The coronavirus pandemic has produced a variety of critical challenges for school leaders. On the fourth day of “mom-schooling,” I noticed a shift in my 9-year-old daughter’s typical tenacity. She seemed underwhelmed and uncertain about our new normal and what to do with her time. In response, I emailed some parents from her basketball team and set up a virtual lunch, where the team could connect with one another online, as if they were at recess on the playground.
While some students may not have opportunities to engage in this type of social and emotional checkpoint as we transition into uncertain learning environments, educators can mitigate the potential negative effects of social distancing by employing evidence-based strategies for social and emotional learning.
One core feature of distance learning is to mimic the structure of the typical school day. Researchers found that school-based classroom factors, like grouping and the learning environment, are important for developing growth mindset, self-efficacy, social awareness, and self-management. To support students’ social, emotional, and mental health during distance learning, it is important that educators transfer familiar routines and relationships from the classroom to the virtual setting.
Continuity is a key aspect of SEL, especially for students who may face significant disruptions in their out-of-school environment. One facet of continuity is maintaining core relationships from the classroom into the virtual setting.
This may be challenging for even the closest students because engagement and communication may look different during distance or blended learning opportunities. Educators can establish new but familiar ways for students to connect with their closest peers and teachers, such as a pen-pal program or unstructured “virtual recess.”
Peer relationships are important for social and emotional development, but social distancing practices and distance learning may lead to confusion about how students operationalize their peer relationships. Educators can achieve social continuity online by considering grouping students in the same breakout groups while using virtual conference rooms or setting up time for students to interact apart from academic learning. This will provide opportunities for students to build trust, synchrony, support, and attunement through peer relationships and interactions similar to what they would experience in school.
Consider creating continuity through the characteristics and features of the learning environment. The structural features of in-school settings provide students developmentally rich interactions that can support learning, boost resilience, and safeguard them from the impact of stress and trauma. Teachers can mirror typical in-school contexts by re-creating structures like circle time, check-ins, common greetings, and opportunities to share.
Establish continuity by working with colleagues to create a single model for online practices and cultural norms that are shared across a school or for a student in different learning groups. For example, across a whole class and small group lessons, teachers can use a single reflective tool called “rose, thorn, bud,” which provides a common structure for peer and adult conversations about a success, a challenge, and an opportunity.
Every educator and student will likely respond to the new stresses of social distancing and distance learning in very different ways.
A study on inter- and intrapersonal skill development shows that how you engage with your own thoughts may matter more than how you engage with others. While students are learning in novel ways, from their home computers and physically distant from peers, they can evaluate and reflect on their own thinking during time when they would typically be transitioning to a new class or eating lunch. Modeling why and how to use metacognition—awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process—is an important component of digital instruction.
Think closely about opportunities for student self-reflection. When students learn something new, feel challenged, or are asked to engage in higher-order thinking like evaluating content or synthesizing ideas, teachers can model intrapersonal development. For example, after guiding students through new content, ask them to record their answers to two reflective questions: “What did I feel successful with during this new learning and why?” and “What was challenging during this new learning and why?” These questions are easily modified for older or younger students. Educators can use students’ responses as fodder for scaffolding during future lessons in which they struggle or one-on-one conversations with students during a teacher-students conference.
Build Support for the Entire Family
Moving learning online is challenging, especially in the context of a potential economic crisis for our families and changes in funding for our districts. Principals and superintendents can consider how to create systems that provide opportunities for teachers to engage families in schoolwide approaches to SEL.
As schools implement more virtual learning, there may be increased opportunities to engage families in discussing and defining the role of SEL in their homes. Social distancing has been a catalyst to connect with families over the phone, through email, or during synchronous class meetings.
Applying a schoolwide approach to social and emotional learning in restart planning for fall is imperative. Principals should start by surveying students and teachers about their perceptions and experiences related to COVID-19. Principals will benefit from calling parents, having conversations with students, or sending out a traditional online survey to understand their school community’s experiences with the school closures and economic changes. Another strategy might include a virtual parent advocacy or PTA meeting, providing an opportunity to empower families and listen to their ideas. Similar to the class meeting portals used by many schools, principals can work with parent organizations to cohost a virtual meeting centered on the social, emotional, and mental health of their families. Principals can build conversation through open-ended questions about students’ learning needs outside of school (e.g., extra materials, more time on tasks, less workload) and their home environment (e.g., food, shelter, childcare).
For children to reach their fullest potential in academic achievement and success outside of school, they require deliberate discussions about their SEL with both teachers and parents. Most important, it is critical to keep educators at the center of this work. Achieving a robust SEL curriculum online requires clarity and cohesion between learning science, research, and classroom practices.