Katari Coleman, PhD, Senior Project Director, Education Development Center, Inc.

Katari Coleman is a child development thought leader, that directs innovative efforts to advance all children’s school readiness and success. She serves as a senior project director for the Education Development Center, Inc. where she co-leads the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment (NCASE), a resource and training hub that builds capacity to ensure children can access high-quality afterschool and summer learning that supports their development and boosts their academic achievement. In addition, she presently serves as board president for the National Workforce Registry Alliance, policy co-chair for the Chicago chapter of the National Black Child Development Institute, and supports high school and college students with their post-secondary pursuits as a board member of Plan-4-Success, Inc.


Before the COVID pandemic of 2020, the civil unrest in response to police shootings of unarmed individuals, and an upsurge in school shootings across the country, school-readiness focused on academics, with attention to literacy and math skills. From kindergarten to 12th grade, summer reading lists and prescribed educational experiences were dispensed during the last week of school in the name of school-readiness. There was a subtle emphasis on social and emotional skills, especially for soon-to-be kindergarteners, and expectations regarding classroom behavior for all grades that students were expected to reflect. The expectation was for students to embody age-appropriate adaptive skills.

With the trauma caused by the pandemic, shootings, and other societal ills, the meaning of school-readiness has been forever altered in my mind. K-12 public and private institutions were charged with responding to public health concerns and attending to strenuous COVID protocols to reduce the risk of harm to students, teachers, and community members. These were relatively rigid throughout the first year of the pandemic and still have importance for schools as the years have brought a loosening in restrictions.

One would assume that the pandemic’s halting of in-person attendance was the only concern for students’ concerns for participation and normalcy. Still, from 2020-2022 there were 664 shooting incidents on school properties. Students are now highly mindful of the possibilities of these shooting events and the expectation to activate “active shooter” protocols when there is a threat.

Given the fear of COVID-related sickness and gun-related violence to which students are expected to acclimate, this raises the question: are children mentally ready for school? Mental wellness is an internal human resource that helps us think, feel, connect, and function; it is an active process that allows us to build resilience, grow, and flourish. School-readiness is affected by mental wellness, as the unfortunate stress- and trauma-related realities are adversely impactful. As a result, school-readiness today requires a complex and multi-aspect readiness that forces students to be academically, socially, and emotionally ready, including COVID-related health and increased mental health wellness preparedness.

Health readiness today may mean providing proof of COVID-related vaccinations, intervals of COVID tests for school entry, identifying symptoms that were once thought to be a simple and harmless cold, and the ability to shift into COVID protocol if there is an infected individual detected on the school campus and locations that host school events. Now more than ever, youth and others should receive regular medical preventive care, maintain a healthy diet, and exercise appropriately to be as strong as possible.

The impact on mental health in youth has been the most alarming. Plainly put, students are scared. In Vedika Jawa’s 2021 article in the Atlantic, I’m Not Afraid of COVID-19. I’m Afraid of School Shootings, Vedika expresses that his excitement of returning to school was overcome by fear. Parents also share this fear, opting for online education as a permanent option, while other parents may not be able to do this and must send their children to school. Fear of illness, violence, and death can stimulate the nervous system in potentially unhealthy ways. It is also strongly associated with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression and may, in some cases, trigger or reinforce certain mental health conditions and negatively affect school-readiness. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs corroborates these impacts, conveying the need for humans to have their physiological and safety needs met before they can progress to psychological, and self-fulfillment needs like self-actualization in school.

So, what can schools and policymakers do to get students post-COVID school-ready? First, one must acknowledge that teachers play a significant role in preparing and motivating students during the school day, so they need support and consideration. A 2021 RAND survey found that nearly one-quarter of teachers desired to leave their jobs at the end of the school year, compared with an average national turnover rate of 16% pre-pandemic, according to NCES data. Stress is the culprit due to the same factors students deal with post-COVID. Teachers need similar mental health and physical wellness reinforcements to sustain their ability to teach; supports like up-to-date technology to ease remote instruction when schools need to close, peer-learning communities that provide space for teachers to share, adequate compensation and rewards for their challenging work; practical protocols that lower the risk of COVID and other virus infections, and reassurance that school security is diligent are all potential avenues for success. Two areas are highlighted in the following sections.

School and classroom approach – The focus must support equitable and effective teaching and learning. This means schools must re-fashion themselves around tenets of equity, authentic learning, and relationships. The Learning Policy Institute published Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, which provides ten key areas that policymakers and schools should address. Despite the COVID slide, which focuses on the academic erosion children endured, four areas seem extremely important to the child’s development and doable for school administrators and teachers. These are: “assess what students need; ensure supports for SEL [social and emotional learning]; redesign schools for stronger relationships; and emphasize authentic, culturally responsive learning.” Schools must be willing to carve out time in their daily schedules to dialogue with students, learn about the students, families, and the community to impact classroom activities and expectations, and infuse SEL activities and resources. Students require their learning needs to be met seamlessly despite the environment, with adequate interaction and some self-selected, highly engaging activities reflecting their developmental age, stage, culture, and community. SEL must be considered a factor in all activities, not a five-minute add-on at the beginning and end of the day. Fundamentally, students who feel safe, respected, and believe that they belong are more motivated and successful in academic environments and more prepared for the next stage of school.

Out-of-School Time (OST) programs – Once students leave the school building, whether once classes are done for the day or when the academic year ends, students need to access support and engagement from community-based programming. For working parents whose schedules do not align with their school-age child’s, these programs can be instrumental in fostering school-readiness. These programs close the achievement gap by providing time for deeper learning, address mental health by connecting youth with mentors trained to help with relationship building and healing from trauma, and ensure their safety while not being supervised by their parents/caregivers. However, according to Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3PM report, there is an unmet demand for afterschool and summer programs, especially in marginalized communities.

In closing, school-readiness today requires a complex and multi-aspect willingness that forces students to have a greater level of physical health and mental health preparedness. While schools must reconfigure curriculum and activities to include SEL and mental health supports and strengthen safety and health-related protocols, OST program accessibility must be increased. Beyond what happens in the home, these are critical elements to develop and maintain a school-ready student today.


  1. Modan, S. & Arundel, K. (2022). School shootings reach unprecedented high in 2022. K-12 Dive. https://www.k12dive.com/news/2022-worst-year-for-school-shootings/639313/.
  2. Saavedra, A., Rapaport, A. & Silver, D. (2021). Why some parents are sticking with remote learning—even as schools reopen. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/06/08/why-some-parents-are-sticking-with-remote-learning-even-as-schools-reopen/.
  3. Gross, H. (2020). Perspective | During COVID-19, teachers can support students using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. EdNC. https://www.ednc.org/perspective-during-covid-19-teachers-can-support-students-using-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs/.
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Wikipedia Simple English. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.
  5. Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A. & Edgerton, K. (2020). Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond. Learning Policy Institute. https://restart-reinvent.learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Restart_Reinvent_Schools_COVID_REPORT.pdf
  6. Deans for Impact (2016). The Science of Learning. https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The_Science_of_Learning.pdf
  7. Afterschool Alliance (2021). Afterschool and Summer Learning Programs Are Essential for COVID-19 Recovery. http://afterschoolalliance.org/documents/Afterschool-Essential-for-COVID-recovery_national-January-2021.pdf

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