Social Emotional Well-Being and Recovery through the Lens of Schools and Districts

Victoria Salinas, Maura Shramko, Isabelle Edwards, Erin Clancy
5 min read
Teacher standing in front of her class. Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Social emotional learning (SEL) is a vital component of learning environments that foster well-being and success for both students and educators. Students have experienced profound learning and mental health challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) invested in Learning Renewal–SEL programs to address these challenges. The American Institutes for Research (AIR®) is collaborating with ISBE to evaluate its Learning Renewal–SEL initiative, which is described in Exhibit 1. As part of our evaluation, AIR conducted interviews with 40 Illinois SEL coaches and program leaders to learn about the needs and interests of Illinois districts and schools. We share the most frequently cited concerns, along with how they are being addressed, in this blog.  


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Supporting Student and Staff Mental Health and Well-Being Are Top Needs 

According to SEL coaches and program leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic helped school and district staff realize the importance of supporting well-being and mental health, both to alleviate staff burnout and address challenging student behaviors.  Specifically, SEL coaches and program leaders found that districts and schools needed supports and programming to: (a) support positive student behavior in the pandemic recovery context; (b) understand how trauma-informed and SEL lenses explain student behavior; and (c) promote educator well-being.  

Fostering Positive Student Behavior 

SEL coaches and program leaders reported that district and school staff wanted new approaches to support positive student behavior. Specifically, since the start of the pandemic, school staff and students have experienced more burnout and frustration than ever before. Further, the pandemic upended some of the traditional approaches to classroom management and instruction, as described by one SEL coach: 

The influx of students that are not being supported with their trauma or mental health issues and staff seem to be now at the forefront. Their brain and their learning and maybe it’s not a choice. Maybe people are actually struggling with anxiety, et cetera. 

One SEL coach shared that previous strategies to support student behavior that worked in the past were no longer effective. Educators need support to change their expectations and practices in the classroom: “What I hope [teachers will] start seeing is you need to change practice because the gig is different, and you can’t blame and put all the responsibility on children who don’t have the control mechanisms to change these systems that are not working anymore.” 

Addressing Student Needs through SEL and Trauma-Responsive Approaches  

Through the Learning Renewal–SEL initiative, schools and districts have access to SEL Hub supports for student and staff well-being, including training to support greater awareness of student mental health needs, and professional development for trauma-informed approaches to classroom management.  

SEL coaches and program leaders found that districts and schools in their regions were eager for SEL and trauma-informed approaches that helped them understand student behavior in the wake of the pandemic. In general, participants believed that the increased awareness of these issues across their communities created a sense of responsibility among school staff. 

According to one SEL coach, school staff did not feel equipped to handle student behavior problems until they saw how trauma helped make sense of what they were seeing: “There were just things that felt inexplicable until you could see them through a trauma-informed lens.” Similarly, another program leader shared that school staff realized that students’ mental health and social emotional needs were not being met, which made staff ask for support.  

To better facilitate this learning, many districts and schools have implemented the REACH approach. REACH takes a whole school, trauma-informed approach by creating teams, using an evidence-based needs assessment, developing action plans, and monitoring their progress on how they navigate trauma-responsive and healing-focused practices.  

Promoting Educator Well-Being 

Finally, SEL coaches and leaders reported that schools have taken measures to address educators’ own social emotional well-being. In turn, educators have greater capacity to support their students’ emotion regulation and behavior. As one of them shared,  

I think that it’s about understanding secondary traumatic stress, understanding compassion fatigue, understanding why I feel like junk every night when I go home after work, and I don’t enjoy my job anymore, and then knowing how to take the next step to make myself feel better. 

Through the Learning Renewal –SEL Initiative, participants highlighted examples of how districts and schools promoted educator wellness, such as yoga, planned wellness practices like “Mindful Mondays”, learning to manage compassion fatigue, and other forms of self-care.  

Next Steps for Our Study  

The partnership between ISBE and AIR will continue through the summer of 2025. As we continue the study, we will continue to learn from SEL coaches, program leads, district, and school staff to understand their experience and perspectives implementing the Learning Renewal–SEL activities. For more about this project and for the full Year 1 implementation report, visit our website: