Hands writing in a notebook.

In the past several years, social-emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed teaching techniques have gained major traction as educators increasingly seek to provide for the needs of the whole child. A 2020 study by EdWeek found that 74% of educators were using SEL in some form. And a 2019 CDC report noted that trauma is possibly the largest public health issue facing our children.

We’re living through a particularly difficult moment in history and our students are vulnerable to the increased stresses resulting from this pandemic. Millions of students have had their lives upended, as school closures disrupted the daily routines and consistent learning that school provides. In addition, many are also experiencing homelessness, unsafe living conditions, or unexpected loss — among other potentially traumatic experiences.

As teachers get ready for back-to-school season, they will need to be prepared to handle and help students process an array of emotions and experiences. We asked our Teacher-Author community how they successfully incorporate SEL as a cornerstone of their teaching.

Applying Social Emotional Learning to Your 2020 Back-to-School Plan

1. Be clear and open about the state of the world.

A perfect teaching opportunity is to share your own experiences with your students. By being open about how you’re experiencing the world, you can model for students how they can identify their  feelings and openly communicate about them. “If you find yourself stressed in the middle of a work day, it is okay to communicate that to your students,” says Laura from The Fancy Counselor. “Model for your students how to breathe slowly, take a break from the task at hand, look out the window and be present with nature — all coping skills that help de-escalate anxiety and stress.”

2. Understand what your students are going through.

“Educators should understand that everyone reacts to stress differently so it may manifest in different ways for different people,” shares Becky from Smiling Students Lesson Plans. Try to be mindful of all the different (and unknown to you) things your students could be coping with outside of the classroom and keep in mind that their behaviors in class could be a reflection of something completely unrelated to your teaching.

3. Remember to take care of yourself.

Your students aren’t the only ones who are afraid — educators are also dealing with the fear, anxiety, and stress as a result of the coronavirus. Remember that you are not alone in this experience. And remember that taking care of your own mental health will benefit your students, too. “We, as educators, experienced and are experiencing stress and trauma too,” says Emily from Inclusively Educating, “and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.” Beyond establishing boundaries for working after hours, and delegating responsibilities, Emily recommends using your days off. “Don’t feel guilty about it. Self-care is not selfish. You can only be your best when you’re at your best.”

4. Rebuild trust with students.

Building a safe space for social-emotional growth is an important tenet of SEL (more on that in a minute!). But creating that safe space first requires gaining — and perhaps regaining — the trust of your students. “Educators need to be conscious of how the trauma associated with school closures has hindered the feeling of safety for students,” says Emily from Inclusively Educating. The rapid end to the 2018-19 school year might have broken some of that trust between students and their schools. “We must provide predictability, routine, and structure to rebuild this trust.” 

5. Build a safe space.

The first step to rebuilding that trust, for many educators, will be creating a safe space. Whether it’s digital, in-person, or somewhere in between, here are a few helpful techniques:

  • “Provide opportunities to have a ‘feelings check’ [. . . Primary teachers can] integrate it into the morning meeting or older students [can use] a sticky note to write/sketch their mood and anonymously display it on the board [. . .] Some students may feel comfort knowing they aren’t the only one stressing about a particular issue. Likewise, it can open a door to see some classmates are dealing with some pretty heavy issues. Educators can make a point to connect with students on a smaller scale during their class period.” — Melissa from Chick on the Run 
  • “Sensory and relaxation activities which your students benefit from, like music while working, movement breaks, wearing a hoodie or cap (even though your policy might be to discourage wearing these in normal circumstances). Also, share real photos of what the classroom, hall, entrances and exits, and canteen will look like, and how the staff will be dressed.” — Kirsten from Curriculum for Autism
  • “Give students a space in your classroom (or virtually) to go to when they are feeling overwhelmed. Students need to know that big emotions are okay and they need to learn appropriate coping skills for self-regulating these emotions. Having a quiet area of your classroom with calming tools is a great way to provide the safety and security kids need when they are stressed out. Don’t have extra room in your classroom? Add a calming area to your classroom library or put a desk in an area by itself.  A calming space does not need to be big or fancy to be effective.” — Amy from Teaching Exceptional Kinders

6. Lean on SEL-based resources.

There are plenty of SEL-based resources available to educators. Start with the CASEL and EASEL guides, which provide frameworks and strategies for incorporating SEL at your school and in your curriculum. From there, you can look for specific teaching resources that work for you. “There’s so much out there,” says Emily from Inclusively Educating. “I know so many of us are worried about providing learning opportunities both face-to-face and online next year, but don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel or spend a ton of money. TpT is full of amazing educators that create quality resources for free.” Explore TpT’s resources, and see what makes sense for the social-emotional well-being of you and your students.

SEL Resources to Try:

Back to School Amid COVID-19 – Handling Big Emotions

By Dr Nation’s Education

Grades PreK-2

Emotions: What’s That Emotion?

By YNot Counseling

Grades PreK-2

Digital Calm Corner for School or Home Distance Learning

By Social Emotional Workshop

Grades 1-3

Mindfulness Exercises: Mindfulness Mandalas and Task Cards Activity Pack

By Kiddie Matters 

Grades 5-10

Self-Care Handouts For Teachers, Parents And Students

By Counselor Chelsey

Not Grade Specific

Stress Management and Self-Care for Teachers

By School Counseling is Magical

Staff Resource


Confidently navigate the 2020-21 school year with expert Teacher-Author and educator advice in TpT’s Back to School 2020 Guide: For Teachers Creating Tomorrow