How a big district shifted SEL to online learning

85,000-student district, which started the school year with full online learning, has infused social-emotional learning in all grades
By: | September 22, 2020
An middle school teacher in Anne Arundel County Public Schools shares a screenshot of a virtual “community building” event with her seventh graders.An middle school teacher in Anne Arundel County Public Schools shares a screenshot of a virtual “community building” event with her seventh graders.

Shifting social-emotional learning online means high school students in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public Schools participate in twice-weekly virtual wellness blocks.

The topics for these sessions are developed by students, who this year have told administrators they want time to connect with each other and learn stress management techniques, says Ryan Voegtlin, the district’s director of student services.

The 85,000-student district, which started the school year with full online learning, has infused social-emotional learning throughout remote instruction in all grades. For example, teachers in all grade levels also virtual clubs that provide students with more opportunities to stay connected.

In middle school, students engage in twice-weekly mindfulness sessions focused on stress management and in regular “community meetings.”


More from DA: 4 essentials of SEL success in online learning


The community meetings allow students and teachers to connect and begin to trust each other, Voegtlin says.

“To get kids in engaged, we start with low-stakes conversations, like ‘What’s favorite meal?'” Voegtlin says. “As they become more comfortable with each other, they develop higher-level conversational skills and the ability to talk about topics that are more challenging.”

In elementary school, students also engage in virtual community-building circles designed to teach them how to have productive conversations, he says.

At the same time, the district’s counselors and social workers have been providing mental health care via telehealth sessions.

“We have told teachers that if something concerning is going on—if a kid is not engaging in online learning, let a school counselor know to reach out to kids and parents,” he says. “When we’re virtual, we have to work a lot harder to figure out what’s going on.”

PD in difficult conversations

At all grades levels, the district has been providing professional development—which teachers have requested—in leading their classes in discussing topics such as social justice and anti-racism.


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“We want to give kids opportunities to talk about what’s on their minds,” he says. “PD for teachers in facilitating critical conversations allows people to be emotional but doesn’t allow emotions to take hold of conversations in ways that go negative.”

Like many districts, Voegtlin and his Anne Arundel colleagues were seeing a growing need for SEL—particularly in elementary schools—before the COVID pandemic hit.

The district has responded with professional development for teachers in supporting these students and has also adopted Second Step’s SEL curriculum.

“In the elementaries,” Voegtlin says, “we’ve seen a higher number of kids coming to us with more mental health challenges and lack of social skills that we had not seen before.”


DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.