Even before the pandemic, school-aged children struggled with social and emotional health. Between 2014-2018, the CDC found that one in six children experienced symptoms of mental illness.
The stresses of pandemic and distance learning have only increased concerns about young people’s mental health. Almost 30% of parents reported that their children were struggling during the pandemic.
Under normal circumstances, social-emotional learning is important. During a pandemic, its importance is heightened. Of course, distance learning also makes social-emotional learning more challenging.
Still, it is possible to incorporate social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom.
What Is Social-Emotional Learning?
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children learn to function effectively in school, work, and life.
On a personal level, it involves learning about—and learning to manage—their emotions. It involves developing goals and plans to achieve them. It also involves making effective decisions and dealing with successes and challenges.
On a social level, SEL involves understanding others as people with emotions, goals, plans, and challenges. In this context, SEL involves developing empathy. Finally, it involves building positive relationships.
The five SEL competencies incorporate these skills:
- Social awareness
- Relationship skills
- Responsible decision-making
What Are the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning?
The prevalence of mental illness among school-aged children highlights SEL’s importance. Still, SEL is essential for all students. SEL encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to function in the world.
All people must be able to set and achieve goals. They must do so, moreover, alongside others who are pursuing their own—sometimes competing—goals. They must also do so in the context of their own emotions, preferences, and other goals, which can get in the way.
SEL equips students for these kinds of challenges. Yet some educators worry about devoting time to SEL. In an era of standardized testing, teachers tend to focus their limited time and resources on academic gains.
However, teachers need not choose between their students’ academic and social-emotional growth. According to a 2011 study, students whose education included SEL scored 11 points higher on academic achievement tests than those who did not.
Tips for Implementing Social-Emotional Learning in a Virtual Classroom
The benefits of SEL are significant. These benefits are arguably more important in a virtual classroom.
Still, implementing SEL in a virtual classroom can be challenging. These SEL strategies can help.
1. Make Your Teaching of SEL Skills Explicit
Perhaps because SEL skills are so essential, teachers sometimes forget that they must be taught.
Children are born with emotions. However, they aren’t born with an understanding of how these emotions affect themselves and others.
Children are born with desires and goals. However, they aren’t born with the skills necessary for achieving them.
Children are born social beings. However, they aren’t born with the skills necessary for interpersonal relationships.
Again, these skills must be taught.
Making SEL instruction explicit is itself a valuable lesson. Explicit SEL instruction teaches students that handling emotions and interacting with others are skills they can improve. Making SEL explicit thus gives students greater control over their lives.
Classroom discussions provide ideal opportunities for making SEL instruction explicit, especially in a virtual classroom.
As you experiment with discussion strategies, make the discussion as much a part of the lesson as the content. Set clear expectations for behavior. Give students feedback on their progress toward meeting those expectations.
Also, encourage students to evaluate themselves and the discussion. Make the discussion itself a topic of discussion.
2. Teach Growth Mindset
As with their emotions, students often take their intelligence for granted. Most students assume they are born with a fixed intellectual capacity.
Research shows that this belief is inaccurate and damaging. Students who believe that their intelligence is fixed struggle more academically. They also show fewer adaptive traits.
The growth mindset teaches students that they can develop their intelligence. By disciplining themselves, using learning strategies, and asking for help, students can get “smarter.” A growth mindset is, thus, an essential component of SEL.
One of the best ways to help students develop a growth mindset is to pay attention to the words you and they use.
Comments like “I’ll never understand fractions” suggest students see their intelligence as fixed. Teach your students to recognize and replace these negative thoughts.
Instead of saying, “I’ll never understand,” encourage students to acknowledge their struggles and the resources they have for dealing with them. A more positive thought might say, “Fractions are challenging for me, but I can keep practicing and ask for help.”
As with other SEL instruction, make growth mindset instruction explicit and involve your students. Give them examples of negative and positive self-talk. Then encourage them to brainstorm with others.
3. Build Community
During distance learning, one of the biggest challenges to students’ social-emotional health is their seeming disconnection from teachers and classmates.
While feelings of disconnection are natural, educators can take steps to rebuild connections in a virtual environment.
Daily check-ins offer opportunities to build community. Dedicate the first few minutes of each class to sharing about your life and allowing students to do the same.
Continuing cooperative learning in a virtual classroom is another way to foster community. Platforms like Google Meet allow moderators to create breakout rooms for smaller discussions.
4. Teach Coping Mechanism
To handle their emotions, students must know and practice coping mechanisms before they need them.
Introduce your students to various strategies and give them time to practice them in class. These might include:
- Breathing exercises
- Physical movement and brain breaks
5. Assign Self-Care
Teaching coping mechanisms is important. Just as important is teaching students to make those mechanisms—and the overall practice of self-care—a priority.
Consider replacing one regular homework assignment each week with a self-care assignment. Ask students to do something for themselves or others. They might journal or engage in a breathing practice. They might perform an act of kindness or enjoy a family game night.
In each case, students learn that it’s okay—and necessary—to take time for themselves.
6. Involve Families
Make sure that parents know your priorities include not only academic gains but also social-emotional health. Provide families with updates on their child’s progress toward social, emotional, and behavioral goals.
Also, encourage parents to reach out when they or their children struggle.
At the same time, educate parents on the value of failure. Helping parents step back and let their children experience an appropriate degree of difficulty can promote social-emotional growth.
7. Be Human
Finally, make sure your students know that managing your emotions takes work too. When you struggle, share those struggles in an age-appropriate way.
Also, let students see you engaged in the SEL activities you ask them to try. Practice breathing with your students. Let students see you catch yourself when you fall into a fixed mindset, thinking. Talk about taking time for yourself—and, of course, take that time.
Social-Emotional Learning: Teaching Students to Succeed in the Physical and Virtual Classrooms and Life
SEL instruction can be challenging, especially in a virtual environment. However, it remains essential.
If you’re a teacher, these strategies can help you incorporate social-emotional learning into your online instruction.
If you’re a school counselor, psychologist, or behavior interventionist, our workshops can further support your efforts. We offer 40+ hours of K-12 behavior management workshops with certificates.
Finally, if you are a director of special education, you can learn more about using our software in your SEL program. Insights to Behavior software helps create legally-defensible behavior intervention plans in under an hour. Schedule a 30-minute online personal demo today.