6 ways to teach SEL skills remotely

Creative ideas for addressing social-emotional learning to meet an IEP goal for a student with disabilities
By: | January 20, 2021
Getty Images, Klaus VedfeltGetty Images, Klaus Vedfelt

This year, schools may be offering social-emotional skills training to students with disabilities, such as autism, in separate virtual groups. However, if staff are spread thin, or students need additional opportunities to generalize skills, it may be useful to find ways to integrate social-emotional learning into other virtual encounters during the day. This will help to ensure students who have social-emotional goals in their IEPs can work on their skills.

“If a social-emotional goal is on a student’s IEP, you have to address it,” says Rebecca Moyes, a special education consultant and author based in Pennsylvania. “If the IEP calls for a pull-out social-skills session, you can do that [virtually], but I also think we should be carrying it through to more settings.”

Follow these tips to help students hone social-emotional skills during the pandemic.

1. Create recordings of lessons.

Have guidance counselors or other appropriately trained personnel pop into students’ virtual morning meetings or other lessons when possible to promote their social-emotional skills, Moyes said. They can discuss, for example, the importance of using deep breathing and other self-regulation strategies when students become angry or frustrated.

If guidance counselors and other qualified personnel are spread too thin to pop into all virtual classrooms during the day, have them record lessons ahead of time that the teacher can use during the class, Moyes says. For example, if a counselor records a lesson on personal space, the teacher can play the recording, then pause it when the counselor says, “Let’s talk about times you’ve felt crowded,” and talk virtually with the students, then restart the recording after the discussion. “There are cues for the teacher,” she says. “The teacher can stop and start it.”

2. Use household items.

To talk with students virtually about social-emotional skills, use items they are likely to have at home to visually represent what you discuss, Moyes suggests. For example, a teacher can use a colander and talk about filtering what students say in front of others. The teacher can show how rocks stay in the colander if they’re poured in, but sand pours out. Explain that rocks are the mean comments that they should keep to themselves.

3. Show students websites, apps with activities.

To teach students self-regulation strategies, teachers and support staff can share links to calming websites and apps with activities, such as breathing along with an expanding and contracting bubble on the screen, Moyes says.

4. Play videos, show pictures.

Students can be shown pictures of volcanos and discuss how anger is like a volcano and when they explode, it’s like when lava comes out; they will hurt the feelings of people around them just as the lava would hurt their bodies, Moyes said. They have to recognize when they begin “rumbling” and use strategies they are learning to calm themselves. In another example, a teacher could show a video of a baby elephant poking others with his trunk to discuss personal space and how to calmly tell someone your boundaries if they are breaking them.

5. Involve parents.

Make recordings and visual supports available to parents so they can reinforce and help their child generalize skills at home, Moyes advises. Also send home a list of corresponding tips for parents on how to go over the lesson.

6. Address reinforcers.

Keep track, on digital charts, of tokens students earn toward positive reinforcement; or have an instructional aide keep track on a whiteboard of what students earn and show them privately in a videoconference after class, Moyes says. Work with the student and parents to come up with reinforcers that are appropriate during remote learning, such as a homework pass or special movie day for those who earn enough tokens. Work with parents if giving an edible treat is agreed upon and make sure they don’t give the student the treat if he hasn’t earned it. Moyes says it makes a difference when parents are cooperative and stick to it.

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