Social and emotional learning in a socially-distanced world

Social and emotional learning in a socially-distanced world

Like you, I first heard the term ‘social distancing’ only a few months ago. My first question was: what is even happening right now? My second: what happens to us when the strongest factor for our wellbeing, our social connectedness, becomes the way we might infect each other?

We are social animals. We are wired to connect. Our children and young people are especially vulnerable to disconnection (made clear in experiments like the Still Face experiment). Our relationships aren’t just nice things to have, they protect us from stress and ageing, enable us to learn and perform better, and increase the sense of meaning in our life which enables a more joyful existence. This social connectedness is also the number one thing that young people learning from home have been saying they have been missing most about their school experience; their friends and teachers.

The train has clearly left the station, but surely we’d be better to talk of physical distancing, not social distancing. We must remain socially connected, albeit physically distant. Separately together, in the words of a friend of mine. Not socially distant, but distantly social.

This moment has also shown the amazing power of collective action, as here in Australia we have successfully flattened the curve in line with advice from our public health experts. Our health heroes have been phenomenal, and we should also acknowledge all other essential workers, including educators far and wide that have pivoted overnight to continue providing learning to their students and in many cases asked to do the impossible, to enforce physical distancing in a classroom.

Like other crises, pandemics don't just disrupt, they also reveal. They shine a light on issues that are often unseen, and show us opportunities to rethink our approaches. With COVID-19 it is true not just for entire industries, but also entire nations and indeed our entire global civilisation. This crisis has thrown open the Overton Window, the concept from political theory for the range of ideas we as a public are willing to accept and which is, therefore, key for any social progress.

‘NAPLAN cancelled for 2020’ was an inconceivable headline for many, despite strong views and advocacy from our educator community. Besides reminding us of the power of schools (and workplaces) as dynamic, vibrant hubs of social connection, this moment has also enabled us to reimagine the experiences of students in schools. There is a new found appreciation for the complexity of our work as educators across the Australian community, and it is paramount to focus on wellbeing for students and teachers, just as we also must with the economic disruption being felt by so many in our communities.

Connection is core

More than ever before, we have a collective responsibility to make sure that no-one feels alone. We should ask a key question to our colleagues, family, friends and students - how deeply connected to others do you feel right now?

As we all rapidly adapt to the new normal for learning, work and life, beyond the tragic first order impacts of the virus, the second and third order impacts might become increased loneliness and depression if we’re not intentional about centralising our need for social connection and meaning in our schools, workplaces and communities.

The key role of our relationships, of our social connectedness, is made clear by one of the longest studies into health and wellbeing. The key finding from the Harvard Study into Adult Development is that our happiness in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of our body is important, but tending to our relationships is fundamental to be able to thrive. The study shows that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. In fact, they were more likely to be alive. Waldinger, the current Director, puts it bluntly.

“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” — Robert Waldinger

Loneliness has always been a challenge for many modern societies, especially those espousing a strong individualist paradigm, yet the need to intentionally create connection has never been so crucial and it’s what every great leader and educator considers core before anything else.

Enter social and emotional learning

There is increasing recognition that perpetual learning is a reality for the future world of work. All learners, beginning with our youngest, require a highly developed suite of social, emotional and cognitive skills, underpinned by a wise learning mindset. Social and emotional capabilities (or life skills) are key human capabilities that allow individuals to manage their emotions, work with others, and achieve their goals. There are many different models yet they all centralise on the key abilities that make us human: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making, to use a well-known framework from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

Much global focus has been on the ways that schools and learning systems have been enabling the development of these capabilities. But the future just kicked in the door, 2020 has put a spotlight not just on essential workers, but on essential skills, the social and emotional capabilities we all need to thrive.

It is widely accepted that these aforementioned skills are crucial for the well-being and success of every child and adult, and for the future of our societies and economies. What is yet unclear, is how bold we will be in Australia to reimagine and remake our education systems so that we properly value these skill sets, connecting the supply and demand sides of our learning systems, so that students are equipped to navigate a constantly changing landscape on their learning journey.

Our collective opportunity

What is crucial in our rush ‘back to normal’ is to seize the opportunity to leave behind ways of doing that no longer serve our aspirations; to unleash ourselves as individuals, schools, systems and industries. Surely there is no rush back to normal, to do so would be to deny there were any entrenched problems, there is only forward towards something else. Our greatest opportunity is to challenge ourselves to think about the way we have designed schooling and if it still creates optimal learning. The experience is not working, so let’s change it for the better. To empower teachers to inspire young people who will need to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their life more than any previous generation.

There are many students and teachers who are co-designing impactful learning experiences already and we need to amplify these practices and prototypes so they become part of the emerging mainstream. Across the board, the empowerment of young people and teachers by supporting their agency and wellbeing with a sense of belonging, connection and autonomy is just simply an investment whose time has come.

Clearly, a key opportunity today is to move beyond narrow academic measures and mechanistic narratives and try to better measure and promote learner growth and human development. Social, emotional and cognitive capabilities are mutually reinforcing and ultimately are the real currency for individuals and communities. Just as Gross Domestic Product is replaced by new metrics, what might the emerging learning economy enable for the way we articulate what we know, what we can do, and who we are?

As we reopen our physical spaces and communities, we have an opportunity. We can either return to the old normal or seek to create environments that make us feel seen, heard and connected, ones that focus equality on our social, emotional and cognitive growth and that create joyful experiences for a lifetime of learning where Australia meets its promise as a lucky country.


Louka Parry is the CEO and Founder of The Learning Future, an organisation that supports schools, systems and companies to thrive in tomorrow’s world. A former teacher, he became a school principal at 27 years old and was named Inspirational Public Secondary Teacher of the Year for South Australia. He has since trained thousands of educators and leaders globally to increase their positive impact. He holds two Masters degrees, speaks five languages, has completed studies at Harvard and been a resident at Stanford’s dschool. He is committed to equipping individuals, schools and organisations at the convergence of social, emotional and academic learning.