4 essentials of SEL success in online learning

Administrators should set clear expectations for online SEL with teachers
By: | September 16, 2020
COVID and online learning have convinced educators to refocus on students' social-emotional skills and wellbeing.COVID and online learning have convinced educators to refocus on students' social-emotional skills and wellbeing.
Tricia Maas

Tricia Maas

The key for administrators in developing an effective social-emotional learning program—whether it’s online or in-person—is making sure that the teachers leading it are taking care of their own wellbeing.

Though most teachers have a sense of what it takes to stay healthy, administrators can still offer daily reminders about eating well and getting enough sleep, exercise and movement throughout the day, says Tricia Maas, a research scientist at the nonprofit SEL provider, Committee for Children.

“One part of wellbeing that’s not as intuitive is making sure you are building your connections with others,” Maas says. “When a lot of us think about self-care, we don’t think about tending to relationships.”

While in-person interaction is seen as a key to SEL, many of the core principles—such as self-care—remain the same when schools are in full online-learning mode.


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Administrators should therefore continue to support teachers’ participation in online professional learning communities. These groups allow educators to reflect on their practices and share concerns and ideas.

Setting SEL expectations

Second, administrators can set clear expectations for online SEL with teachers, while teachers can take similar steps to establish routines with their students.

Administrators and teachers can work together to embed SEL into instruction, such as by holding virtual morning meetings so educators can check in on the wellbeing of students each day.

Part of wellbeing for educators is making sure they are devoting time to strengthening relationships with colleagues. (Photo: Committee for Children)The next step is for teachers to collect data about SEL so they can A.) keep better track of how students are feeling and B.) determine which practices are most effective, Maas says.

This can be as simple as teachers keeping class lists next to their computers and taking notes of students’ responses. Educators can also survey students and families about what’ working best.


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“Oftentimes, folks in education think of data and see spreadsheets and numbers,” Maas says. “Data can just be asking kids every morning how they are doing and providing opportunities for feedback. Everyone is giving out data informally, all the time.”

Administrators and teachers can then share their SEL and data collections successes via video and case studies.

Finally, administrators and teachers should leverage the power of community by working closely with nonprofits such as food banks and organizations that are providing space and supervision for students to participate in online learning.

A social-emotional silver lining?

COVID is forcing an “involuntarily reset” for an education system that for many years was focused solely on academic achievement, Maas says.

For example, online learning may give teachers a better idea of which students are engaged in class.


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“In a classroom, kids can be physically present but mentally elsewhere,” she says. “In a remote arrangement, it’s very, very clear when kids don’t show up—because they’re not signing on.”

That’s a sign that a students’ social-emotional needs are not being met.

“It’s never been OK to ignore students’ social-emotional needs but it’s never been quite so obviously irresponsible as it is today,” she says. “This situation is pushing the system to break free of tracks it’s been on.”


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