The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many student needs into sharp relief, but arguably none so urgent as social-emotional learning (SEL). When we consider what young people are dealing with today—shifting routines, uncertainty about the future, and big changes in interactions with family and friends—it’s clear why a focus on helping students learn how to understand emotions, maintain relationships, and make responsible decisions is so important.
But when incorporating SEL into the coming school year, school leaders must prioritize approaches that also work in remote and hybrid learning environments. As the shape of this fall remains blurry for so many schools, the following recommendations will help ensure that whether in the classroom or continuing distance learning, students and teachers have their social and emotional needs met—and can, in turn, better support each other.
Foster strong connections between students and trusted adults
While there’s no substitute for time together in the classroom, schools shouldn't wait for reopening to strengthen relationships between students and trusted teachers and staff. In their guide for leveraging SEL in preparation for reopening, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) stresses the importance of maintaining these relationships, especially since distance learning means many students are feeling more isolated.
Having a dedicated teacher (or other school adult) assigned to check in with each student via video meetings or phone calls helps keep the connection to school strong, and ensures that students don’t feel “out of sight, out of mind.” The guide—and CASEL’s recent Roadmap for Reopening—also shares several strategies for teachers to consider when planning student outreach, from facilitating virtual class meetings and collaborative forums to reaching out to students individually to communicate that their contributions are valued.
Integrate SEL into core distance learning activities
One key way to make SEL a priority during distance learning? Integrate it into core learning activities like reading and writing. The CASEL guide suggests crafting writing exercises that are also designed to help students reflect, from journaling about their experiences during the pandemic to writing letters to teachers and also classmates (especially those they may be leaving behind as they enter a new grade) as a way of nurturing relationships among peers.
Assigning readings on SEL topics is also a good way to foster important discussions while supporting core learning. A recent list of Newsela’s most popular SEL articles covers a wide range of topics—including social media, stress management, friendship, and procrastination—and shows how SEL readings can be a key tool in promoting emotional learning from afar.
Don’t forget about the adults in the (virtual) room
Just as students need extra guidance and connection during this time, teachers need more social and emotional support as well. The universal effects of the pandemic mean teachers are dealing with trauma in their own lives and communities, and schools need to provide dedicated time and resources for instructors to process emotions and reflect with colleagues.
Schools should also equip teachers with the training they need to address students' increased emotional needs. In a recent blog post on SEL best practices during distance learning, the Education Development Center encouraged schools to train teachers to identify students who might be struggling—something they’ll be better prepared for with an emotional support system of their own.
As the CASEL Roadmap puts it, “We recognize that SEL is not a panacea to the complex, systemic issues we face. However, SEL offers a critical foundation for supporting students and adults in the midst of great uncertainty and stress, and a long-term path for sustaining thriving communities.” Whether continuing remote learning or taking a hybrid approach, schools can make Social Emotional Learning a priority in meaningful ways—by supporting teachers, strengthening connections with students, and weaving SEL into reading and writing. Students need all the tools they can get to adapt to new environments and process everything they’ve been through, and while it may take additional planning, the impact will be felt for years to come.