. So, what can they do RIGHT NOW? Well, they could buy an off-the-shelf program to address SEL, but learning how to implement such programs takes much training and time, something teachers and administrators are especially short on now.

Social and Emotional Learning for Everyday Instruction

Instead, educators can do three simple things to support the social and emotional well-being of their students: support students’ needs for autonomy, belongingness, and competence. These three basic psychological needs are the focus of self-determination theory (SDT), the leading modern theory about well-being and motivation, built on many years of research. In the school setting, according to SDT research, supporting students’ three basic psychological needs leads to positive socioemotional results.

Here are some specific ways in which schools can support students’ three needs.

  1. Autonomy: Students need to feel like they have choice and agency.

Teachers who give students choices are already supporting autonomy to some degree, and providing choices is a great start. But there are also other ways to do it. One is to play up the connection between choice and SEL-specific tasks. For example, building in specific cognitive breaks for students where they can disengage from the demands of academics, even for a few minutes each day, can help calm and soothe those who find schoolwork stress-inducing. Allow for 15 minutes of a free-choice “brain break” for kids of all ages. Some may choose to interact with peers, some may choose to read quietly, and some may choose to put their heads down and rest.

  1. Belongingness: Students need to have positive relationships with other students and their teachers.

Teachers who relate well to their students already support this need. The biggest way educators can facilitate belongingness is by building a positive relationship with students and providing opportunities for students to build positive peer relationships with each other. This has the added benefit of building empathy (Kurdi et al., 2021). Allowing opportunities to work in peer groups is one way to foster belongingness. Taking an active interest in your students’ lives is another great way to build connections. Do they have a favorite pet? Ask them about it! Did they get a new pair of shoes? Ask them about it! Another more unique way to engage with kids in ways they understand is through purposeful use of social media. Over the pandemic, many teachers created TikTok accounts for the purpose of engaging with their students and some of them have been highly successful at it.

  1. Competence: Students need to feel they can do what is asked of them.

Within the SEL domain, providing structure can support competence. When students understand school and classroom expectations, they feel successful when they follow them and complete the expected tasks. For example, post tasks on the board for students to complete when they arrive in the classroom. Have each day or class start the exact same way, and perhaps give students time to share if they would like. Similarly, to build competence especially in the era of masks, use books and video clips (where you can actually see faces) to talk about the types of emotions kids encounter on a daily basis. Encourage students to talk about their emotions and let them know it’s ok to feel emotionally out of sorts. Don’t engage in toxic positivity (a good vibes only mindset). It’s not ok to tell kids they should have to be happy all the time. Allow them to feel what they feel and process their emotions in a safe environment.

While supporting students’ psychological needs is essential, teacher well-being should not be sacrificed; supporting teachers’ needs works in the same way. In fact, the basics of psychological need support are the same in any situation or relationship. Everyone who spends any amount of time in a school these days needs their social and emotional well-being attended to. And remember to take care of yourself along the way as well!


Center for Self-Determination Theory (n.d.). Self-Determination Theory.

Kurdi, V., Joussemet, M. & Mageau, G.A. (2021). A self-determination theory perspective on social and emotional learning. In N. Yoder & A. Skoog-Hoffman (Eds.), Motivating the SEL Field Forward Through Equity (pp. 61-78). Emerald Publishing Limited.

Wells, G., Horwitz, J., & Seetharaman, D. (2021, Sep 14). Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show. The Wall Street Journal.

Kelly H. Summers, PhD

Dr. Kelly Summers is an Associate Professor of Educational Administration in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. Her research interests include leadership motivation, legal literacy for educators, and school-aged bullying. Dr. Summers is a licensed school psychologist and school administrator. Prior to NIU, she worked as a district-level coordinator for multi-tiered systems of support and before that, as a school psychologist. Dr. Summers teaches a variety of courses to masters and doctoral students, including courses on motivation in school settings and courses on multi-tiered systems of support.

Stephen M. Tonks, PhD

Dr. Stephen Tonks is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. He researches academic motivation, focusing on reading engagement in children and adolescents. Additional research interests include measuring student motivation and classroom instruction that supports motivation and engagement. Dr. Tonks regularly teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on motivation, educational psychology, and child and adolescent development.