10 Social Emotional Learning Tips for Educators in Distance Learning

Remote learning presents many social emotional challenges for students, but teachers are facing similar challenges. Here's how we can support the wellbeing of our teachers.

By Lauren Wilson

This month marks the fourth season of remote learning. It’s been a long haul and we know that educators, students, and families are continuing to feel the quarantine fatigue. However, as a new year begins—with continued physical distancing— there is no better time for schools to re-center social and emotional connectedness as a means of supporting the whole child and ensuring each student is set up for success. 

Importance of teaching and learning that is social, emotional, and academic 

At XQ, we try to build Learners for Life—well-rounded thinkers that are trained to respond to a changing world with resilience and creativity. But, as we all know, we learn best by example, which is why it is so important for educators to model this type of response in their classrooms.

As educators and supporters of educators, we need to focus on how to uplift, encourage, and support relationships with students that prepare them for academic and lifelong success. By weaving social, emotional learning into the fabric of the learning environment educators—virtually and in-person—are better equipped to meet the needs of their students equitably.   

In the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, many schools across the country began prioritizing social and emotional learning (SEL). This approach to learning supports students and strengthens existing relationships. 

You may be asking what is SEL? Well, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional learning uses school-family-community partnerships to establish trusting and collaborative relationships and rigorous curriculum that create learning experiences intended to advance educational equity and experience. 

SEL can bring equity to the center of learning environments and can provide a foundation for authentic and meaningful learning. When consistent, SEL works to break down barriers within the education system by helping educators and students interrupt systems that perpetuate inequity, create opportunities to build more inclusive student-centered learning environments, nurture the passions and talents of individuals in your school community, and create more fertile learning outcomes for all students.   

More than that, when a student’s support system is connected and collaborative, students grow their social and emotional competencies and have the greatest chance of positive outcomes. For instance, when educators and families engage with one another, they help students develop identity and prepare them for future success.

In CASEL’s October webinar on social and emotional learning, Robert Jagers further emphasized this point by illustrating the importance of “co-construction,” which allows young people to voice images of the future, helping adults create environments that are relevant to the moment. 

COVID-19’s effects on the education system has increased the need to collaborate within the student’s support system and connect with families in new ways. This heightened contact comes from the need to be transparent about health and safety plans and the expansion of available at home technology. 

10 tips for school and classroom wellness 

There is a great deal of scientific evidence on the benefits of high-quality, systemic SEL. According to research from CASEL, SEL increases academic achievement and supports appropriate developmental outcomes for children, adolescents, and adults. Though it may seem hard to take a holistic approach to SEL implementation, we compiled some tips and best practices to make systemic SEL a reality in your school.

School-wide approaches 

TIP 1: A school-wide focus on SEL matters. 

This begins with the school principal. There should be a school culture of positive and supportive relationships focused on wellness. When school systems focus on creating inviting and trusting learning climates and when leadership is committed to the wellbeing of the staff and students, SEL is infused throughout the school and equity is at the forefront of your learning environment.

As we said earlier, SEL gives educators, schools, and students the tools to interrupt systems of inequity and is a great place to begin to deconstruct your school to make sure that it works for all students. Here are some helpful tips from the Aspen Institute’s Principal Toolkit that articulate actionable steps you can take in your community to infuse SEL throughout: 

  1. Try to activate regular surveys that ask how students, parents, and/or staff are experiencing school and how you can drive toward equitable outcomes.
  2. Attempt to find ways to integrate this data into decision-making and then create routines around issues brought up by the survey.
  3. Interrogate the data related to school climate and prioritize what are the next steps in creating an inclusive school environment.

TIP 2: Strengthen connections and increase belonging across the school community.

Staying connected and participating in team-building activities builds connectedness and increases the social and emotional wellbeing of your school’s educators. For instance, at Latitude High School—an XQ school in Oakland, California—staff maintained rituals that prioritize the school’s togetherness, and continue to maintain a focus on activities that boost students’ wellbeing.

TIP 3: Partner with community organizations to offer social and emotional support to your school.

No school has all the resources to support the social emotional learning of all its community in remote learning. And imperative skills like self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills are developed through social interactions as part of social and emotional development.

Luckily, there are ways to build out your school’s social and emotional offerings. One way would be to partner with organizations that support wellbeing. For instance, Purdue Polytechnic High School, an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana, has leveraged their relationship with a local counseling organization to provide therapy hours to teachers and to students
. Similarly, Blackgirlsteach is sponsoring therapy for Black women educators. 

TIP 4: Find ways to translate your school’s checking in practices virtually.

At Vista High School, an XQ school in Vista, California, the social-emotional supports previously offered on campus are now available as a Virtual Wellness Center. These online offerings have created a safe space for students to engage with a trusted adult five days of the week. 

Community-wide activities 

TIP 5: Engage in community-driven service-learning experiences to support SEL development.

One organization, Mindful Littles shows how doing good and feeling good puts compassion in action. With an increase in self-compassion practice, service learning and social capital, school communities can witness improved mental health outcomes and create a more positive prosocial climate. Compassionate action like the ones seen in this Mindfulness & Kindness Guide creates transformational outcomes for students and their communities.

TIP 6: Create community through circles.

During the Atlantic’s State of K-12 Education, Randi Weingarten discussed being intentional when kneeling into wellbeing and how we can lift up all voices, look beyond attendance measures, and start the day with a welcome circle. Círculos—an XQ school located in Santa Ana, California—opens every day with an advisory circle, a practice they had in place prior to remote learning. At Círculos, circles are incorporated into every aspect of school life because circles provide “teachers and students with daily practice in valuing each others’ stories, listening to differing viewpoints, and taking the time to acknowledge [each others’] voices.” These get at the heart of adult SEL practices by building relationships and strengthening their community. 

TIP 7: Encourage opportunities for self-care and self-reflection.

Each month, the Abolitionist Teaching Network encourages self-care celebrations for BIPOC educators that feature various art forms to inspire and uplift the community. These include art like poetry, text, song, creative writing, meditation, and movement. This space for self-care prioritizes self-reflection and asks educators to better understand if they are communicating their level of care and high expectations for all students.

Classroom-centered approaches 

TIP 8: Embed SEL strategies into advisory sessions.

Advisory sessions are an opportunity for a teacher or educator to meet regularly with a small group of students to focus on their whole child development. In small teams at Crosstown High—an XQ school in Memphis, Tennessee, advisory groups meet up to three times per week, integrating technology platforms like flipgrid. These sessions focus on goal setting, SEL skill-building, and relationship-building, and provide the space for students to receive ongoing feedback.

TIP 9: Connect with students in unique ways.

To build a relationship that effectively engages with students, educators need to get creative. At New Harmony High—an XQ school in New Orleans, Louisiana—students spend time with social workers and advisors regularly to feel a sense of belonging and to build their SEL skills. Educators arrange thematic check-ins, like asking students to share their pets with each other. This community building prompt provides an access point for abroad set of New Harmony students to engage since it draws points of connection through common interest. 

TIP 10: Dedicate specific times to practicing and reflecting on SEL.

Explicit and consistent opportunities to analyze progress related to social and emotional competencies increases a school’s, educator’s, and student’s understanding. Strategies like advisory group meetings, one-on-one personal check-ins, and wellness hours are all part of how students at Da Vinci RISE High School—an XQ school in Los Angeles, California—receive support. During wellness hour, the school’s case managers talk to students about their wellness toolkits and offer resources to help them add tools like meditation and mindfulness practices to their toolkits. 

Building social emotional learning in your community and transforming your school 

Over the past year, it’s evident that educators are ‘other-caring’ for students: giving their all to support students’ social and emotional needs and wellbeing in addition to their academic success. When educators, teachers, and school leaders model these practices and place SEL at the center, there are long-term improvements in students’ skills, attitudes, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Students’ lives are transformed by the passion and action of educators—educators make sure that every school community thrives.