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There is a copious amount of research that shows that educators who are highly skilled with social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies produce greater academic achievement. As we continue to deal with the realities of what COVID-19 has presented to communities across the nation, we must prioritize SEL in our schools. 

SEL empowers adult practitioners in education, as it helps to advance their own mental wellness and student development. As schools aim to build the instructional competencies of teachers and school leaders around SEL, they should employ the expertise and skills of social workers and social work interns from community-based organizations and colleges/universities in the community. 

Social workers and social work interns are specifically trained in their programs to master and execute the tenets of SEL. Social workers are trained to respond to trauma and student needs through SEL. As the increased exposure to racism, home instability, illness, and economic uncertainty shape the realities of students across the country, we must consider how the role of SEL competency building can be utilized to empower students at this time. Social workers and interns are trained to do just this. Research shows that SEL provides social workers and interns with a level of skill that is not common among teachers, as the development of SEL competencies is not emphasized in many teacher-training programs. 

Social workers––interns, specifically––can play a vital role in the development of SEL. Within a school setting, interns can be tasked with obtaining and reporting on weekly collected data, to support effective program evaluation. Interns also work with school leaders to measure SEL success and make recommendations as to what can be done to enhance social-emotional competence among both students and staff.

One program that provides a foundation for the development of SEL skills is the Urban Assembly’s Resilient Scholars Program (RSP). RSP is a program designed to support the development and sustainable implementation of an SEL program in schools within the Urban Assembly (UA) and across the country. The RSP model incorporates the support of social work interns to ensure the effective implementation and sustainability of an SEL framework geared for students. During the school day, social work interns work with teachers and administrators to create a platform that is attuned to the demonstration of SEL skills and competencies and also, to teach these skills as well. The program has amassed great success in advancing SEL skills among its students and is a model for districts to consider.

There is a unique opportunity and perhaps responsibility for us to best position support staff in schools and in out-of-school organizations to serve the SEL needs of students and adults, while modeling it. For this reason, we should strive to increase the capacity to teach, monitor, and build SEL competencies. Social workers and interns are severely underrepresented and at this time, we must change this. Now is the time for schools and districts to partner with community-based organizations and nearby institutions of higher learning to ensure the social-emotional wellness of young people.

Kandra Knowles is a doctoral student at Fordham University and is an advocate for student and adolescent wellness.

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