'Social Emotional Learning Day': Pandemic puts focus on young students' mental health

WESTBURY, Long Island (WABC) -- Believing in yourself was the theme at Dryden Street Elementary in Westbury, and the students marked "Social Emotional Learning Day," otherwise known as "S.E.L."

It is actually a pivotal part of curriculums all year long in districts across the state, with the importance of mental health in schools crystalized during the COVID-19 pandemic -- especially for the youngest of students.

"They were sequestered away from their friends at their most crucial time," S.E.L. District Consultant Dr. Teresa Taylor-Williams said. "When social/emotional learning is so important to their development."

Pre-K and kindergarten is when kids start to learn life skills like sharing and interactive play, but that was all cut off last year.

"I couldn't go anywhere," 6-year-old Amir McCallum said. "I couldn't even go to football."

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And so the district has found ways to meet their youngest scholars where they are at emotionally, and it's more than just the bracelets and slogans.

It's about what's going on inside their heads.

"I'm feeling pretty good now," McCallum said.

It's taken planning and funding -- tax free funding -- through grants.

"Just yesterday, we found out that our district will receive an additional $250,000 just to develop and create sensory rooms throughout the school district," Dr. Taylor-Williams said.

That's because some challenges won't disappear overnight.

The principal said that last year, kindergarten enrollment dropped 20%, when the kids were doing hybrid learning because working families in this district found it hard to sustain.

This year, they've regained half of that -- but more importantly, the kids have regained confidence in themselves.

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