Unpredictable. That is how I would describe the last two school years. But there is one thing I would predict about the year that’s just started: It will be just as turbulent, if not more so.
So, what can teachers (and parents) do to help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn? My counsel is to return to social and emotional learning fundamentals by using strategies from evidence-based SEL learning programs designed for schools and other settings. This summer, I was the lead author on a comprehensive review of these approaches and their specific practices commissioned by the Wallace Foundation. Here are my four recommendations for approaches that will help students feel understood, express themselves, and flourish during this school year:
1. Ask questions and listen actively.
Children are feeling intense pressure this year from parents and teachers. Both feel the need for their children to catch up after a year of online, hybrid, or just unpredictable learning. In addition, many kids (especially older students) lost out on meaningful rituals—homecoming, prom, graduations, and sports events. Many also experienced the trauma of losing a family member to COVID-19 or witnessing a parent or grandparent fight the illness. Indeed, educators experienced many of these stressors themselves.
This disappointment and trauma will show up in the classroom and in the home, and everyone needs space and time to process what is happening and has happened.
So, what can we do? It helps to take time to check in with children and ensure their feelings are heard. A conversation with a teenager might go like this:
Adult: “Hey, I see you are upset (or especially quiet, or something) today. Is something going on that you’d like to talk about?”
Student: “I’m not sure, I just don’t feel like myself, and everything has me worried.”
Adult: “I hear you; everything really can feel out of control right now. I’m here for you, you can talk with me any time, and I’ll do my best to listen.”
2. Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.
In unstable times, it helps to overcommunicate with students about school schedules and expectations and establish concrete procedures when possible. Predictability is the name of the game—students of all ages will thrive when they feel safe, and safety means knowing what’s coming next. If students are slow to fall into step, give them more space, slow things down, and exhale.
Encourage your students’ families to do the same at home. Keeping wake-up time, meals, and bedtimes as similar as possible makes a difference, and establishing rituals and routines for these everyday activities adds an opportunity for connection. Parents might ask, “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” Or: “What are you grateful for today?”
3. Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.
If children are to thrive in the current climate, incorporating social and emotional tools and practices into both classroom and at home is essential. Clearly, the exact approach will differ for younger and older students, but both do best in respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.
These are some simple foundational SEL strategies for the classroom:
- Use journaling. Encourage children to express their feelings on paper.
- Do daily greetings. Smile warmly and greet each other by preferred name; use whole-group greeting activities.
- Hold class/family meetings. Foster camaraderie and group-behavior norms.
- Incorporate art. Use visual arts to document and express feelings.
- Talk about managing emotions. Engage in a group discussion about emotions and effective and safe ways to express them in class.
- Employ optimistic closings. “What I learned today is …,” “I am looking forward to tomorrow because …,” “What I might do differently is …” are some examples.
If you are a parent yourself, share what’s hard for you about the current situation, thus modeling vulnerability for your kids.
4. Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.
While many place the burden on teachers to get students back up to speed in school, it shouldn’t all be on them. Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort.
Most of all, let parents know they don’t need to double down immediately with academic pressure—only when children feel safe and comfortable back at school will they be able to fully focus on their work.
If you are a parent yourself, share what’s hard for you about the current situation, thus modeling vulnerability for your kids. Then sit back and actively listen. Mealtimes are a great time to have family meetings. Let your kids of all ages know they’ve been heard. (“I hear you, it’s really hard when you can’t spend time with your friends.”) And validate their feelings. (“I understand it must be tough being a new student right now with everyone wearing masks. I feel the same way trying to make connections with my new students.”)
With the education system focusing heavily on addressing learning loss at the start of this school year, it’s tempting to pull back on the important social and emotional components that my research has demonstrated are crucial for student success. But it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do. This is true both in the family home and in the classroom.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as Students Can’t Learn Without Stability