The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the work of teachers across the world. Educators’ access to students, technology use, and instructional priorities shifted seismically in spring 2020. As the pandemic continued, social-emotional learning (SEL) took center stage as many educators realized teaching SEL could do a lot for students suddenly forced into remote learning.

Teachers have returned to school, with remote learning as the norm in many districts. A move to remote learning requires teachers to reimagine their pedagogy. And the tragedy and isolation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic means that teachers need to focus their attention on relationship-building and teaching SEL above all.

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Fortunately, established, research-based SEL programs can provide content that translates across context. And research on digital and social-emotional learning provides guiding principles for teaching SEL effectively online:

1. Prioritize your own well-being. It is difficult to teach skills you aren‘t practicing. This is true across content areas, including when teaching SEL. In social settings, people always observe others’ behavior, and kids observe adults with a particularly close eye. They observe how adults manage their emotions, interact with others, and solve problems. If you prioritize your own well-being by making time for exercise, sleep, and activities that help you feel calm, it will be easier to keep your social-emotional skills sharp. And you will send a consistent message in the social-emotional competencies you demonstrate and explicitly teach.

2. Mind your thoughts. The realities of today’s world are unlike anything we’ve experienced before. What we see on the news and social media often highlights all the problems and challenges in our communities. It’s easy to internalize this focus on problems and deficits, but doing so can negatively affect how we interact with people we care for day-to-day—including students. There are serious and legitimate concerns in the world right now, but if you fall into patterns of negative thinking, both you and the children you interact with are likely to feel overwhelmed, making it difficult to cope and practice social-emotional competencies. Be mindful of your thoughts and be intentional about practicing asset-based thinking. What benefits and opportunities have come from this experience? What have you learned? What have the kids learned? How can these lessons help your kids grow into adults who live fulfilled lives?

3. Nurture positive relationships. Relationships are foundational to learning. Show your students genuine care while using SEL programs and beyond. Reach out one-on-one to ask how they are doing, and authentically and appropriately share information about yourself. Find, create, and share joy. Send kids handwritten notes in the mail, arrange virtual dance parties, or invite kids to share something that made them smile this week. Building high-quality relationships will not only be good for your kids–it will also help you feel connected and fulfilled.

4. Model social-emotional competencies explicitly and implicitly. Modeling is a powerful instructional tool—in person and online, for academic learning and teaching SEL. Modeling can be explicit and implicit, and both are important when teaching SEL. Kids benefit when teachers explicitly model and narrate what they are doing (“When I first woke up to rain I was annoyed because I had to walk my dog, but then I used my rethinking strategy and thought about how good the rain will be for my plants!”). Kids also learn implicitly when they observe teachers naturally use SEL skills. For example, a teacher may model perspective-taking by saying, “that sounds difficult” or “I can imagine that would be hard.” Although the teacher is not explicitly identifying their language and actions as perspective-taking, the child observes the behavior and its alignment to formal SEL lessons.

6 strategies for teaching SEL remotely

5. Be structured, but not rigid. Predictable routines make for smooth learning experiences and are good for kids’ executive function skill development. In a remote learning setup, it’s important to create structure, but also recognize that the need for differentiation has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kids are learning in a wide variety of contexts and their experiences during the crisis likely range from enjoyable to traumatic. Provide kids options for how to engage with the SEL content. Some may feel comfortable sharing verbally or through a public chat, some may want to share with you through a private chat, and some may want to draw a picture or write in a journal to reflect. To accommodate families’ scheduling needs and increase opportunities for group discussion, it may be useful to work synchronously with small groups, while the rest of your class asynchronously works on independent reflections or other tasks.

6. Create a coordinated system of supports. With kids learning outside of schools, the role that families have in supporting kids’ skill development—academic and social-emotional—has never been greater. And families need help as they support kids in remote learning. Create a coordinated system of supports by intentionally building bridges with families. You might do this by inviting kids to share what they learned in their social-emotional lesson with their caretakers, sending families regular updates on social-emotional lessons and suggesting language or strategies they can reinforce at home, holding regular office hours for caretakers to explain the SEL work you’re doing with kids, answering questions, and providing guidance for reinforcing SEL at home. Creating opportunities to provide these kinds of supports can directly support kids’ SEL, but it can also strengthen the community of adults in students’ lives, which in turn benefits kids.

There’s no doubt: The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new uncertainties and ways of life. Not least among these shifts is the move to remote instruction and relationship-building. While returning to school with these new realities can be challenging, they also provide an opportunity to show our children how we rise and respond to crises, for ourselves, for them, and together as a community.

About the Author:

Dr. Tricia Maas is a research scientist and social-emotional learning expert at Committee for Children with a background in personalized and student-centered learning.