Beyond Academic Learning Loss: The Effect of School Closures on Students’ Socio-Emotional Skills

We know the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in academic learning loss, but what was the effect on school dropout and socio-emotional learning?


Image of Tassew Woldehanna

Tassew Woldehanna

RISE Ethiopia

Addis Ababa University

Image of Chanie Ejigu Berhie

Chanie Ejigu Berhie

Addis Ababa University

An estimated 26 million students missed at least five months of school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the majority of pupils—notably the most disadvantaged—were not reached by efforts to support students' learning remotely. These children were deprived of opportunities to enhance their interpersonal skills and benefit from support, such as school feeding programmes; emotional support in secure, nurturing environments; and opportunities to cope with increased stressors of daily life. Emerging data indicates that not all students have returned to continue their education even after schools have reopened, resulting in learning loss with lasting repercussions.

Holistic approach to examining learning loss—including socio-emotional learning

A recent paper discusses the impact of COVID-19 on school dropout and socio-emotional learning (SEL) in Ethiopia. Little is known about children's SEL in low- and lower-middle-income nations, including how it interacts with the development of academic abilities like literacy and numeracy. The impact of school closure on dropout and learning outcomes has been well documented. We know that the epidemic has caused academic learning loss and increased academic learning outcome inequity. However, what is not well understood is how SEL has impacted academic learning outcomes and widened inequities. 

SEL is the process of obtaining a broad range of holistic skills, qualities, and aptitudes that are valuable in and of themselves as well as contributing to the acquisition of academic competence. The terms “psychosocial skills”, “non-cognitive skills”, and “21st century learning” are also used to refer to SEL. There is general agreement that SEL focuses on learners' social skills to interact with others and work collaboratively; their capacity to regulate their own emotions and actions; and their general competencies to accomplish objectives, resolve issues, and make ethical decisions. SEL has many advantages for influencing learners' lives and more general societal advancement.

Aspects of SEL relating to children's early academic abilities and later advancement have a favourable and possibly reciprocal relationship. Beyond the classroom, SEL seems to assist coping mechanisms for preserving mental health, set the groundwork for creating wholesome relationships, and even forecast future income and health. Given the heightened difficulties and disparities that many students and their families confronted due to the epidemic, the significance of these advantages for overall life outcomes has become even more apparent.

Our study examined what happened to SEL throughout the pandemic and what impact it played in reversing the academic learning loss during this period. We analysed the relationship between SEL and learning outcomes as measured by numeracy skills. Our findings showed that social skills stalled and learning was ruptured—typifying COVID-19’s aftershock for the world’s poorest children more generally.

Relationship between SEL and academic skills

Following the pandemic-related school closures, several reasons have been linked to primary school dropout. During the data collection in 2019, 2,741 students in the sample were enrolled in Grade 4—2,431 of these were still enrolled in school in 2021 after the schools reopened. The difference of 310 students results in an initial sample dropout rate of 11.3 percent overall. We used logistic regression to find the contributing factors, and the results showed that the factors substantially associated with student dropout between 2019 and 2021 were gender, age, regional variance, and the 2019 numeracy score. This shows that by the time the surveys were performed in 2021, older students and low performers in 2019 were much more likely to have dropped out of school than their peers.

The data in social skills and numeracy following the closure of the school were then observed by looking at longitudinal changes in learning outcomes and social skills among students between 2019 and 2021. For all groups—rural, urban, boys, and girls—we discovered a statistically significant drop in social skill.

The odd pattern in numeracy is interesting to observe—as time went on, students in urban settings consistently outperformed students in rural settings. In 2019, boys also outperformed girls greatly, but by 2021, this difference had vanished.

Even though it seems strange to witness a rise in numeracy during a pandemic, it did happen. The growth, meanwhile, is less than the trended growth. Before the epidemic, the numeracy score was rising at a rate of 34 points (0.34 standard deviation) between the beginning and end of the 2018-19 school year. However, the fact that numeracy scores only rose by an average of 12 points (0.12 standard deviations) between 2019 and 2021 shows a loss of learning during the COVID-19 school closures.

The relationship between children’s SEL and academic skills is reciprocal. With various student, home, and educational characteristics controlled, children's 2021 numeracy significantly and positively predicts their 2021 social skills. The social skills of students are likewise correlated with their family income, with students from the wealthiest families indicating noticeably higher skills in surveys. The results for learners' numeracy in 2021 demonstrate:

  1. There is a robust, positive, and statistically significant association between children's numeracy performance in 2019 and their scores in 2021, even after correcting for confounding factors.
  2. When controlling for other variables, students' 2021 social skills and class grade significantly predict their 2021 numeracy.
  3. Students who were taught by teachers with more experience performed much better on numeracy tests.

Stakeholders’ feedback to findings related to SEL

On 13 July 2023, a stakeholder workshop was held in Addis Ababa to examine the results of the RISE Ethiopia research project, which was carried out between 2017 and 2022. The workshop was attended by more than 30 people from NGOs, international organisations (the World Bank, the European Union, USAID, FCDO, Embassies), government ministries (the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Women and Social Affairs), regional bureaus of education (South Western, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR, Sidama, Dire Dawa, and Addis Ababa), universities, and research institutes. Positive feedback was given to the paper's conclusion that SEL was not a target during the pandemic-related school closure. Stakeholders claim that in addition to how the school closing harmed students' SEL, COVID also inhibited students from seeing friends and neighbours, which limited their ability to engage with other people. 

Neither the Ministry of Education nor the Regional Bureaus of Education had given much thought to how to promote SEL when schools were closed during the pandemic. Even during regular school hours, SEL was completely ignored in favour of academic learning outcomes like literacy, arithmetic, biology, and chemistry. In the Ethiopian educational system, as in many other countries, SEL is the skill set that is most undervalued.

According to stakeholders’ feedback, SEL should be offered to students based on planned curricula and extracurricular activities. The Ministry and Regional Bureaus of Education must integrate SEL into the curriculum and make room in schools for extracurricular activities. The establishment of a girls' club is crucial for encouraging SEL in girls. Parents, the community, and the school administrator all have significant responsibilities to support and promote SEL in their schools.


Since many children from lower-income households lack the means to engage with other children, SEL is the first area to suffer when schools are closed. As a result, communities and households should work to support SEL in addition to students' academic results. In order to assist the integration of SEL into children's educational curricula and help students at home, planners, teachers, headteachers, and guardians must collaborate. Some examples of how this can be done include: creating specialised teacher training programmes to share practical pedagogies and methods for promoting SEL; designing and implementing specialised teacher training programmes; and reviewing curricula, syllabi, and related documents to ensure that they are in alignment with teaching approaches to foster SEL in schooling.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.