5 strategies for remote SEL and preparing for a return to school

Don't lose sight of social-emotional learning as the pandemic continues. Many students are in need of social-emotional support, even if they haven't needed it in the past.
By: | June 18, 2020
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on UnsplashPhoto by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

El Paso (Texas) Independent School District staff had nearly completed implementing a social-emotional learning program in every school after four years of systematic work, so when schools closed because of the pandemic, Sandra Montes-Uranga knew the effort had to continue remotely.

“We really need to address students’ social-emotional needs if we are going to expect them to thrive academically,” says Montes-Uranga, the district’s SEL director.

District staff strove to continue cultivating connections with students and their families despite the school closures and plan to emphasize SEL as students return to school in the fall.

“We have to have a caring mindset,” says Ray Lozano, the district’s executive director of student and family empowerment. “When we are working with kids, we are really trying to be mindful of what they may be experiencing at home and adapt and adjust.”

Use these strategies to continue to promote student SEL as schools remain closed and when they begin to open.

1. Maintain SEL on the schedule. In the daily schedule you recommend or expect students to follow during school closures, ensure you continue to carve out time for SEL as well as academics, Lozano says. El Paso students have access to numerous SEL lessons and activities, including mindfulness exercises, on the district website that they can do on their own or with their families. They also have time allotted during academic lessons for brain breaks and teachers can draw from evidence-based curricula.

2. Promote student equity. Ensure staff continue to be aware of what is going on in the background when they speak or videoconference with students and parents and check if families have the resources they need for students to continue to learn remotely and safely, Lozano says. “Staff are spending hours of their day connecting with parents to ensure they have the resources they need. We want to know if there are nonacademic barriers to engagement. We try to create a sense of emotional safety and support for our students and families.”

Also talk with teachers about their grading policies. El Paso has decided as a district not to let any grading during the closure affect a student’s ability to move forward. “Nothing done academically during this time of closure can hurt a child,” Lozano says. The hope is that this will promote equity because not every student has access to the same resources during the pandemic, he adds. “The playing field is not level.”

3. Create predictability. Establish recurring, fixed times for virtual office hours for additional academic support to improve student engagement and promote a sense of predictability and connection. This will give staff another opportunity to uncover if a student is struggling emotionally as well. “We want to provide a safe environment for students to engage,” Lozano says.

Just ensure that staff members are as engaged as they can be when they interact with students and their families. They need to practice self-care before they care for others. “We really need to be mindful about being supportive and caring and engaging in our work,” he says.

4. Build parents’ skills. Provide parents with information on mindfulness and emotional regulation so they can model and support their child’s social-emotional growth, Montes-Uranga says. “We’re encouraging them to implement mindful practices throughout their day.”

“There is a parent toolkit [on El Paso’s website] on how to remain calm and engage in deep breathing and be present in the moment and how that helps with stress,” she explains. Parents can also use digital flashcards when their child tests their limits, Lozano says. Each card shares what to do and not to do when a student behaves a certain way. “It helps parents be intentional in how they respond so the behavior doesn’t escalate,” he adds.

5. Plan for the return to school. Recognize that as the return to school approaches and takes place, many students will need social-emotional support, Lozano says. Many of these students may not have needed such support in the past before the pandemic. “Those first few weeks are going to have to be focused on creating a sense of emotional safety and predictability,” he explains. “We are going to be ramping up our training on trauma-informed practices because in one way or another, this has been traumatic for everyone.”

Your approach should focus on rebuilding community at the classroom and school level, Lozano says. “We will all need to process what we’ve been through and commit to understanding and working with each other in a way that is SEL-informed. We will need a sense of unity.”

El Paso is also ensuring its parent engagement liaisons continue to receive training on SEL practices to build parents’ awareness so they will partner with schools during the transition back.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.