We’ve heard from the TpT community that social-emotional learning (SEL) is a top priority for teachers during these challenging times. Educators are looking for ways to ensure students feel supported, heard, and loved as they grapple with uncertainty and change. To help teachers meet their students’ social and emotional needs, we reached out to experts in the field of SEL to get their perspectives and advice. Keep reading to learn why these experts think it’s a critical time to focus on SEL, and discover strategies you can start using today.

How can SEL help students during distance learning?

The Teacher-Authors we spoke with emphasized that, in our current climate, students’ social and emotional needs are high. “Students might be experiencing a wide range of emotions at this time,” says Counselor Keri, a current K-6 school counselor and former mental health counselor. She explains that students may feel anxious, lonely, or even excited depending on their situation. Elementary school counselor Vanessa, from Savvy School Counselor, adds, “Although [some students] may seem fine, there may be some feelings they are experiencing that they’ve been unable to verbalize.” On top of this, students aren’t connected to their usual systems of support. Ellen Weber, PhD and secondary educator, points out, “It’s vital to remember that students […] suddenly shifted from a familiar community to trying to learn alone from home… They can easily feel isolated or vulnerable.”

Given these needs, teacher experts explain that SEL must be a focus for student learning to continue. The Counseling Teacher Brandy, a current middle school counselor, points out, “If students are in survival mode, they won’t be able to learn new things until they address their worries and regulate their emotions.” Plus, focusing on these skills will also benefit students in the long run. To this point, TpT Teacher-Author and special educator, Kris from Pathway 2 Success, says, “Social-emotional skills are often the foundations of good academic skills. Things like working well in a group or being able to plan for a long-term assignment are all rooted in social-emotional skills.” 

As teachers and caregivers look to support the social-emotional needs of their students, there are many strategies they can implement. Keep reading to find out what experts in the TpT community recommend. 

1. Keep responsibilities manageable

  • Set realistic expectations for student work. Counselor Keri suggests that, as students are likely confronting a range of emotions, teachers should be realistic about their expectations for student work. “Many of our students simply cannot engage with academic curriculum at this time and instead need opportunities for support, relationships, and connection,” she explains.
  • Create routines and schedules. To help alleviate the anxiety, Counselor Keri also recommends that teachers and families create predictable routines and list their daily and weekly responsibilities. 

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2. Identify and address emotions

  • Have students start a journal. Students may be navigating intense emotions during this time, so to help them process, several Teacher-Authors suggest having students keep a journal where they can express and reflect upon their feelings.
  • Check in and reach out. Says Vanessa from Savvy School Counselor, “I think it’s a great idea to have a virtual check in for students… Create a way for students to tell you how they are doing, and if they are not doing well, reach out.”
  • Identify coping strategies. School psychologist and special educator Laura from Social Emotional Workshop recommends having students identify one to three different strategies they can use to respond to emotions they’d like to better control. “For example, they might feel unfocused and worried. They can take a break and take some deep breaths,” she says. 
  • Create a calm-down corner. For moments when students feel overwhelmed, designate a safe space at home where they can go to calm down. “They can include fidget tools, calming music, comfy pillows, coloring pages and books,” explains The Counseling Teacher Brandy.

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3. Practice mindfulness and gratitude

  • Practice gratitude together. Kris from Pathway 2 Success highlights the benefits of a gratitude practice for both students and adults during these times. “In difficult situations, like the one we’re all dealing with, it’s important to be thankful for what we do have. It’s such a healthy activity to practice together,” she says.
  • Explore mindfulness videos. To help students learn mindfulness techniques, The Counseling Teacher Brandy recommends trying mindfulness and breathing exercise videos on Youtube. Says Ellen Weber on mindfulness, “A mindful approach to stressful situations can lower or eliminate toxic cortisol from [students’] online learning.”

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4. Build social skills

  • Connect one-on-one. Vanessa from Savvy School Counselor recommends continuing to reach out to your students individually. “Active communication with your students will help you to continue building relationships… whether it’s a personal note in response to an assignment on Google Classroom, or a phone call just for them.“
  • Encourage empathy and social responsibility. Conversations about the coronavirus can be an opportunity to explore empathy and learn about social responsibility. Counselor Keri points out that you can discuss why we’re social distancing and how it’s helping the community.
  • Play games to practice social skills. Board games require students to implement a range of social skills. Explains Kris from Pathway 2 Success, “Lots of board games are also a helpful way to work on skills like turn-taking, respect, conversations, and sportsmanship.”

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These are challenging times, so your commitment to the needs of your students is all the more admirable. As you take care of your students, it’s vital to take care of yourself too. Just as Vanessa from Savvy School Counselor says, “Allow for grace during this time. Everyone is adjusting to this new normal. We may not get it right the first time, or we may have to face some learning curves, but we will get through it.”