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Social-emotional Learning in the virtual classroom

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

By Colleen Mulhall-Briski

California League of Schools

Director of Member Engagement

As 66% of California’s counties find themselves on the COVID-19 watchlist, the vast majority of school children and their teachers are starting the school year like they ended it—in a virtual classroom—however, unlike the end of the previous year, there aren’t the existing student-teacher and student-to-student relationships to rely on.

As an educator, you are aware of how important social-emotional learning is to today’s learning landscape, so what can you do to foster connection and social-emotional learning with new students in a virtual setting?

Building new connections

In an in-person classroom setting, doing activities that foster connectedness is straight-forward and simple. Social-emotional learning activities can be incorporated into ice-breakers and small group activities to help create a sense of community within the classroom. Zoom and Google Meet-based classrooms can be more difficult to navigate.

According to Dr. Joelle Hood, co-founder of Thriving YOUniversity, “There are so many things that teachers can do to build belonging and cultivate connections during distance learning. We know that it is critical for teachers to have great rapport and relationships with their students, but we can’t stop there. Educators (and all staff) have the responsibility of being relationship brokers and social architects—creating space and structures for students to build belonging and cultivate connections with each other.”

Hood recommends incorporating the following social-emotional learning activities to create greater connectedness in your virtual classroom:

  • Greeting students by name as they come into the classroom—in-person or virtually. When teachers frequently call on students by name, it increases acceptance by peers.

  • Using check-ins to see where students are at (self-awareness) and where their peers are at (social awareness). You can check-in using Google Forms, with FlipGrid, and/or with slides of various pics or gifs that they can respond to audibly or via the chatbox.

  • Offer opportunities for students to share about themselves with activities like “Behind This Mask” or FlipGrid Lockers.

Jose Miguel Kubes, principal of Schendel Elementary School in Delhi, CA agrees that offering students time to connect interpersonally in the virtual setting is key to developing connections in the virtual classroom. He recommends opening and closing activities that provide time for students “to engage with each other using affirmative prompts that get them to express positive ideas about each other.”

Weaving SEL into academics

When we think of SEL, we often think of specific social-emotional learning curriculum that is implemented separately from the academic work we do, but Hood cautions against viewing it as a stand-alone curriculum. Instead, she urges teachers to find ways to weave SEL into all facets of academics. “SEL isn’t separate from academics, it is the launch pad for academics,” said Hood. She suggests integrating self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making into your daily lessons to allow students opportunity to practice these important skills.

Hood advocates for using the 10 Teaching Practices for SEL, as outlined by the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at American Institutes for Research. These 10 practices focus on the whole child and include:

  1. Student-Centered Discipline

  2. Teacher Language

  3. Responsibility and Choice

  4. Warmth and Support

  5. Cooperative Learning

  6. Classroom Discussions

  7. Self-Reflection and Self-Assessment

  8. Balanced Instruction

  9. Academic Press and Expectations

  10. Competence Building—Modeling, Practicing, Feedback, and Coaching

Of course, direct SEL instruction should be a part of any classroom, virtual or not. Many districts are now offering SEL programs to all of their students. There are myriad resources online—including districts and teachers sharing social-emotional learning content for their peers to utilize. “Thrively is a great resource for [SEL direct instruction]—especially in a virtual classroom," said Hood.

Connecting with Families and Community

Kubes notes that even in a virtual setting, “schools must provide opportunities for the community to come together to work on themes or topics that are relevant for the community.” While implementation may differ from school to school, he recommends using weekly “Healing Huddles” that follow a specific agenda as a way to connect with families in lieu of face-to-face meetings.

Both Kubes and Hood stressed the importance of getting parents and guardians involved in social-emotional learning. Kubes recommends informing teachers of the SEL focus in the classroom and encouraging families to participate at home by sharing SEL activities that reach beyond the classroom.

“Schedule office hours in Zoom or Google Meets where you can invite parents to engage in SEL activities as a group and then explain the science behind why these would be good strategies for them to do at home with their kids.” said Hood. “Help parents build connections with each other too so they have a strong network of support.”

Self-care for educators

When it comes to teachers and self-care, “teachers need to set boundaries, like a clear time every day when they “shut off” from work so they can focus on family and self,” said Kubes. “We all need to connect with other educators to decompress and share our experiences.”

Hood agrees, “Remember to put on [your] oxygen mask first. Self-care, self-compassion, and boosting [your] own resilience are critical.”

Some of the ways she recommends teachers do this is by looking for the good around you and jotting them down every day, creating a workspace that makes you feel good, and setting boundaries between your work life and your personal life. Take breaks to go for a walk, spend time with loved ones, or pursue a hobby.

“Last but not least, remember that it starts with US,” said Hood. “If we want to foster SEL in our virtual classrooms, then first we must foster it within ourselves. Our presence, our own emotional state, is contagious, which is why it is so important to bring our best selves to work each day. We set the tone, we create the climate in the classroom.”

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