Emotionally Responsive Schools Conference Explores Healing Classrooms Amid the Pandemic

On December 10, Bank Street Graduate School of Education hosted its annual Emotionally Responsive Schools Conference for early childhood, elementary, and other educators to deepen their understanding of child development and social and emotional learning. This year’s virtual conference explored the theme of rebuilding learning environments in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as students and teachers return to school in person.

The keynote presentation titled “Lost and Found: Weaving a Path from Isolation to Connection in the Healing Classroom” was presented by Lesley Koplow, GSE ’79, Director, Emotionally Responsive Practice, Bank Street College of Education. Her talk addressed the loss and disruption that both children and adults have experienced since the pandemic began and how schools can help children make sense of their complex emotional experiences to support their mental health.

“Teachers and children are finding themselves exhausted by the effort of trying to push aside the intense feelings that crowd their classrooms in order to make room for both lost learning and new learning,” said Koplow, noting an increase in emergency room visits for mental health for children ages 5–11 in 2020-21. “If we conclude that emotional integration of past experience is a precursor to learning in the present, how can we help children weave past and present together in ways that promote cognitive development and mastery?”

To answer this question, Koplow invited attendees to explore an approach to education that draws on children’s lived experiences at home and in their communities to foster deeper academic learning. According to Koplow, this approach encourages children to tap into their many “funds of knowledge” to help them make more meaningful connections to classroom learning.

“We like to think that young school children bounce back from loss and disruption because they won’t remember things that are too big for them to fully understand. In reality, feeling memories stay in place, especially when they are too overwhelming to be understood,” she said.

Koplow concluded her presentation by encouraging attendees to “walk hand in hand with children” to build bridges between memories from the long period of home learning and their present in-school experiences. Those bridges can nurture emotional well-being and allow students greater receptivity to new learning. She noted additional supports and resources that can promote healing in children, like social services to support mental health, teddy bears as symbolic tools to offer comfort, and a space to represent a “lost and found” to hold the losses endured during the past years.

Following the keynote, attendees participated in morning and afternoon workshops on a variety of topics, including; “Teddy Bears in Traumatic Times: A Healing-Centered, Trauma-Informed Approach in the Time of COVID,” led by Koplow and “Early Childhood Education Leaders Forum: What Policymakers Need to Know About How You’ve Coped with COVID Through COVID,” led by Mark Nagasawa, Director, Straus Center for Young Children & Families, Bank Street College, who spoke at last year’s conference. Additional sessions were led by the Emotionally Responsive Practice team at Bank Street and other professionals.

“We all recognize that, now more than ever, children and teachers need social-emotional support to humanize the learning experience and keep teacher-child connections strong and our own mental health intact,” said Cecelia Traugh, Dean, Bank Street Graduate School of Education. “This conference is an important way of bringing people together who care deeply about the well-being of children in school and we thank today’s attendees for joining us in this work.”

Learn more about the Emotionally Responsive Schools Conference

Read this year’s keynote presentation (pdf)