George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

5 Adaptable SEL Strategies for In-Person or Distance Learning

Whatever this school year brings, teachers can consistently use these strategies to promote critical life skills.

September 16, 2021
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Classroom social and emotional learning (SEL) practices can help students learn to problem-solve, manage their emotions, and build relationships. Integrating SEL practices into school culture helps to ensure that students gain these critical life skills.

The importance of implementing SEL across the school day is crystal-clear: 56 percent of students reported increased levels of stress during the pandemic over schoolwork, grades, time management, and lack of sleep, while nearly one in three young people reported feeling unhappy or depressed more often.

With many schools across the country facing near-term uncertainty due to the rise of the Delta variant, it’s important to think of SEL practices not just in the traditional classroom, but in digital spaces as well. Whether students are back to learning in person in the classroom, in a remote setting, or in a hybrid environment, SEL can exist across a continuum of best practices.

SEL Practices Vary Across a Spectrum

Through my previous experience as a classroom educator and current work as an educational researcher, I’ve found that SEL is practiced across a wide spectrum. On one end are schools that take a transactional, compliance-focused approach to social and emotional learning.

You may find yourself at a school like this, where teachers receive lesson templates and designated class periods for instructing students on self-regulation, self-awareness, and relationship building. If you work at a school on the other end of the spectrum, you’ll likely find schoolwide support resources, an integrated systems approach to SEL, and a culture in place that helps students practice these skills well after lessons are over.

Other teachers we interviewed work at schools that fall somewhere in the middle of the SEL spectrum. These schools might have a coach or another professional who works with individual teachers to bring SEL strategies into their classrooms. While helpful, this approach has limits, since not all teachers have experience integrating SEL into their practices. As a result, students might experience wildly different degrees of SEL throughout their day.

Using Adaptable SEL Activities in Your Classes

Regardless of where you find yourself or your school on the SEL spectrum, here are some helpful practices that you can adopt to integrate SEL into any classroom or school culture.

1. Gratitude practices: Host moments of gratitude in the morning and afternoon to help students begin and end their day by reflecting on what they appreciate in their lives. This can be as simple as a one-word check-in, or it could be a longer prompt: “Share one thing that you are feeling grateful for today.” Regular gratitude practices like these are linked to positive emotions and improved health.

2. Movement breaks: Create opportunities for regular movement breaks to get students reenergized for learning. Movement isn’t only a proven way to boost student productivity—it’s also a chance for students to develop social skills and strengthen their creativity as they interact with their peers. For younger students, you might use popular videos like those from GoNoodle to lead the action. For older students, you might provide team-building activities or other options that allow for break choice.

3. Individual check-ins: Offer opportunities to communicate one-on-one so that students can share their feelings in a private space, whether that’s online or in person in your room. When you see that a student is unusually silent during a group discussion, disengaged, exhibiting concerning search activity, or struggling in some other way, a nonjudgmental check-in through chat can make all the difference. Holding virtual office hours through conferencing software can also establish critical connections for remote students.

4. Moments of accomplishment: Build in time for occasional bragging moments that give students the opportunity to share an accomplishment with the class. Students can also use these moments to boost a peer. You can support these activities using Pear Deck’s free Add-on for Google Slides. Teacher prompts and text slides provide students with an opportunity to publicly share their response. For example, “Share a recent accomplishment that you are proud of” or “Give a shout-out to a classmate for something great that they did!”

Sharing can also be anonymous, which enables students to feel more comfortable articulating things they might not otherwise. By allowing students the chance to talk about themselves and others in a positive light, you’ll give them a chance to focus on their strengths and build self-confidence.

5. Engage in reflection: Help students reflect on conflict resolution. This might involve using Pear Deck to show a scenario of a conflict, followed by a text slide activity that encourages students to answer open-ended questions like “How might Person A’s actions have made Person B feel?” and “Why might they feel that way?”

By engaging students in reflection, you’ll help them develop empathy and build stronger relationships with their peers. For younger students, you might read a passage aloud to them and then invite them to draw on a slide how they imagine the character feels. If you’re looking for an analog version, providing students with a few sheets of paper and a marker is a great nondigital version of this activity.

Weaving SEL Into School and District Culture 

Right now, we have the opportunity to support our students and staff by integrating SEL into all aspects of the school experience. When you integrate SEL into the fabric of your school community, you’ll find that students aren’t the only ones who benefit. In my discussions with educators, they shared that they found themselves not only improving the culture in their classrooms, but also strengthening their own well-being practices. As one teacher put it while reflecting on the power of an integrated SEL culture, “It has influenced our students, but influenced us too.”

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