The moment educators have been waiting for, for more than a year—a return to normal—feels like it’s going to appear on the horizon at any moment. The growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, flood of federal funding for State Education Associations, and reopening of school buildings are things to celebrate. At the same time, reports on students’ unfinished learning and pandemic-related trauma can make it feel like the horizon has disappeared entirely, leaving us all wondering which way is up.

The discordance of the moment is reflected in the debate over what educators should focus on once students return to school post-pandemic: social-emotional learning (SEL) to heal students’ trauma or rigorous instruction to heal their learning loss. Some educators argue that one must come before the other—that it’s an either or situation. However, I and many others think such arguments create a false dichotomy, and by doing so, obscure the solution that our students truly need. As Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, said during Smarter Together: Planning for Success after Extended School Closure: “Why is it for some people’s children we have ‘either or conversations’ and for other people's children we have ‘both and conversations’?”

Our most vulnerable students—those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with special learning needs, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (referred to as BIPOC students in the rest of this post)—have the most to lose with an “either SEL or rigorous instruction” approach. Research shows that these students have been disproportionally affected economically, emotionally, and academically by the pandemic. Students who were below grade level before the pandemic even began need rigorous instruction as soon as possible if they’re even going to meet grade-level expectations. Students who entered the pandemic with pre-existing trauma that was likely compounded by the stresses of the pandemic itself need SEL and safe learning environments where they are validated, affirmed, and celebrated for their unique contributions.

Our vulnerable students need both and.

Both and does not mean that SEL will be integrated into every moment of academic instruction. There are situations in which doing so would be inappropriate and ineffective. But it also doesn’t mean that instruction will never focus solely on SEL. Indeed, students’ school days will be a mixture of . . .

  • Academic instruction without any SEL
  • Instruction with implicit/integrated SEL (e.g., incorporating journal writing into English language arts lessons, using cooperative learning practices)
  • Instruction devoted solely to explicit SEL (e.g., a lesson about matching words to feelings, worksheets and instruction about problem solving) for topics that cannot be integrated into academic lessons

No student should be an either or student. All students deserve both and. Make no mistake about it—“both and” is a tall order.

Education leaders must create the conditions for integrated SEL and rigorous instruction to succeed. They’re the ones who must foster school cultures that promote student self-efficacy and growth mindsets. Drawing on the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)’s roadmap for reopening schoolsinterviews with educators, and Curriculum Associates’ analysis of unfinished learning, research, and more, I’ve compiled a short list of the practices education leaders should have in place as their schools regroup and recover from the pandemic. This list is far from exhaustive, but it does steer leaders in the right direction.


Offer robust professional development.

  • Ensure teachers have the tools they need to accelerate teaching and learning by providing training in scaffolding instruction, grade-level learning standards, learning progression maps, and essential skills charts, to name a few.
  • Don’t assume teachers will know how to integrate SEL into their academic lessons. In Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Roadmap for Reopening School, CASEL experts advise education leaders: “Recognizing that educators may feel pressure to focus solely on academic content when school reopens, focus professional learning on helping educators understand that academic growth is deeply connected to developmental relationships and SEL.” (For information about selecting an effective SEL program, visit the CASEL website.)
  • Deliver training in culturally responsive teaching to help educators engage and build stronger relationships with students and their families as well as training in building student self-efficacy.


Invest in high-quality tools to diagnose students’ needs and progress.

  • Some might argue that now is not the time for assessments, but I’d argue the opposite. Now is exactly when teachers need to have access to insightful and actionable individual student data that will enable teachers to maximize instructional time and test less. As researchers from McKinsey & Company write in Reimagining a More Equitable and Resilient K–12 Education System: “It’s hard to achieve excellence without data on current performance and benchmarks to aim toward . . . . Instead of eradicating tests altogether, systems need better assessments and better tools to help each student succeed.”
  • High-quality assessments should supply a lot of information in the shortest amount of time possible. They should deliver clear, concise data about individual students’ learning needs that seamlessly connects to instruction, saving teachers valuable time and eliminating the need for redundant testing.
  • In a meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs, researchers found that SEL programs led to “ . . . significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance . . . .” Thus, educators should look to their interim assessments for signs of possible SEL-related academic growth and student surveys and other tools to measure SEL progress Use a data-driven instructional approach to provide just-in-time, personalized instruction that enables teachers to address only the prerequisites students need to progress to grade-level learning.
  • Even if your district returns to 100% in-person learning, encourage teachers to continue using the remote learning communication practices (e.g., posting videos to TikTok®, virtual data chats, celebrating student growth on social media) that helped them build stronger relationships with students, families, and communities.


Invest in resources and relationships that drive equity goals.

  • Prioritize growth for those who have been most impacted by the pandemic such as BIPOC students, students with unique learning needs, and students with socioeconomic disadvantages by developing explicit goals and strategies to help them recover unfinished learning and address social-emotional wounds. These efforts may require additional attention and resources.
  • Use high-quality instructional materials that are culturally and linguistically representative of the students in your district.
  • Intentionally invest in relationships with community partners (e.g., social workers, food banks, health care providers, nonprofits) to provide additional supports for students’ and teachers’ mental and physical well-being.
  • Prioritize strategic, real-time central office supports for schools that are performing below desired expectations. For example, use insights from student performance data to deploy literacy coaches to build teacher and admin capacity at schools where the student body has high unfinished learning in reading.

This work is important, and the stakes are tremendously high. Students who have fallen behind academically could be dealing with the ramifications of the “COVID slide” decades into their adult lives. Because of the pandemic, as many as 1.1 million students in Grades 9–11 could drop out of school entirely in the near future. Furthermore, today’s learning loss could lead to staggering financial loss for individuals—BIPOC students would suffer the greatest impact to their lifetime earnings—and the American economy as a whole. As for trauma caused by the pandemic, we know from long-established research that that, too, if untreated, could lead to heartbreaking and long-lasting consequences.

Please remember none of this has happened, yet. We have not yet lost the opportunity to holistically serve students—all students—in a way that addresses both unfinished learning and their social-emotional well-being. That said, there’s no time to waste.

Education leaders: If you reject the idea of either or and provide educators with the tools and support they need to give students both and, we just might realize that the horizon hasn’t disappeared after all, and “a new normal” will appear once we’ve created it.


About the author

Ken Tam is a former teacher and district administrator with more than 20 years of experience in education technology. In his current role as Curriculum Associates’ executive director, personalized learning and assessment, he helps educators develop assessment literacy to improve their ability to connect data to instruction. He serves as a thought leader on assessment and personalized learning and speaks widely at regional and national conferences on how districts can “Assess Less, Know More” and “Adapt Teaching and Learning.”