5 tips for supporting students socially and emotionally during distance learning

Many students are experiencing high levels of stress as school schedules change due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some students may be separated from friends and stuck at home. Others might be worried about getting sick. Students whose families are experiencing financial worries or illness are especially vulnerable. There are ways you can support students socially and emotionally even if they’re not physically in your classroom every day.

School — whether it’s done online, in person, or a mix of the two — can give students a sense of normalcy. But it’s important to acknowledge the anxiety students might be feeling. Chronic stress and trauma can interrupt the learning process. You can help by incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) in your teaching. SEL can help students learn better.

Incorporating SEL can help you as a teacher, too. It can help you better connect with your students and help them work on five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. Here are some tips to help you focus on these areas during distance learning.

1. Schedule regular check-ins with students and their families.

Research shows that positive teacher-student relationships improve student learning — especially during stressful times. This is also true for online learning. To help build relationships, try to schedule regular check-ins with your students.

Use these individual check-ins to talk with students about how they’re feeling. Before you start scheduling the check-ins, see if your school district has recommendations for tools to use to communicate with families. Then consider what format and frequency will work best for your students. Students who are falling behind on assignments might need more frequent check-ins. Finding out where they’re struggling can help you suggest new strategies.

Family engagement is also critical for student learning. Many families are struggling with stress, financial instability, or illness right now. On top of that, they’re trying to keep their kids on track academically. Schedule time to check in with families and offer support, but remember that they may not have time to respond.

2. Teach strategies for organization, planning, and self-regulation.

Strategy instruction is all about teaching students how to learn. It can be helpful at any time and in any grade. But it’s especially important when asking students to do something new like distance learning or following a new school schedule.

If your students are learning from home, teach specifics like how to access online schoolwork, how to make a schedule, and how to stay focused. Provide students with checklists to help with these areas.

Keep in mind that students who learn and think differently will need more explicit instruction and frequent check-ins to develop these strategies.

3. Read and discuss current events.

When teaching about current events like the coronavirus pandemic or racial injustice, give students age-appropriate, factual information. For example, students can read about how health care workers and scientists are tackling the coronavirus or how people are coping with stress.

Current events also give students a chance to talk about their feelings. This can help them feel less alone. Many families are experiencing a variety of challenges. Learning about these challenges can help students build social awareness and empathy.

Get tips for talking with kids about the coronavirus and about racial injustice.

4. Assign a project that encourages students to be “helpers.”

Taking action can ease anxiety and depression. It also gives students a way to build their social awareness and relationship skills.

Have students learn about a group of kids, Helping Ninjas, who started a campaign to connect youth with senior citizens who are quarantined. Then, let students identify their own project area based on the need they see in their home or community. Give students some age-appropriate examples of projects they could do:

  • Read to younger siblings or help them with schoolwork .
  • Make a video that helps other kids have fun while stuck at home.
  • Help with cooking meals or snacks.
  • Call or send a card to someone who might feel isolated.

To meet curriculum standards, have students do a reflection project afterward. For example, students can research how people or groups have taken action in the past. Incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) practices by allowing students to choose how they want to present their learning. Some students might want to do a written report, while others might prefer to make a video or a comic strip.

5. Share stress-reduction and mindfulness strategies.

Many students need help developing strategies to reduce stress and cope with strong emotions. Explain or model strategies for students to try. One strategy to consider is mindfulness practice. Studies have shown that mindfulness can be helpful in managing stress and emotions. It can also help students focus better. Many mindfulness apps are offering free services for kids and adults during this stressful time.