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Social Emotional Learning During COVID-19

Teachers are constantly bombarded with acronyms. IEP, ELL, RtI, DEAR, KWL. What’s one more? SEL: Social Emotional Learning. It’s one that we are hearing about now more than ever before. In an era where students are starved of interaction with each other it is natural for educators to be worried about how we can foster their emotional intelligence. So let’s talk a little bit about Social Emotional Learning.

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Let’s make sure we are all on the same page here. The phrase “Social Emotional Learning” is a way of saying that students can process, understand and manage their emotions. Like they have Mr. Rogers playing in their head at all times. Furthermore, it’s the ability to both feel and demonstrate empathy. This ability of understanding their own emotions will lead to them being able to create and foster positive relationships with their peers.


The Components

Let’s break it down a little though. To better understand SEL, people generally break it down into 5 components:

  • Self- awareness

  • Self-management

  • Responsible decision making

  • Relationship skills

  • Social awareness

Take a look at that list again. You may have noticed that it starts with a relationship with one’s self and then moves to the relationship with others. That is completely intentional. We cannot help our students have healthy relationships with others unless they are first able to manage their own emotions. That is why we take what is called the SAFE approach (yes, another acronym) to teaching SEL.


SAFE Teaching

So add this to your teacher dictionary- SAFE means Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit.


Sequenced- we already know that students have to be able to identify and regulate their own emotions first. Naturally, that means we have to ensure students understand their own emotions before we help them figure out others’. Once we have established students “get” themselves we can scaffold and help them use what they now know to better understand those around them.


Active- it’s no secret that people learn better by doing. When teaching SEL try to keep the students actively engaged to better understand and learn.


Focused- the activities must be centered on developing social and emotional skills.


Explicit- there are so many avenues of Social Emotional learning to explore. Be clear about which ones you are exploring.

Seeing SEL in Your Classroom

Now that we understand more about what Social Emotional Learning is, it is important to envision what that looks like in a classroom setting. You will know your students have a good grasp on SEL when you can see them using positive language across the board. Students will be able to speak well about themselves and feel empowered. It is the difference between “I can’t do this assignment” to “I don’t understand this yet.” It is also the ability to speak well of/to each other. This will have a huge impact on collaborative learning. Everyone doesn’t have to be best friends but they will be able to feel safe in working together without fear of others’ perceptions. When they are put into groups to work they will be able to communicate their thoughts without worrying of how someone will react because you will have used SEL to ensure students speak positively to each other. Not only should students speak positively but they will also have the ability to acknowledge feelings. They will be able to identify them within themselves and see it in others. Once they can acknowledge feelings they can take steps to resolving any problems.

For example: If you are having your class work in small groups then everyone should be comfortable sharing their thoughts. There may be a student who feels like they are being spoken over and not heard. Either they should have the tools they need to be able to talk to the group OR another student should be able to recognize it and do something about it.

Conflict in your classroom is inevitable. We all know that no matter how much you care about someone you are bound to argue. And that’s ok! But with proper Social Emotional Learning students will be able to resolve conflict with little or no intervention. They will have the skills they need to talk through whatever problems arise.

Teaching SEL

Alright so we have a solid understanding of what SEL is, so how do we teach it? Of course the actual process of teaching this will vary based on grade level but overall there are several different methods to employ. The main thing to remember is that you should work within the zone of proximal development. The theory behind zone of proximal development is similar to “all good things happen outside your comfort zone” but within reason. In order for learning to take place students have to feel comfortably challenged. We should safely provide new experiences for our students for them to be able to understand their emotions better.

Modeling- we can’t expect our students to understand Social Emotional Learning if we don’t lead the way. Students, ESPECIALLY young ones will pick up on how we act and react in various circumstances and imitate it. In order for them to learn we have to make sure we, as teachers, are always speaking positively and acknowledging our own/others’ feelings.

Reflection- journaling is a great tool in Social Emotional Learning. Allow time each day for students to write freely about their day, how they felt in various situations, and how that caused them to behave. Maybe even what they could have done differently. It is helpful to provide writing prompts, particularly with younger students. Sometimes, the journaling is not enough though. Be aware of what is happening in your classroom and be ready to set time aside for students to reflect on their own feelings and behaviors.

Scenarios- use scenarios as a form of cross-curricular education. Provide students with examples of emotional tension or conflict. Students can write about and discuss the different emotions they see in characters or feel within themselves from reading it and ways to handle a situation. Why not make it even part of math word problems or have them look for proper grammar in it?

Goal Setting- use SMART goals (ok ok, we will cool it on the acronyms) to help students identify what they hope to accomplish and how to do it. Check in regularly on their progress and how they feel about it. If they are feeling discouraged or anything of the sort, what can they do to improve it?

Shout Outs- allow time for students to recognize great things about each other. Set time aside daily or weekly to allow students to call each other out on good things. It’s a great time to encourage positivity in the classroom.

Teach Coping Skills- everyone has different forms of coping. We should allow our students to explore several different kinds to find out which one resonates with them. Students should practice, art, music, talking, humor, and movement. Respect what works best for the individual and allow them to use their outlet when needed.

Practice disagreeing- debating is a natural part of any relationship. When your students have disagreements allow them to speak their minds and only intervene when necessary. Afterwards, debrief how the discussion went. Were both students respected and heard? Is it ok to never come to an agreement on certain things?

Roadblocks Can’t Be Avoided

Teachers know that nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. It would be incredible if everyone could just get along and Social Emotional Learning just fell right into place. But let’s be real- it won’t happen. We have to be ready for some obstacles.

The first one you can almost always expect is the “one-upper.” This is the person who has to be better even in subtle ways. If you say you are excited to move into a new apartment they are suddenly talking about how they are looking at houses. This can cause a problem because it makes others not feel comfortable sharing and also says something about the “one-upper” themselves. If you see a one’ upper in your classroom then it is important to help them identify why they feel the need to outshine others and take it from there. Help them learn it’s ok to let others be better in some ways. It take time and tact but it will be worth it in the end.

Next is stress. If a student is under stress then we cannot expect them to behave their best. Stress manifests differently in each person but it’s safe to say that it will almost always cause issues with SEL. This can be a great chance for modeling though. If you see a student is under a lot of stress then pull them aside to talk and model proper listening techniques and review coping skills.

Speaking of listening skills, that can also be a roadblock in Social Emotional Learning. It is so natural for students to want to be heard. Especially once you’ve created an environment where they feel safe sharing. We have to teach our students to listen and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak.

Finally, we must keep Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind. Be aware of your students’ needs being met in order for them to fulfill social emotional capabilities.

Teaching SEL Online

Ahhh yes. The final roadblock. COVID-19. As if Social Emotional Learning weren’t difficult enough, we now through a pandemic into the mix. If students aren’t actually around each other (and more stuck behind a screen than ever before) how can we expect them to learn about emotions properly? Fear not, there are a few ways. The first step is to make sure you are always checking in with students. Don’t overlook the simple question of “How are you?” You could even get creative/on their level. Ask them to find a gif that best describes how they are feeling. Take time with it. If you can, message each student individually about their answer and allow them to elaborate. Use collaborative forms for assignments. Something as simple as google docs can still be effective in SEL. Once the assignment is complete follow up with a debrief. How did it go? Did you feel heard? Was there a way you could have listened better to others? Use assessments to guide your next steps/activities.


Assessing SEL

Every lesson we do needs to be assessed in order for us to know what worked and where to go from there. Social Emotional Learning is no different. As previously mentioned, reflections are not to be underestimated. Utilize them often and ask students to share what they wrote, if they are comfortable. Understanding situations, whether it is something that happened to them or a scenario given, is valuable. You could even have students fill out a reflective chart about how something made them feel, what they need at that moment, and how their actions affected others. Reflection and discussions are the most effective way to assess Social Emotional Learning.

So In Short….

Social Emotional Learning is a critical aspect in helping our students grow. It is difficult during this time but with proper modeling and reflection we can make all the difference.

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