Ethics and SEL in the Post-COVID Classroom

Teens interacting at school


While the world seems to have largely moved beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact remains. The pandemic was a harrowing time for all of us, but it had perhaps the most profound effect on education. While this experience revealed the bravery and perseverance of both students and teachers, it nevertheless came with challenges—and we’re still seeing the ripple effects three years from its start.

Educators and students still face myriad challenges in the wake of the pandemic, especially related to social-emotional learning (SEL) and behavioral development. These challenges may often seem daunting, but there are recognized strategies to help students (and teachers!) recover from the struggles that were part of learning during a global pandemic.

Challenges Resulting From the Pandemic

It will come as no surprise to educators who have spent any time in a classroom recently, but to put it simply: the pandemic negatively impacted student behavior.

The quantitative evidence is clear. According to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 80% of public schools surveyed reported that the pandemic negatively impacted students’ social-emotional learning and behavioral development during the 2021–22 school year.

Compared to a typical school year, respondents attributed the following behaviors to the pandemic and its lingering effects:

  • Increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct (56%)
  • Rowdiness outside of the classroom (49%)
  • Acts of disrespect towards teachers and staff (48%)
  • Prohibited use of electronic devices (42%)

Anecdotal evidence reveals the same challenges. In the fall of 2021, MBA Research hosted a series of focus panels with middle-level educators in urban, suburban, and rural areas to learn more about their teaching experiences. In particular, educators noted that students are “more dependent and use less manners. They have less empathy.” Behavioral changes include disrespect, poor decision-making, and a lack of self-control, as well as difficulty coping with day-to-day struggles.

One educator elaborated: “Students appear to be expressing emotions and stressors more externally than internally. They appear more angry, impulsive, and lacking boundaries, especially with personal space. Students are more apt to cope and react with aggression, both verbally and physically, than pre-COVID.” Yet another educator noted that “most behavioral changes stem from social skills and awareness that students were not able to practice during online school.”

If this sounds like your experience, you aren’t alone. There isn’t a single, easy fix for these challenges, but there are strategies that can help revitalize student social-emotional learning and behavioral development in the classroom.

Strategies for Rebuilding a Strong Post-COVID Classroom

Many of the strategies aimed at helping students practice social-emotional skills are similar to the opportunities found in our ethics education materials. To address many of the challenges the pandemic exacerbated, it is helpful for educators to offer opportunities for collaboration, encourage frequent reflection, and provide empowering choices.

Offer opportunities for collaboration

As a result of the pandemic, students went from being physically together to being isolated and often working alone. Without that social and collaborative component, it was challenging for students to build interpersonal skills. As much as possible, it’s important to give students time to work together and hone these interactive, conflict-management abilities.

Collaboration opportunities can take many forms. Group activities can be as robust as an extended group project, or as small as turning to a partner and sharing thoughts. Depending on the topic, this type of interaction can be intimidating, so it’s helpful when teachers create a safe learning community and give students ample time to get to know one another before working on these important interpersonal skills.

Those looking to learn more about these skills can read “3 SEL Practices Teachers Can Use Every Day,” which highlights practices from CASEL that emphasize the role of collaboration in rebuilding connections post-COVID.

Encourage frequent reflection

The pandemic was a time of survival for many of us. There wasn’t time or opportunity to think critically and reflect on our daily experiences when we were focused on getting through the immediate reality. For both teachers and students, it’s hard to reflect on an experience when you’re currently in the thick of it. If we hope to rebuild student behavioral and social-emotional development, we need to give them opportunities—and tools—to check in with themselves.

For example, encouraging students to journal about a certain topic helps them work through their thoughts. Journals might be shared with a teacher or other trusted adult/friend, or journal entries may simply be for the students themselves. Giving dedicated time to reflect provides students with space to process a variety of topics.

In fact, journaling can be a helpful practice for all of us. The article, “Self-Directed Learning Through Reflection,” provides examples for incorporating reflection in today’s technology-dominated world.

Provide empowering choices

The years of the pandemic were scary and challenging enough for adults, who regularly have the chance to make their own decisions. These years were, in many ways, even harder for young people, who don’t have the same independence and autonomy. Students lost routines and the feeling of stability in both their home and academic lives. Providing students with different opportunities to take active roles in their education can help them feel empowered and in charge.

For example, teachers can offer students choices in the topics they explore and the mediums through which they demonstrate their learning. Allowing for creative expression and decision-making power can help students take a more active interest in their education and feel a sense of ownership as they explore complex topics.

The article, “Key to Motivation: Student Agency” shares the importance of putting students in charge of their decision-making and identifies classroom management tools for encouraging voice and choice.


If the above strategies feel like a lot to integrate, that’s OK—we can help! As part of our work with the Daniels Fund, a private charitable organization in Colorado, we have developed free ethics education resources that offer myriad opportunities for collaboration, reflection, and empowering choices.

Our goal with these newly created materials—including ethical leadership modules and course guides—is to give educators everything they need to help students develop ethical decision-making skills that lead to gains in social-emotional learning and improvements in behavior.

Developed with the help of AMLE and a middle school advisory network, these materials include comprehensive, ready-to-use lesson plans that integrate social-emotional learning geared toward middle school students. Teaching principle-based ethics is a proven way to help students think critically, manage emotions, develop empathy, build supportive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Components contained within the resources above include the following:

  • Student narrative
  • Key vocabulary terms
  • Online resources
  • Ethical dilemmas
  • Journal prompts
  • Bell ringers
  • Discussion questions
  • Formative assessments
  • Interactive activities
  • Academic connections

Visit our middle school ethics page to download these resources, see the connection between ethics and SEL, and learn more about the many resources we offer to educators across the county at no cost.

Education will never be without its challenges—but we hope these resources help you find a new “normal” in the wake of a global, life-changing event and guide the ethical leaders of tomorrow. Thank you for all you do!

Established in 1971, MBA Research and Curriculum Center is a nonprofit organization operated and governed by a consortium of state education departments. We are dedicated to supporting educators in the preparation of students for careers in the areas of business management, finance, marketing, hospitality management, and entrepreneurship. 

Thanks to a grant from the Daniels Fund, a private charitable foundation in Colorado, MBA Research is developing a host of ethics education materials available to educators at no cost. This work is part of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, which delivers principle-based ethics education across the country and reinforces the value of ethical business and personal conduct.