Learning is a social activity, so how can young people develop appropriate social skills when they must keep six feet of distance, or log into class online? As our country continues to respond to COVID-19 with caution and distancing precautions, it’s more important than ever for educators to focus on helping our students develop social-emotional skills. The good news is that despite six feet of distance, facial masks that block expressive smiles, and communicating through computer screens, students can still learn critical skills in kindness, courtesy, and empathy — and you can help.

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

According to CASEL, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” SEL is a critical component of personal skill development and must be reinforced both at home and in a classroom setting with students learning among their peers.

Teaching the New Form of Social Emotional Learning During COVID-19

Historically, SEL skills have been predicated on in-person interactions in which students learn to interpret others’ feelings based on their verbal and non-verbal interactions. Before this year, opportunities to teach SEL have included group learning assignments, creative team projects, and paired lessons. With COVID-19 requiring remote and socially distanced learning, teachers must look for other ways to help students interpret others’ reactions through more subtle factors such as their eyes, the tenor of their voice, or even the length of a responding silence.

To help reinforce SEL in your classroom—no matter where you and your students are located in proximity to one another—consider these learning activities:

1. Encourage Self- and Peer-Reflection Activities

Consider having students reflect on their feelings and those of others. For example, encourage students to write down what they are grateful for every day and place the submissions in a place where their peers can see them in the classroom or an online forum. Another idea is to have students pick a name of a classmate and write something positive to that person. Maybe it’s something they admire about their classmate or enjoy about them. It’s good to practice self-care and care of others.

2. Identify Safe but Effective Conflict-Resolution Activities

One way students learn the most about appropriate behavior and consideration for others is by resolving conflicts. For now, students cannot resolve disagreements with a smile and a hug. Still, maintaining six feet of distance gives young people a chance to use other social development skills to show consideration and kindness to others. To adequately express themselves and understand how their words or actions made others feel, they must learn to put their feelings into cogent and meaningful words. Teachers can guide students through the process.

3. Modify High-Risk Activities to Improve Safety Levels

Think about your most successful SEL activities, and then challenge yourself to reframe them from a socially distanced perspective. For example, if role-playing is not feasible because it would put students in close contact, consider replacing the activities with a virtual social simulation game. Such technology solutions exist to aid students on the autism spectrum and can be adapted for broader use.

4. Help Students to Cope with Anxiety and Stress

The comforts of companionship and the stress relief that comes from running around, laughing, seeing one another’s facial expressions, and loudly expressing oneself are missing from current engagements. Teachers must carefully evaluate their students for other signs of stress, such as reluctance to participate in activities and acting withdrawn. When you identify a student as exhibiting such signs of stress, ask them to talk through their feelings. It may be challenging for young students to understand that they cannot seek out a hug or other forms of personal touch to feel comforted or safe. Continually remind students that they can and should seek out such interactions at home with their family and that inside the classroom, they can and should express themselves in words.

This school year is challenging students and teachers alike to take new approaches to old challenges and stay connected despite the challenges of distance and safety protocols. Staying safe does not have to mean compromising the quality of our students’ education or emotional development. This year, every lesson will require adapting and persevering, but there is an opportunity to learn emotional intelligence while overcoming such hurdles. By seeking opportunities to foster introspection in moments of chaos and unfamiliarity, both you and your students will learn more about yourself and one another.

Related PLS Course:

Social-Emotional Learning: Essential to Student Success™
Explore the five areas of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. Classroom-applicable strategies and activities for developing a social-emotional culture, while fostering each of the social-emotional areas in students, are modeled so that educators can maximize student learning and success.

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