How to use ESSER funds to tackle trauma and integrate social-emotional learning

Thanks to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, it almost feels like schools have won the lottery.

As we consider how to continue spending ESSER funds, let’s ask ourselves, “What could really make a difference?” Is it the social-emotional learning (SEL) program you purchase? What options do you have?

Part I: Weighing Your Options – Initial Steps

Given the windfall that schools and districts are receiving, here are a few questions you might want to ask:

  • If this is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, what is most important?
  • Will our purchase be a great assist to students in the short-term? Why?
  • Will the purchase be sustainable? How do you know?

Decisions that are being made right now are difficult. A substantial argument could be made for many of them. You may be spending money on HVAC systems, distance learning and tutoring. Here are other options:

  • Curriculum. You may want to purchase or rebuild your curriculum to address anti-racism, equity and justice.
  • SEL. Districts that long ignored SEL are clamoring for the chance to alleviate student stress and the market is flooded with SEL or trauma-informed options.
  • Mental Health Staffing. There is a current shortage of mental health professionals, with a nationwide ratio of 1,211:1. (NASP, n.d.) Suicide, anxiety and depression among youth are increasing. There is a serious need for more mental health staff.

Part II: Dreams

As you reflect on your options, consult with key stakeholders: building-level administrators, teachers, other staff, students and families.

Take a few minutes to dream—to dream big. What might be an important dream for each of your key stakeholders? Capture the dreams that rise to the top for each of the subgroups, using care to ensure that your dreams are informed by adequate representation across diverse groups (considering race, religion, culture, gender, ages and roles/responsibilities).



  School-level administrators      




  Other school staff






The Center for Educational Improvement has conducted Youth Listening Sessions to guide our planning, with discussions with about 100 youths. Five key themes are emerging:

  • Many youths were anxious and traumatized during COVID and schools did little to alleviate their stress and anxiety.
  • Remote learning did not work well for many students.
  • In some of the best cases, teachers found ways to help youth connect. This may have been increased virtual office hours, informal times together online or even a “Wednesday Pause” that enabled youth to catch up, ask questions of teachers and do something other than sit in front of their computer screens for hours on end.
  • When asked how education could be improved, popular answers included more student agency and choice as well as additional hands-on learning.
  • Most youths have not been asked by their teachers or others about their preferences and ideas regarding major components (such as how they prefer to learn) for their own learning.

In Mindful School Communities: The Five Cs of Nurturing Heart-Centered Learning, we discuss the importance of increased consciousness regarding our students, their needs and how to best support their learning, their resiliency and their well-being. We also offer suggestions for helping students with their self-esteem, self-regulation and lifelong success, saying, “The education that we envision for the future will have heart—a true connectedness. Schools with a solely academic focus are not addressing [these] urgent issues, yet they could be a critical part of the solution.” (Mason et al., 2020)

What conclusions can you draw about the relationship between the dreams of your stakeholders and how your districts are using ESSER-related funds?

Part III: What Will You Achieve with ESSER Funds? Will It Be Transformational?

Before you finalize budgets, consider the choices and opportunities you have. In Compassionate School Practices: Fostering Student Mental Health and Well-Being, Mason and colleagues (2021) acknowledge the need for leaders who create a climate of trust, build on the strengths of their staff and are great listeners and communicators.

As you consider how to tackle trauma and use ESSER funds, make sure transformational change is part of your checklist for success. To help you with this, complete the Weighing Options for Transformational Change Scale, gathering input from your key stakeholders regarding the relative merits of spending monies on one item versus another.

Transformational Change and a Coherent Approach to SEL

Transformational change to address trauma and anxiety hinges on a coherent approach to SEL. For a transformational change, look for consistency across classrooms, grade levels and conditions, so that students can see examples and practice skills leading to resiliency and positive change over many years. It will take a mindful approach, not simply inserting SEL programs or purchasing updated textbooks, and not simply breathing a sigh of relief that we are back in the business of in-person learning. 



Mason, C., Asby, D., Wenzel, M, Volk, K., & Staeheli M. (2021). Compassionate school practices: Fostering student mental health and well-being. Corwin Press.

Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2020). Mindful school communities: The five Cs of heart centered learning. Solution Tree Press.

NASP. (n.d.) Shortage of school psychologists.

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