Educators are being presented with a challenging question: How can we create an effective learning environment this fall, address learning loss and keep students, faculty and staff safe?

The NWEA has forecasted that the impact of COVID-19 will be similar to the “summer slide” – learning loss that occurs over summer break, and recommends that researchers, policymakers and schools work together to understand potential policies and practices for recovery.

According to the Learning Policy Institute: “The embrace of SEL must continue as we grapple with the long-term impact in our schools and communities. One of the biggest priorities [we’ve] heard from school system leaders is the need to create supportive, responsive learning climates that will ensure students and adults can thrive when they return to schools.”

With this in mind, it’s all the more important that we understand the role and benefit of SEL in education.

Let’s review the core SEL competencies as defined by CASEL: Self-awareness, social- awareness, relationship building and decision-making, and corresponding strategies to address student learning loss as a result of the “COVID-19 slide”.

Self-awareness is the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

First, discuss how the pandemic has affected you, and how it makes you feel. Encourage students to reflect on this question and discuss their feelings and experiences. We can’t ignore the immense changes our world is experiencing.

Sample activities:

  • Encourage students to self-reflect about the changes that your school or district has implemented. Have them write down their responses.
    • For example: “I can.., I enjoy.., I believe.., I wish..”
  • Provide constructive prompts for students to respond to, such as:
    • What’s a recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?
    • Is there anything you’re worried about this year? If yes, what?
    • How can I support you?
  • Have students note emotions displayed by family members, peers, and/or by people on television or online.

Social-awareness is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Start by discussing what empathy means, and the role it plays in challenging or stressful situations. Invite students to share examples of what empathy looks like.

Sample activities:

  • Have students step into the shoes of a family member, educator or government leader, and consider the impact that the pandemic may have had on their job. Make the connection between those career-related challenges, and any academic-related challenges students may be experiencing.
  • Discuss how the pandemic has impacted your school or district community. What’s the same? What’s different?

Self-management is the ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations — effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

A crucial part of SEL is equipping students with strategies for regulating their emotions when overwhelmed, stressed or anxious. Consider these examples from Mentoring Minds, a leading provider of K-12 critical thinking materials:

  • Pause, take 3 deep breaths, and think positive thoughts.
  • Use positive self-talk strategies to prevent outbursts.
  • Self-monitor to check and adjust behavior, thoughts, actions.
  • Engage in self-reflection to clear the mind and help gain control.
  • Pause and exercise to prevent emotions from escalating.

Sample activities:

  • At the start of the school year, have students write down personal and academic goals. These goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely).
  • If a student’s emotions are impacting their ability to focus, have them pause and reflect in a diary or journal.
  • Whether students are learning in-person or remotely, include small breaks throughout the day to ensure intervals of quiet or free time.

Relationship-building is the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. Students must acquire the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

Educators recognize the importance of strong relationships. Kick off the school year by prompting conversations with students, and identifying ways to encourage them while still adhering to social distancing protocols. It’s also crucial to determine how technology and other resources can maintain or improve student success this year, and help them remedy any learning loss that may have taken place.

Sample activities:

  • Have each student choose a place of interest, and take virtual tours by sourcing video and/or images. Engage in conversations about what you encounter – remembering to value the shared observations of others.
  • Prompt conversations with questions, like:
    • How can we use this opportunity to improve relationships with our teachers and peers?
    • How can we express appreciation for one another?
    • What can we do to offer our help to others? How can we ask others for their help?

Decision-making is the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.

Now more than ever, it’s important to set time aside for students to voice or express their concerns or worries, and then openly address them. We must ensure that students feel comfortable seeking help.

Sample activities:

  • Teach students how to use their words to talk through a challenging situation.
    • If you have a conflict at school, how should you handle it?
    • If you have a conflict at home, how should you handle it?
    • How do you maintain calm during the coronavirus outbreak?
  • To help students through potentially stressful conversations, introduce the THINK model:
    • T: Is it True?
    • H: Is it Helpful?
    • I: Is it Inspiring?
    • N: Is it Necessary?
    • K: Is it Kind?

The importance of parent engagement

Parents have always played an important role in preventing summer learning loss. But, it’s important to recognize that not every family has the same access to technology and other academic resources – we can’t expect parents to be equipped to set up an effective learning environment without the right support.

Research indicates that when parents are involved in SEL programs, students experience a higher rate of success. Engaging families helps strengthen these skills and create opportunities for children to identify and express their emotions at home.

As educators, we must do what we can to establish trust and provide helpful resources. Remember the value of empathy. When students head back to school this fall, whether it be in class, remote, or combination of learning, it’s going to feel much different than years prior. Communication and collaboration are going to be more important than ever.

There are many universal experiences that parents take part in regardless of the time, education, or language they possess. That’s the beauty of SEL. So many opportunities naturally blend into family life as it is, rather than piling additional tasks onto the responsibilities of parenting.

A parent is the first and best teacher a child can have. Though awareness, parents can make a few tweaks to everyday routines and habits used to raise their children. Here are sample activities for educators to share with parents.

Sample activities:

  • Allow children to observe you modeling kindness, caring and concern in your relationships, and point out these behaviors in your children as they interact. Acknowledging mistakes made along the way will help children grasp everything is not always perfect.
  • Communicate that you are aware of and value the multitude of emotions your children may experience. Share your feelings during family conversations. Ask: How are you feeling? How do you think your sister feels when you say that? How were you kind to or considerate of others today? How might you encourage siblings when they are sad or upset?
  • Talk about what you might do as a family or individuals to stay connected to friends or other family members if you cannot be together.
  • Model behaviors that demonstrate self-care for staying safe and healthy. Reinforce these positive routines that children observe by setting aside time for verbal reflection together.

As you build relationships with your students and their parents, continue to emphasize the parent’s role in supporting SEL. Remind parents that they contribute to the development of social and emotional skills when they help children calm down from outbursts, guide them to settle sibling disagreements, or listen as children share their views on present issues.

To move forward, we must reimagine how we educate our children.

While it’s natural to be concerned about the loss of academic learning as a result of COVID-19, we can’t forget or neglect the impact of social and emotional learning. Students must not only feel connected to what they’re learning, but to their peers, educators, school staff and their family members.

When students feel supported socially and emotionally, they are more likely to commit to learning, focus on tasks and be willing to invest in their education as active participants.

The original article was published in the September issue of Language Magazine.