Special Report
Student Well-Being

Teaching the ‘New’ COVID-19 Social-Emotional Skills

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 02, 2020 | Corrected: September 11, 2020 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of the infographic featured on this page miscredited the Mood Meter. It was created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The center also does not use faces in its graphic to avoid linking positive or negative values to emotions.

Learning is a social activity, but how can kids learn social skills when they can’t fully engage in person?

Of the districts whose reopening plans Education Week has analyzed, less than a third plan to include at least some in-person classes. But their students and teachers will have to interact with one another while wearing facial masks and staying six feet apart to limit the spread of the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

Ensuring that students continue to develop critical social-emotional skills in a socially distanced world will require administrators and teachers to not just rethink existing approaches to social learning but also teach children to navigate the new social skills that are needed for life during the pandemic.

“So much of typical [social-emotional learning] programs and practices have included a lot of face-to-face interaction between students and between students and adults,” said Justina Schlund, director of field learning for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. “It’s being able to work together closely to solve a problem or to talk about their emotions and their experiences. So I think it’s going to require a lot of creativity on the part of our schools and educators to think about how they’re communicating SEL during this time.”

Here are some key recommendations for school and district leaders when planning in-person social learning during the pandemic.

1. Evaluate the risk of keeping (or changing) existing activities

Research on the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, suggests it spreads easily both in the air and on surfaces. Studies of so-called “superspreader” events suggest loud speaking and singing in enclosed areas increases the risk of transmitting the virus, as well as close contact for 15 minutes or more.

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District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Part 7: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills
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Problematically, personal protective equipment such as facial masks can significantly interfere with students’ ability to engage in social learning. One new study found: “Covering the lower half of the face reduces the ability to communicate, interpret, and mimic the expressions of those with whom we interact. Positive emotions become less recognizable, and negative emotions are amplified. Emotional mimicry, contagion, and emotionality in general are reduced and (thereby) bonding between teachers and learners, group cohesion, and learning–of which emotions are a major driver.”

Teachers and administrators can balance the need for safety and social engagement by considering four things: the viral load associated with an activity, its duration, the educational and social value of the activity, and the maturity of the students doing it. For example, loud talking and singing tend to disperse more viral particles into the air, while small-group projects conducted outside can be lower risk. Some common social-emotional learning activities, such as filling a “kindness bucket,” in which students write down good deeds they have done for others, would change little in a socially distanced classroom.

Similarly, older grades may have more flexibility in providing students with social activities.

“I think that the hardest part from being in an elementary school is everything is hands-on and everything is based off of social interactions,” said Colleen Perry, a coordinator for the City Connects student support program at Pottenger Elementary in Springfield, Mass. The majority of students in the Springfield district are from low-income families. “I feel like in a high school, you’re more aware of your own personal space; you can socially distance … whereas in an elementary school, I get hugged probably 300 times a day … and it’s fine, I love that, but we can’t do that right now.”

Downloadable Guide: Evaluating Risk for Social Activities

Even so, high-risk activities can be tweaked to lower their likelihood of contagion without fundamentally changing their value. Studies have found, for example, that the risk from singing or talking goes down significantly if people do so at a lower volume. When in-person role-playing is not safe, virtual social simulation games—already used to support students with autism or other challenges with social interaction—can also be used to help students practice dealing with social interactions and resolving conflicts.

2. Identify ways to support students emotionally at a distance

Social distancing in and out of schools has removed traditional ways students and teachers alike relieve stress, so experts say educators and support staff should more actively check students’ emotional health and teach alternative methods to cope with isolation and anxiety.

“With elementary school students, they can’t always communicate how they feel verbally, but you can tell by how they interact with you physically. Sometimes a kid, if they’re sad, they’ll come up and hold your hand or they’ll want to sit next to you, really close, or they’ll want to hug you,” Perry said. “So it’s just trying to teach them, ‘you can still do that with your family, but with us, we have to verbally say things to each other,’ and just trying to teach kids the words to use.”

Many schools already use so-called “color checks” to take students’ emotional temperature: green for alert and ready; yellow for anxious or excited; red for angry; blue for sad, sick, or tired. In a distanced classroom, teachers said students need more explicit language and cues to express how they feel.

Social-emotional learning doesn’t necessarily have to be something that happens in close proximity to a student, said Nancy Duchesneau, a SEL researcher for the Education Trust. “It can be around expressing that you care about a student; allowing students to have opportunities to express themselves, verbally but also in writing assignments that allow them to show their voice,” she said.

3. Help students adapt to new social norms

The pandemic has radically changed social norms in and out of school, and social-emotional learning should help students learn new skills to navigate interactions.

“It’s still important in this context to think about how to establish consistency in routines and schedules, to develop supportive relationships with students and … to plan opportunities that are built into the regular academic day to learn and practice social emotional competency,” said Justina Schlund, the director of field learning for CASEL.

For example, children in early grades may not yet have learned to measure distances and will need more explicit instruction to maintain proper distance, such as sitting on pre-measured carpet pieces or holding a rope with knots marking safe space.

Incorporating social-emotional instruction into academic classes can help ground the lessons, according to Julie Donovan, a supervising social worker for the Springfield, Mass., public schools. English and language arts teachers there have adopted a curriculum during the closures this spring that embeds social skills instruction into reading lessons.

“So, they’re explicitly teaching, say, taking turns, how do you turn and talk to your partner, and modeling that throughout the lesson, but in the meantime you’re also teaching that objective of the [English language arts],” she said.

Teachers and counselors have given students a crash course on the new social rules of life in a pandemic, from proper spacing and hand washing to how to adapt normal interactions with friends for the pandemic era.

“I usually do a lesson on proper touching; you know, not everybody wants a hug, so we can do a fist bump or we can do an elbow tap or we can do a high five,” Perry said. “So now, when we go back to school … we’re just adapting our lessons so instead of a fist bump, we can do waving from a distance or an air hug.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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