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Reflections on 2020: Social and emotional skills are more important than ever

17 December 2020 |

It is hard to believe it is 2021 at last! So many of us have looked to 2021 as the turning point, the moment when things change, and we see a light at the end of this very dark tunnel we have been in.  I feel like I should have some profound words of wisdom to share about the lessons we have all learned from this challenging year and the things we will carry into 2021, indeed, the rest of our lives, that will make us better for having survived it. But honestly, I haven’t got the energy for that kind of message. In most of my conversations with people right now, I hear reflections of the things I am feeling – fatigue and lack of motivation, frustration that the flipping of the calendar doesn’t bring the big change we all want, profound sadness about being alone over the holidays, but also some sparks of hope and optimism. The reality is that we have just endured a long slog of a year and while there are sure to be profound lessons in there somewhere, we aren’t going to be able to realize those for a while. Right now we are still too in the thick of everything we have experienced to be able to step outside it. And that’s okay.

Instead, I’d like to keep it simple – to focus on moments, little pockets of connection, love, and inspiration from the past year that remind me how powerful and important social and emotional skills are in challenging times. Here are a few moments that stood out for me from 2020:

  • Last summer, I watched my son and his friend trying to play tag outside while watching their sisters play softball. The little girl said, “we can’t touch each other so just do air tag” and they happily kept playing staying far apart and agreeing to when one had tagged the other. This showed remarkable creativity, cooperation, and a willingness to take the odd new rules in stride. It reminded me that kids are much more adaptable than adults and that we may be able to learn from them about how to pause, adjust, and move on.
  • Last month, I listened to an administrator at a local school district share a story of addressing conflicting views on the Black Lives Matter movement within his district. In his story, he talked about mistakes he had made, how he corrected them, and his ultimate decision. By doing so, he demonstrated vulnerability as well as critical thinking and decision-making skills. It reminded me that adults in leadership positions have a huge role to play in modeling what social and emotional skills look like in action.
  • At our October convening on How Learning Happens and again at a follow-up conversation in December, I watched three remarkable young people share their thoughts about how adults can build better relationships with students through making connections, being humble, and asking questions. One young man commented, “when an adult makes a mistake there are certain steps they should follow. The first one is to appear open. If an adult doesn’t appear open, students are never going to come to you. The second step is to actually take in what they are trying to tell you. And once you talk, the third step is to own up to your mistake… I want teachers to understand that it’s okay for a student to call you out on something as long as it is in a respectful way. Because if a student doesn’t call you out, you’re never going to know what mistake you made and how to fix that to your class.” His comments reminded me that admitting mistakes doesn’t make you weak or lessen your authority. Rather, it builds connection by showing your students you are human and opens the door for them to begin admitting and learning from their own mistakes.
  • I witnessed our Whole Child Connection team going through pain, grief, and loss but also growth as we began to collectively explore our work and ourselves through an anti-racist lens. In particular, I felt the warmth of community and the power of the trust we have worked hard to build when we developed our anti-racist commitment statement. One of my colleagues, a person of color, reviewed my first draft and offered up several edits with a clear explanation of why she had made changes, where I had made mistakes (so commonly made by white people), and what she hoped we might say instead. I know it took emotional labor for her to do the work of reviewing and explaining things to me and I was honored by her grace and willingness to do it. It reminds me that trust, connection, and honesty are essential in having critical conversations about race and racism.


Each of these stories is just a moment in time. One of thousands of moments over the past 10 months that have collectively made the grief and frustration and worry and boredom more tolerable. Life is made up of these moments, these opportunities to relearn and practice our social and emotional skills. 2020 has perhaps offered more opportunities to practice than the average year, but the reality is that there will always be challenges that test our skills – whether dealing with the fight for racial justice and a pandemic or simply an argument with our spouse and the death of a beloved pet. We need to collectively continue learning, practicing, and yes, teaching because having strong social and emotional skills is the prerequisite to making it through whatever might come next. 2021 here we come!!

–Elizabeth Devaney, MM
Director, Whole Child Connection

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