Apr 02 2021

Roundtable: Focusing on Social and Emotional Learning for K–12 Students

Four experts discuss the pandemic’s impact on social and emotional learning, and best practices for offering SEL-focused instruction in a remote environment.

The signs are everywhere, once you start to look.

For one student, it’s poor attendance; for another, a ­sudden drop in academic achievement. The third grader who used to be a star now seems more interested in ­interrupting class.

A year and counting into the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly that long since the start of remote learning, many K–12 students are still struggling to adapt — and many teachers are at a loss for what to do.

When you can’t sit down face to face with a child to talk about their troubles and how they might cope, where exactly are you supposed to start? Is it possible to provide social-emotional instruction to students when you’re teaching in a remote environment?

Hoping to shed light on these and other questions pertaining to SEL, we reached out to four experts: Matt Hiefield, a teacher with Beaverton School District in Oregon and a member of the Digital Equity Advisory Council at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN); Beth Holland, a partner at The Learning Accelerator and CoSN Digital Equity adviser; Mandy Froehlich, an educational consultant and author; and Sheldon Eakins, founder of the Leading Equity Center. Here’s what they had to say.

EDTECH:  How has remote ­instruction affected students when it comes to social and ­emotional learning?

Froehlich: From the standpoint of anxiety and stress, the pandemic has taken a problem that was already there and just blown it sky-high. Students who’ve been primarily online are missing out on everything — proms, sports, a sense of belonging to something, opportunities to communicate and collaborate with their peers. And then there are their teachers and everyone else around them, and especially their parents. They’re all dealing with their own issues, and students are picking up on that.

Eakins: Where I work, we’re on a reservation, and COVID is going crazy out here right now. And that’s on top of everything else that’s going on, like the election and the insurrection at the Capitol. All of these things impact our kids, and they impact their families. The challenge is, where do our kids have a space to debrief?

Holland: When physically in school, teachers have many opportunities to understand how students may feel. For example, when you’re on recess duty, you can tell what’s going on with your kids just by sitting there and observing. Even a negative interaction, like a student pushing their classmate on the slide, becomes a tell that a kid needs additional support. You just know when it’s time to step in and help. With remote learning, it’s a lot more complex, and you really have to pay attention to determine nonverbal cues.


Percentage of educators who believe positive emotions are critical for academic success

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit, “Emotion and Cognition in the Age of AI,” March 2019

EDTECH:  How can technology be used to support SEL needs for students?

Froehlich: You have to remember that it’s not the tech itself that supports the SEL, it’s what you’re doing with the tech. If you can find a tool that provides students with a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, that’s the one you should be using. Everyone seems to love Flipgrid right now because it’s so easy to use and it’s free. It’s like the golden child of all ed tech tools at the moment.

Holland: You can’t just use technology like Zoom or Google Meet to replicate an in-person experience. The successful strategies I’ve seen involve engaging students through a variety of modalities from video to audio to chat. With students joining classes remotely, teachers need to be aware of equity issues. A student might be joining the class from a parked car or a crowded apartment. Offering flexibility for live classes creates a more inclusive environment. I have also heard that teachers use tools like GoGuardian, which basically lets the teacher ‘walk around the room’ and check in with students and give them support as they work.

Hiefield: I think it’s important for the technology to not be isolating. It needs to involve human contact — notes from your teacher, brainstorming solutions with fellow students. When technology fosters connections between people, or can help you develop empathy or skills for managing your emotions, that’s when it’s valuable as an SEL tool.

One thing COVID has done is, it has disproportionally affected our English language learners. Because of that, we’ve started researching the use of translation software — like Microsoft Translator and ParentSquare — to communicate with students and their families. I’m hoping this is something we see more of coming out of the pandemic as a way to foster a more inclusive learning environment and allow parents who don’t speak English to participate in their children’s education.

DISCOVER: These 3 online learning tools help boost remote instruction.

EDTECH:  How can teachers encourage SEL in their remote classrooms?

Eakins: One way to improve is just through better listening — and not just listening to kids, but also their families. Sometimes we make assumptions based off our biases. You know, because this child is from this neighborhood, maybe this is their home ­situation or maybe their parent doesn’t care. But we don’t know, we’re just guessing. It’s better to reach out and ask questions and see if they’d be open to engaging.

Hiefield: One thing my teaching partner and I did during summer school was open up our virtual room 10 minutes early. We said to our students, “Hey, we’re going to be eating breakfast and talking. Feel free to come and chat if you like.” A few kids did come in early, and some of them ate breakfast with us. From an SEL standpoint, you’re just trying to provide opportunities for connection, meeting people where they’re at.

Holland: I think one of the keys is to not always focus on the academic piece, but to give kids space to interact and reach out. Teachers can leave their Zoom room open for 10 or 15 minutes after class so that students can hang out. Or, if you’re an elementary school teacher, host a short dance party or a singalong.

EDTECH:  Will any SEL support ­initiatives implemented in this remote state stick around after the pandemic is over?

Hiefield: For students who take the bus, they might not have the same type of access, for example, that a bike rider or walking student has, if they need to see a teacher after school. So that’s kind of an interesting thing, if a teacher now says, “I’m going to be in my Zoom office room for a half hour after school. If you have any questions, you can check in and just have a face to face.”

Microsoft Education has new features for social-emotional learning. Learn more at edtechmag.com/k12/MSFTSEL.

Illustration By Sébastien Thibault

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