Meeting Students Where They Are: Addressing Social Emotional Learning Disruption

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

Meeting Students Where They Are: Addressing Social Emotional Learning DisruptionIt’s on social media feeds and in newspapers, and it’s reflected on the tired faces of educators everywhere: this school year is rough. Like, rough rough.

Knowing our students have been home from school closures and preoccupied by stress and trauma the last two years, we did all the things: We front-loaded on social and emotional learning. We ramped up our curriculum to cover holes from the prior year. We read up on trauma response. We reached out to our families to get a pulse on where student resources might be needed. All these efforts were made to help our students transition back to a full year, in person, with large class sizes.

Alas, the transition has been anything but smooth. At my large middle school, there is a buzz of anxious energy that cannot seem to be calmed down. This feeling is streaming from our students, flooding our teachers, and igniting our worried parents. With so much charge and pressure in this school year, it’s scary to wonder what is next and impossible to feel fully prepared for each day as it comes.

What’s Going on with Students?

Erik Erikson defined eight stages of development in people. In each stage the growing human experiences a break from the previous stage and learns lessons to evolve toward the next. Awareness of these stages is a big reason why middle school counselors can usually spot a situation before it happens and appear magically all-knowing to students. The inner turmoils of preadolescent and adolescent kids are often as predictable to us as what color the next light will be when we hit a yellow.

When we get complacent in the ordinary, however, we can be brought up short—and the disruptions can feel catastrophic. At my large middle school, we are at the beginning of December and it still feels like all 1,600 students are starting the sixth grade. Social emotional growth seems to have been on hold, or to have regressed. Questions have swirled in my mind: What did I miss? How did I not plan enough? Where is my coffee?!

True to our educator selves, we have been questioning our own practices and planning. But is it possible that the missing piece in student development is no one’s fault at all—simply the result of the COVID vortex? This question led me to revisit Erikson’s stages and think about where returning students might be on the continuum.

The American Psychological Association outlines Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development from which an individual’s identity evolves over a lifetime. In this theory, growth occurs at each stage by way of balancing an inner conflict. Through experiential and cognitive exploration, the result is increased values and understanding of the self and others. While you read through Erikson’s stages of development, think about the children in your school, home, or community.

(a) infancy birth–18 months: basic trust versus mistrust
(b) toddler 2–3 years: autonomy versus shame and doubt
(c) preschool age 3–5 years: initiative versus guilt
(d) school age 6–11 years: industry versus inferiority
(e) adolescence 12–18 years: identity versus identity confusion
(f) young adulthood 19–40 years: intimacy versus isolation
(g) middle age 40–65 years: generativity versus stagnation
(h) older adulthood 65+ years: integrity versus despair

I think there may be golden eggs in these stages! The more I read over information on Erikson’s stages, the more I started to see a pattern of missing interpersonal and motivational skills in my students as they relate to each stage. It was an aha moment: Many students are two years behind in the development that I am so attuned to! Though we added scaffolding to help support them, we did so based on a model that may well be two years ahead of their understanding because of time lost in quarantine and on trauma response.

Here are some of the difficulties we are seeing in my school, and developmental concepts that may have an impact on students’ social emotional growth. Many of the problems we are seeing are not new necessarily, as much as they are magnified and widespread.

Lessened motivation to complete work: industry versus inferiority. Our middle school students have been thrust into a more competitive environment without sufficiently developing their self-concept in relation to what success is, how to handle failure, and who is to blame. If a child is unable to self-evaluate in a healthy way, they might feel discouraged or incapable.

Increased social issues: industry versus inferiority and identity versus role confusion. We see students who are self-isolating as well as a surfeit of arguments occurring. In order to develop a strong identity, students must be able to grasp failure as a means for growth (not a personality trait, or a reason to hide, or a reason to lash out). Because adolescence in these stages is marked by identity exploration with peers, our kids have a lot of catching up to do, and they may innately feel like it all must be done now.

Increased behavioral issues in unstructured environments: identity versus role confusion. During the late single-digit years, children are solidifying what being “good” at something is, and who has the ability to determine how that is defined and measured. This concept of competency as a self-actualized ability takes an understanding of the importance of feeling successful, coping with change, and following rules to meet norms.

How We Can Help: 6 Strategies to Address Social Emotional Learning Gaps

If our students are struggling from missing development within their personal identity growth, the last thing we want to do is begin building over the hole. A bridge is never going to be as solid a replacement as a strong foundation. We know this about content knowledge as well; information is best built upon earlier learning, lest the learner remain behind when new concepts come into play. Becoming familiar with Erikson’s stages, and being intentional about the tools we are supporting our students to develop within these stages, may be the key to helping our students recoup their time lost at school. Here are six ideas to consider:

  1. Offer professional development for all staff to inform them or remind them about developmental stages. Allow staff to theorize about how missing school and living in trauma may have impacted students’ progress through these stages.
  2. Encourage content planning groups to apply concepts of earlier and age-appropriate development into their curriculum and lesson planning. There are some resources out there that have tied specific pedagogy of practice to Erikson’s stages and inner conflicts (
  3. Teach students about the stages of development and allow them space to discuss their own experiences with the inner conflicts they are grappling with.
  4. Allow for plenty of experiential teaching so that students gain a broader understanding of their world and interact with diverse personalities, skills, and backgrounds.
  5. Go heavy on social studies, teaching the students a deep understanding of community, how we help each other, and how resources and information are something we can seek out.
  6. Develop mentorship programs so that students can make several impactful connections with someone who is interested in their success and can be responsive when they feel they fail or don’t succeed to the level they wish.

Personal Growth Takes Time

At the end of the day, just as Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development occur organically over time through observation and exposure, so too must our care and aid to the matter. We cannot expect ourselves to be able to fix everything in a timely manner, and we have to let go of claiming control of things out of our reach. We need to be forgiving to ourselves and have faith in children.

Kids all over the world missed out on one to two years of time when they would normally have been in school, considerably focused. Last year, I would have watched my students walk into middle school fresh-faced and anxious about their new surroundings in early September. Most of them would have felt confident and at home in school by December with new friends, clubs, and teams. They all would have finished the year knowing they got through their first year of middle school, and would have begun this year with a new confidence knowing what the year would bring.

Our students did not get a consistent and stable last two years. And they did not get to start this year knowing what it would look and feel like. The absence of this is what has been taken from them: the standard, the ordinary. Though we cannot change what they have experienced, we can give due diligence to what they missed by providing an environment that better suits their current development, as opposed to what we are accustomed to seeing in the past.

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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