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4 SEL Strategies for the Transition Back to In-Person Learning

Support students' and families' mental health and well-being during this challenging time.

Jamie Nunez | March 12, 2021

This article was co-authored by Daniel Vargas-Campos.

As we make the transition from distance learning back into the classroom, teachers are facing a whole new set of challenges related to students' social and emotional well-being and mental health. New research from Common Sense has found that the number of teens and young adults who report feeling depressed has grown significantly throughout the pandemic, something that schools will need to reckon with during the return to in-person learning.

Building close relationships with students is an integral part of teaching that creates a school culture that's inclusive, fosters personal and academic growth, and encourages positive social behavior. And we know that students' social and emotional well-being can have a direct impact on their academic success. But what does this work look like during the complicated process of reopening schools after a year (or more) of distance learning?

Looking at the return to in-person learning through an SEL lens

For a classroom teacher, it may be easy to think, "I have so much content to cover -- isn't a daily check-in enough?" Things like daily SEL icebreakers are a step in the right direction, and individual counseling options are a crucial support for those who need them. But it's also important to rethink how we meet students' social and emotional needs through the day-to-day, academic aspects of our teaching. For example, some students may struggle to stay focused after spending so much time in front of screens. For others, collaborative work could feel awkward, whether it's with peers joining class online or with those physically next to them in the classroom.

Here are four ways to support students' social and emotional well-being during the transition from online to in-person learning -- each tied to core SEL competencies from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL):

1. Consider how students' digital lives are changing.

CASEL competency: self-awareness: As students and families acclimate to shifting school schedules, many will struggle with changes in routine and the loss of whatever daily online habits they'd settled into during distance learning. Returning to school in person will also mean navigating new, or altered, physical environments with a mask, and following a variety of other safety protocols. Some students could even feel like they're experiencing withdrawals from their digital lives.

Regardless of whether students are learning in person or online, consider teaching one (or more) of the Media Balance & Well-Being lessons from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum as a way to get kids thinking critically about the impacts of their media use.

Online strategies:

Encourage students to talk about the at-home routines they’ve developed for starting and finishing class time during remote learning. Help kids to think through these experiences, including the emotions they might feel during these times of transition. You could even have students come up with their own personalized social-emotional checklists to review before classes start. Help them think through how they might use a checklist like this, both during distance learning and once they start attending in person again.

In-person strategies:

Introduce CASEL's self-awareness competency and encourage students to check in with themselves each morning before heading to school. As an additional check-in prompt, consider asking students to identify ways that they might balance their media use. Possible prompts could include:

  • How can you reduce your time in front of a device or a screen before you go to sleep?
  • What are some positive parts of your digital life that you could bring into the classroom?
  • When you have the urge to be online during class, what can you do instead?

2. Acknowledge students' contributions.

CASEL competency: social awareness: Think back to the last time you were complimented in an online space: Perhaps a colleague used one of your teaching strategies, or maybe a student unmuted and shared how much they loved one of your learning activities. Did that compliment make you more aware of that person's presence?

As students return to in-person learning, consider incorporating social-awareness activities into your teaching. Think about the types of affirmations you can model for students to help them be more aware of their social surroundings.

While general compliments can help students feel validated, remember that teaching our students how to observe and affirm their peers' contributions -- in both in-person and online spaces -- helps create an inclusive and positive learning environment. Often, what might seem like a minor act of recognition or validation can be the difference between whether a student engages in your class or checks out.

Try these additional strategies to help students practice recognizing and validating each other's presence in class:

Online strategies:

  • Ask students to acknowledge the contributions of a peer or classmate.
  • Use a compliment tool to weave affirmations into your online class discussions or assignments.
  • Create a community-presence award, highlighting students who observe and affirm their peers in a genuine way.

In-person strategies:

  • Have students create a classroom charter outlining the type of community that they want to create. From question asking to positive group collaboration, naming and validating these learning qualities can go a long way for students.
  • Be strategic in how you praise students. Don't only praise those who seem to need the most support; also praise those who seem likely to take the exercise to heart and pass other praise on to their peers.
  • If you're teaching a "concurrent" or hybrid class, give students in the physical classroom opportunities to validate the contributions of students who are online, and vice versa.

3. Recalibrate your expectations around student engagement.

CASEL competency: self-management: As we move back toward in-person instruction, getting through your subject matter content will be the biggest priority. But remember that you'll probably need to recalibrate your expectations around students' ability to stay engaged. As you teach, keep track of the activities that are engaging to students, as well as the things that are getting in the way of their learning. Go ahead and share these observations with your class, and ask for their input and observations, as well. What's engaging? What isn't? Which strategies can they think of to stay more engaged?

Encourage students to think about how they feel when they get lost or fall behind. How did they deal with these situations at home? How should they deal with these situations as they come back into the physical classroom? Encourage kids to become cognizant of their own engagement and learning progress, and help them think of strategies to use in managing their own learning.

Lastly, online learning tools like Google Classroom can make it easier to clearly communicate the day's learning goals, assignments, and materials with students -- don't let this fall by the wayside as in-person instruction resumes! As we know, when students are clear about what they need to do, they're a lot more likely to stay engaged and succeed. Here are some tips to try:

Online strategies:

  • Make sure that students can easily find and read your daily plans and class materials. Even though you've probably already covered it at the beginning of the school year, take time to periodically remind students of where to find everything they'll need.
  • Check in individually with students and their families. Ask them to share their own strategies for staying engaged in class during remote learning.
  • Remind students to use online tools (like the "raise hand" button on Zoom, for example) to ask questions or alert you if they're lost or need help getting reengaged.

In-person strategies:

  • Collaborate with students to identify ways to manage emotions around keeping up with the curriculum.
  • Be explicit about what you want students to learn and accomplish throughout the day, and offer clear and consistent reminders.
  • Give students space to reflect on how they feel after returning to the classroom. Tools like Flipgrid work well for distance learning, but they're also great for helping students feel heard, even during in-person learning. You can use this kind of quality, authentic feedback as part of your assessment and grading process.

4. Make SEL part of your family outreach and family-teacher conferences.

CASEL competency: relationship skills: Maintaining positive relationships with your students and their families is critical for kids to be successful in returning to school. While distance learning has strained family-teacher connections, students still need to know that their efforts are affirmed and their achievements are amplified. Use these check-in prompts at your next family-teacher meeting:

  • Which parts of distance learning -- or the transition back to in-person learning -- have caused you stress?
  • Do you have what you need in order to feel successful as a family?
  • What could we all do to ensure that you feel cared for and supported?

For students who are experiencing both fatigue from being online and anxiety associated with returning to school, frequent and shorter check-ins with students and their families can help. The coronavirus pandemic has been painful for many families, and it's unclear how long the disruptions to school will last. But we should learn from it what we can. By intentionally and explicitly cultivating students' social-emotional competencies, we can support students in ways that set them up for success, both now and during future challenges.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.