We know that before students can effectively learn, several conditions must be met. For example, they must have food. A hungry student isn’t going to be able to absorb instruction, no matter how skilled the teacher is.

Neither can students learn if their social and emotional needs are not met. My many years as an educator—including my time as a special education teacher, principal, superintendent and executive county superintendent—taught me that you can have a school district with the best academic program and the best staff, but students cannot learn if they don’t feel that they are valued.

This isn’t a new revelation.  Long before the term “social-emotional learning (SEL)” was in popular use, we used other terms to describe the need for students to feel appreciated and to understand their emotionality. We knew of the importance of providing students with support and guidance, along with “lots” of care and concern about their mental well-being. We now have the brain research that supports the concept that this is essential for all children, but we have long believed it was so.

I’m proud to say New Jersey’s public schools have been leaders in providing outstanding opportunities that are centered around social-emotional learning, including music and arts instruction, animal therapy, successful counseling programs, and initiatives such as the “Wingman Program,” a youth social-emotional leadership training program that NJSBA has supported.

There is also a raised level of sensitivity among the teaching and administrative staff in New Jersey’s schools. Boards of education also know they need to support and fund SEL programs. Everyone understands that recognition of mental health issues should be part of every educator’s toolkit.

Since March, when students and staff began learning and teaching from home, there has been increased concern for the emotional well-being of all concerned. While the majority of students are faring well under virtual learning, we have heard of some troubling situations where children are not thriving. Districts have been paying close attention and providing resources to students in need—and must continue to do so.

This issue of School Leader magazine includes a special section on social-emotional learning, including articles on what one district has done to increase social-emotional learning resources during the pandemic, an article on the connection between the arts and SEL, and one on teaching resilience to children and staff members. The special section begins on page 16. I urge you to read it and consider what your school district is doing to ensure the emotional well-being of its students.