Aug 10 2020

How Schools Are Taking SEL and Mental Health Online

Experts say students will increasingly need more social and emotional learning support this school year.

With remote learning becoming the norm, social and emotional learning (SEL) has been a high priority — and a thorny challenge.

SEL refers to the soft skills students need to collaborate effectively with their peers: the ability to manage emotions, set positive goals, display empathy and make responsible decisions.

“While SEL issues have always been there, they are a top priority now,” says Sean Smith, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Kansas and an associate researcher at the university’s Center for Research on Learning. “Our students are more anxious; there are all these unknowns heightening the anxiety. It means we have to be more explicit and more thoughtful about these things.”

At the same time, remote learning makes it hard to forge the kind of personal connections that foster SEL. Only 7 percent of more than 1,400 educators surveyed in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s 2020 “Educator Confidence Report” said they were prepared to address the social and emotional needs of students during the COVID-19 disruption. Meanwhile, 94 percent agreed students will increasingly need more social and emotional support this school year.

CJ Reynolds, a ninth grade teacher and HMH ambassador, said in a press release about the report that educators are not only responsible for teaching — they must also help “nurture students’ minds, bodies and souls.” “To do our work properly, we must empower educators with the tools and training necessary to ensure every student is cared for and supported,” he said.

Fortunately, a range of resources are available to educators to support this need.

Re-Create Face-to-Face Interactions with Videoconferencing

With the shift to remote learning, students lost the informal interactions they had at school — from catching up in the hallways before class to eating lunch together in the cafeteria.

“Part of what happens often in the remote learning environment, it really strips out everything but the academics,” says Brian Cooper, director of educational innovation and online learning at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, in a recent webinar.

But those interactions are crucial to developing students’ interpersonal skills. “Students are learning in those environments,” Cooper says. “They’re making friendships. They’re learning how to interact with each other.”

Videoconferencing tools can help educators rekindle those connections. Outside of the conventional classroom instruction mode, platforms like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams can help teachers replicate face-to-face interactions.

“For example, you can have a group of students have lunch together to practice their social skills,” Smith says. “You can reproduce that in the teleconference, with peers modeling behaviors and practicing their skills.”

Teachers can also use these tools to stay connected with students and their families. Heather Baker-Sullivan, a seventh-grade teacher at Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in New York, says she started using Meet early in the remote period to get together with her students.

“I blocked out three hours every weekday in 15-minute time slots. Kids could reserve a time by making an appointment,” she says. “It was great for one-on-one time with them. I could ask them privately how they were doing and if their family had enough to eat.”

Sullivan says those check-ins also helped her spot mental health red flags. “In a few cases, I could pass along to the dean or a psychologist what I thought might be a case of depression,” she says.

DISCOVER: Learn how to encourage good student behavior while videoconferencing. 

Online Tools That Bolster Social and Emotional Learning Skills

Teachers and administrators can also leverage a wide range of online tools to address various aspects of SEL.

Students learn by doing. With game-based learning tools like Classcraft, for example, they can be the heroes of their own adventures while building critical skills such as self-awareness, cooperation and responsible decision-making. This platform, as well as many like it, also works seamlessly with popular learning management systems such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Office 365 and Canvas.

It’s about “finding ways for kids to experience greater control through gaming and creating community through multiplayer games,” says Dr. Rebecca Mannis, learning specialist and founder of Ivy Prep Learning Center.

Meanwhile, at Glades Middle School in Broward County, Fla., eighth-grade teacher Jennifer Moser uses the free Character Playbook tool to teach peer counseling. “It has graphic novels and interactive games, with real-life skills that they can connect and relate to, all connected to social and emotional learning,” she says. “It addresses bullying and behavior issues and making appropriate choices.”

Esports, which is already on the rise among many school districts, offers another avenue to explore and enhance SEL skills. Experts point to leadership, collaboration and teamwork as some of the key benefits of an esports program.


The percentage of educators who agreed students will increasingly need more social and emotional support this school year

Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “2020 Educator Confidence Report,” July 2020

Besides game-based learning, there are plenty of other resources for educators to explore, including:

  • Digital Citizenship & Social and Emotional Learning, an ebook from Common Sense Education that addresses the digital dilemmas students may encounter in their online world, such as cyberbullying and digital drama
  • Class Catalyst, a tool that invites students to log their feelings during the day, enabling educators to quantify success and increasing opportunities for student-teacher connections
  • SEL-oriented teaching materials from the Zinn Education Project, which are aimed at nurturing empathy and compassion by supporting a broader view of history
  • The Calm app, which helps to build integrity and self-control through incorporating mindfulness practices into daily life

READ MORE: Find out how technology boosts social-emotional learning competencies. 

Extend Student Safety Outside the Traditional Classroom

Fostering connections online is important, but educators will also need insight into students’ online behaviors — both inside and outside the virtual classroom — to enhance SEL and create healthy environments for their students.

Tools like GoGuardian’s Beacon, a suicide prevention service, offer educators a holistic view of online activity across search engines, social media, email and web apps.

When students use school-managed devices, Beacon can give educators and administrators insight into their interactions, making it possible to spot kids who are having dark thoughts or might otherwise be in trouble. An AI engine performs the real-time assessments in order to flag online behaviors that indicate emotional distress.

“Beacon was built with an eye toward giving educators and administrators the ability to immediately see when students might be in need of help and to respond to that need in a timely way,” Tyler Shaddix, chief product officer at GoGuardian, tells EdTech.

When paired with emerging telehealth counseling capabilities, these early warning signs can be addressed even in a time of at-home learning.

But to make the most of technological support for SEL, school districts need to take a thoughtful approach, especially given the unfamiliar terrain of distance learning.

“For this to work, students need to be present,” Smith says. “They need to have the camera turned on. They may also have distractions at home that you need to address. All those things need to be managed and planned for in advance.”

FluxFactory/Getty Images; Logo by Amira Martin

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