2020 introduced new challenges to educators, students and families around the world. As many U.S. schools begin returning to normalcy, it’s clear that the effects of the pandemic linger. Schools will continue to grapple with increased trauma, heightened anxiety, learning loss and more. To help address these needs, Congress passed three stimulus bills providing over $190 billion to the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) fund. School districts have a wide range of options for applying the funds, including using ESSER funds for SEL initiatives.

In this guide to using ESSER funds for social and emotional learning (SEL), we’ll share key facts and helpful resources.

What Are ESSER Funds?

Three separate stimulus bills include ESSER funds:

Funding is meant to help schools safely reopen and provide equitable services that address the physical, mental, and social and emotional needs of students.

States receive funds based on the proportion received under Title I, Part A. State education agencies (SEAs) must use at least 90% of these funds to award subgrants to local education agencies (LEAs). LEAs submit a local application to the relevant SEA to receive funds. Subgrants to LEAs are also based on Title I, Part A funds, but LEAs may choose how to distribute funds to schools within the district.

States have the option to reserve 10% of ESSER and ESSER II funds for emergency needs related to COVID-19. For ESSER III funds, states must use 5% of funds to address learning loss. 1% of funds must go to evidence-based summer enrichment programs, with another 1% dedicated to comprehensive afterschool programs. All of these programs must “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.”

How Can Districts and Schools Use ESSER Funds?

While ESSER funds have many allowable uses, they fit into three main areas of need:

  • Academic
  • Operational
  • Social and Emotional

Specifically, these uses include:

  • Coordinating preparedness and response efforts related to COVID-19
  • Training and professional development on health and safety measures
  • Addressing the needs of children from low-income families, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth
  • Purchasing sanitation supplies
  • Improving school facilities and indoor air quality
  • Purchasing educational technology to support and improve remote learning
  • Providing mental heath services and supports
  • Addressing learning loss
  • Retaining and hiring staff
  • Planning and implementing activities related to summer learning and after-school programs
  • Any activities authorized under ESEA, IDEA, Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and McKinney-Vento

LEAs have the flexibility to determine the greatest areas of need within their districts. Funds can improve distance learning and enhance the health and safety of students at school. They can also address trauma, close gaps and accelerate learning, build literacy and much more.

Why Use ESSER Funds for SEL Initiatives?

Many fear that “learning loss” will be the biggest negative impact of the pandemic on students. Before we can effectively address academics, however, it’s essential to consider the mental health and social and emotional needs of our children. Instability and uncertainty wreak havoc on a child’s ability to learn. When children feel unsafe and disconnected, learning is almost impossible–and so is behaving appropriately. Attempts to frantically jump into “catch up” mode when schools reopen are unlikely to be effective. Instead, it’s critical to create a safe, supportive environment that meets children’s needs so they are ready to cooperate, learn and achieve.

The National Education Association (NEA) says that SEL should be a priority as schools address the effects of COVID-19. Social and emotional learning encourages resilience and provides tools to manage emotions, demonstrate empathy, establish positive relationships, resolve conflicts, achieve goals and make responsible decisions. These abilities are always essential in life and in the classroom. Yet they’ve become even more important–and more difficult to access–in the wake of the global pandemic.

As children stayed home from school, those with limited access to technology and family support were disproportionately affected. Effective SEL programs create equitable environments and level the playing field by providing all students with the safety, connection and support they need to thrive academically and socially. Trauma-informed programs like Conscious Discipline give educators the tools to reach and teach children impacted by trauma, fostering healing and growth.

Importance of Adult-First SEL

Of equal importance, SEL significantly benefits the mental and emotional health of school faculty and staff. Educators learn to manage their own anxiety and trauma, and they build strong, supportive relationships with one another. Conscious Discipline takes an adult-first approach to SEL. Adults in the school are the first to gain tools like composure and assertiveness. As a result, teachers have a more positive experience in the classroom, and they’re better able to instill these skills in their students.

Investing in SEL is a wise use of ESSER funds because SEL:

  • Creates safe, connected school environments that promote learning and problem solving
  • Teaches children to manage their emotions and resolve conflicts
  • Helps both children and adults heal from trauma
  • Increases equity and levels the playing field
  • Addresses the mental, social and emotional health of children and adults
  • Unites the school and community, making it easier to work toward common goals

Using ESSER funds for SEL doesn’t neglect to address learning losses; it makes it possible to accelerate learning and close gaps left from COVID-19. As schools look to return and rebuild following the pandemic, SEL programs like Conscious Discipline provide a solid foundation for safety, connection, resilience and achievement.

Helpful Links

Click the links below for more info on ESSER and SEL. You’ll also learn how SEL and Conscious Discipline make a positive difference for all children, especially those groups most affected by the pandemic.