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Today’s One Thing for Teachers: Social-Emotional Learning in a Virtual Setting

Bianca Davila

Bianca Dávila

The Learning Accelerator

When we surveyed educators about specific pain points and challenges they are facing during school closures, one of the most common wonderings we discovered was how to continue social-emotional learning (SEL) in a remote setting.

As one teacher shared, “Building social-emotional skills without face-to-face contact seems like an impossible feat!” – which leads us to our big question this week: What aspects of social-emotional learning can I implement in a virtual setting?

SEL is something that happens both organically and through planned lessons and activities in the classroom. Structured opportunities for social-emotional development can help students to build empathy, understand and regulate their emotions, and develop stronger relationships with teachers and peers. Further, during this time of great uncertainty, continuing SEL for students can be crucial as they cope with anxiety.

When working to address SEL in a remote setting, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How will I understand my students’ social-emotional needs? Consider what you already knew about your students before remote learning began and how you can use existing touchpoints (such as remote office hours) to gauge what their current needs might be.
  • How will I make space to support my students’ social-emotional needs? Once you’ve identified where your students might need support, create space and provide opportunities for structured check-ins.
  • How can I embed moments of joy? Many of the more organic opportunities for joy in an in-person setting might not naturally translate online, so creating planned moments for fun and joy is even more important.

These questions overlap – the process for tackling them is cyclical and not linear in nature. Think about how you can use them cyclically to create SEL strategies that support students' social-emotional needs in a targeted way that enables engagement, learning, support, and a feeling of safety. Educators should note that activities around SEL can sometimes bring up difficult feelings or responses for students; be sure to check in with your school’s guidance counselor for information on school policies around trauma and mandated reporting.

Explore the resources and strategies below to identify ways you can address your students’ SEL needs in strategic and creative ways.

1. How will I understand my students’ social-emotional needs?

SEL is a critical domain of students’ development, and the importance of considering SEL has increased recently. Students may be experiencing new emotions or ones they might be struggling to articulate, such as anxiety. Assessing your students’ needs will be helpful to better understand which targeted supports you can provide as you no longer have the ability to informally assess how your student feels throughout the day in person.

  • Use what you already know. Think of what you know about each student’s individual needs from a personal perspective.
    • Reflect on what you know about your students’ personal needs when learning. Do they tend to need more frequent breaks? Are they prone to outbursts? Certain behaviors may be exacerbated right now because of widespread uncertainty and abrupt changes in routine. How can you accommodate these needs in a virtual setting?
      • Provide built-in breaks during synchronous learning sessions.
      • Communicate what you’re seeing with students’ families so that they understand how they can accommodate their children at home.
      • Have a 1:1 conference to align on those needs and ensure students know how to support themselves to be successful. Strategies could include: (1) designating a nonverbal signal to indicate to you when they are struggling (e.g., personal chat, messaging app) during synchronous learning time so you can excuse them or support their needs in the moment; (2) blocking video when they need a break or are overstimulated; (3) playing with a sensory object to help with fidgeting.
  • Provide opportunities for students to self-reflect on their social-emotional needs. As students are faced with feelings that may make them uncomfortable or upset or with feelings they may not understand, it’s important to provide them with opportunities to check-in with themselves and begin to describe their feelings. Encourage students to build agency and share their needs with you.
    • Begin your morning meetings with a check-in question, such as “How are you feeling today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” These questions encourage students to pause and reflect on their current emotional state and also provide teachers with more information about student needs, such as frustrations around school work or home life, worries, or stressors.
      • For an asynchronous opportunity to check-in, provide your students with a daily check-in question that you post on your learning management system (LMS).
    • Create time for students to journal. Journaling can be a powerful tool for self-reflection and expression and can give teachers many helpful insights into how a student may be feeling. This can be especially true if a student struggles to openly express themselves orally as it allows for extra processing time. Give students prompts for individual reflections or consider starting a dialogue journal where you communicate back and forth with your student (this strategy, in particular, can be done in a remote setting by using Google Docs).
    • Have students reflect on their emotional responses using this emotional response strategies list tool from Turnaround for Children. This resource allows students to identify strategies to self-regulate when needed and also has them identify to whom they can go for external help.
    • Promote mindfulness with guided meditation. This can happen synchronously during a live lesson, as an assigned activity during the week to encourage students to develop the habit of building self-awareness, or at home with families.
    • Lead a body scan activity or encourage families to do this at home to help students identify where they might be carrying tension, release that tension, and show gratitude for their bodies. Doing a body scan might bring up feelings for students that they weren’t aware they had, which provides you with another useful piece of data to help you provide targeted support.
  • Connect with families to assess what needs their child(ren) might have. As many families have lost incomes and have seen massive changes to their daily routines, connect with families to see what support they might need. Parents will also be helpful in telling you how their children are coping day-to-day as they see them in moments that you are unable to.
    • Leverage what you already know about your students’ home lives. Check in with guidance counselors to find any helpful information (note that there may be certain things they’ll be unable to share with you due to student confidentiality).
    • See how Rocketship Schools has launched a CareCorps guide aimed at collecting data around families’ needs in order to provide targeted support.

2. How will I make space to support my students’ social-emotional needs?

Once you’ve identified your students’ social-emotional needs, consider how you can provide targeted support and continued development.

  • Create structured check-in times with students. Create a schedule for when you will check in with students, including information about the length and frequency of your check-ins. Although extenuating circumstances may make it difficult at times, try to keep this time sacred with students so they can feel connected, supported, and engaged in a routine that makes them feel safe. Keep these check-ins informal and rooted in how students are feeling – rather than in academics.
  • Embed SEL kernel activities into your lessons. These are small-scale, personalized activities that you can quickly implement in your classroom and target a variety of social-emotional needs. Check out this comprehensive toolkit with 64 tested activities and practices with embedded suggestions around how to use these resources with students who have learning differences, are learning English, or have experienced trauma.
  • For younger students, do read-alouds of SEL-focused books and reflect with students on the social-emotional skills of the characters. Check out this list of SEL-focused books categorized by different qualities.
  • Create time to hold a weekly “Circle” meeting. During this time, students participate in small groups that are intentionally diverse and in same-sex groups of students where they check in with one another and their teacher, engage in a mindfulness activity, participate in a guided conversation around individual, relationship, or community work, and show appreciations for one another.
  • Have older students engage in a self-compassion practice when they’re experiencing difficult emotions. Teenagers grow to be more self-aware and, in turn, also more self-conscious. Encouraging self-compassion can be an effective way to reduce depression and stress.
  • Provide students with opportunities to engage with their friends. Friendship can be a powerful way for students to develop socially and emotionally. Do they have a group of friends? Who are they? Start your synchronous video lessons with ten minutes allowing students to informally talk to one another. Younger students, in particular, may not have the chance to talk with their friends outside of a school setting, so finding ways for them to connect can help maintain those relationships.
  • Embed time for gratitude. At the end of the week, have students share two things they feel grateful for to showcase hope and optimism.
  • Host a virtual SEL scavenger hunt. Students will identify different feelings they have and search for things that make them feel safe and hopeful. This helps students to identify different tools and strategies they can use to self-regulate when feeling anxious, helpless, or frustrated.
  • Create space to develop self-management skills. With students working more independently than ever before, developing self-management can be useful in helping students to stay motivated and manage stress.

3. How can I embed moments of joy?

Think of ways you can sprinkle in joy throughout different learning experiences. These strategies don’t have to take away from rigor – they can be small ways to add fun and levity to your online learning environment.

  • Play music when your students sign in to your synchronous learning sessions to help set a joyful tone for the lesson.
  • Add age-appropriate memes and GIFs to your slide decks to provide students to add a layer of humor to your lessons.
  • Host a virtual spirit week. Schools host spirit weeks throughout the school year to build community and camaraderie. Let students and families know ahead of time what the theme will be each day and have them attend live lessons in their spirit wear or have them share pictures of their spirit outfits on your LMS.
  • Collect acts of kindness. Take the time for students to reflect on the kind acts that they’ve witnessed. Promoting kindness has been shown to improve overall wellbeing and peer acceptance. Together with your students, set a goal around acts of kindess and keep track of them. This strategy can make students more aware of the kindness they might see every day. Consider using GiveThx, an online platform that allows students to build connections, write thank you notes to one another, and engage in gratitude-based activities.
  • Embed learning in games. Play Jeopardy or Family Feud for content review by transferring your content into premade templates to create a fun and engaging tool to help your students master content.
  • Post a question of the week to your LMS or Flipgrid to engage students in conversation and learn more about one another.

One final note – as you consider how to respond to and plan for the needs of your students, self-care remains critically important. Edutopia has some great recommendations for routines and strategies to adopt while learning is happening at home.

We hope you’ve found these resources helpful! Want to go deeper? Consider exploring the following resources around social-emotional learning. While these resources were not designed exclusively for remote learning, they contain many relevant strategies and ideas you can apply now or in your planning for next year.

Check in with us each week to learn about more vetted resources for remote learning. You can also follow #TLAOneThing on Twitter to track all of our tips in the coming weeks.

Looking for more help? TLA has partnered with GetSetUp.io to help teachers access free group-based online training on screencasting and video tools.

We would love to hear your feedback on this series – or your requests for additional help! If you haven’t yet, we would love for you to fill out this survey so we can better understand how to support you. Also, feel free to reach out to us at bianca.davila@learningaccelerator.org to share your thoughts and questions.

Bianca Davila

Bianca Dávila

The Learning Accelerator

Bianca Dávila is Chief of Staff at The Learning Accelerator. She blends her expertise and passion for educational leadership, team culture, process innovation, and organizational management to support the TLA team.