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National School Psychologist of the Year Leigh Kokenes ‘91 Focuses on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) During COVID-19 Pandemic

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended learning across the state and country, educators like National School Psychologist of the Year Leigh Kokenes ‘91 are working to adjust to the changing educational landscape.

There are more emails to keep up with and plenty of virtual meetings. But in the midst of the changes, her advice for teachers is often the same: Focus on your students’ social and emotional learning (SEL).

“When families know that their child’s social and emotional needs are being cared for in school, the trust between home and school increases and problems at school and at home become more manageable,” Kokenes said. “Trust is so important. Students and families are happier and more at ease in dealing with the daily problems that occur.”

For Kokenes, empathy is especially important during this difficult time.

“When I am working with students and families, I can’t always share the same background experiences, but I can always listen, always recognize the emotions they are experiencing and always validate their emotions,” Kokenes said.

Navigating remote learning can be challenging for students, parents and educators. Kokenes advises educators to trust their instincts, especially when a situation or discussion doesn’t feel right.

“Reach out to students you haven’t had contact with lately,” said Kokenes. “Let the child and family know you are there to support them. Ask if they want to talk, need help and if they are OK.”

Teachers, Kokenes said, can also rely on the resources available in schools, which include administrators, student support services team and community resources.

“Professional educators serve students and families as a team but also as a compassionate community,” Kokenes said. “There is a lot of support offered in schools at the local and state level and lots of caring people.”

While caring for students is often secondhand nature for educators, Kokenes has noticed it can be difficult to practice the same self-care techniques she teaches others.

“Self-care sounds easy enough until you need to do it during a pandemic when the days tend to run into one another,” Kokenes said.

But despite the challenges, she encourages educators to try and make time for self-care. For Kokenes, that’s meant enjoying her backyard and finding the moments of peace and quiet she hopes to instill in others.