As schools return to being fully functional this year, teachers are, of course, anxious to help students fill academic gaps created during COVID-19. As teachers, we all know, however, that academic goals can only be achieved when social-emotional skills are already in place. These skills are essential for success in the classroom and later in life.
Social and emotional skills include:
Students need these skills to:
Work well with others
Plan and achieve goals
Make responsible decisions
Even before the pandemic, we were aware of the importance of social-emotional learning. Many schools prioritized creating more holistic environments, teaching to the “whole-child,” giving attention to non-cognitive factors, and looking at the “climate” of a classroom. In the mid-1950s, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow created a Hierarchy of Needs that revealed what teachers know instinctively: A child cannot even attempt higher learning unless his or her physical and psychological needs are met.
While teaching continued during COVID-19, much of the social-emotional learning (SEL) students usually develop in schools went by the wayside. Even students who were physically on campus were not in optimal learning environments for developing SEL skills. Students who continued to work from home missed out completely. These students often felt isolated and disconnected.
No matter how students attended school, the lockdown disrupted casual social interaction, weakening students' social support systems. It will take systematic, intentional, and intensive efforts to restore SEL skills. Children need social and emotional instruction, practice, and feedback more than ever as they interact with each other on the playground, collaborate in group learning, and reignite friendships.
How can we prioritize children’s emotional well-being when students return to regular classrooms?
1. Balance predictability and novelty. Students need consistency, but after a year and a half of chaos, they will become easily bored if every day is the same. Returning to school is going to be socially awkward and challenging. Learning will be frustrating at times. Having fun in the classroom with a variety of peers will be critical to students’ social-emotional learning.
Create fun connection activities such as:
Bringing classes together for a pre-Rosh Hashanah chesed project
An all-school or multi-grade family picnic the Sunday after school begins
All-class games or outside relay races
Multi-aged Tu B’Shvat seders
Crazy hat day before Purim
Dress like your favorite historical personality
Pi Day with circle math activities followed by pie for everyone
Have fun together. Students - and teachers - need to experience joy in the classroom. Teachers in all grades can find ways to add fun into their planning, whether it’s through games, visuals, stories, stress-reduction activities, or even an impromptu nature walk.
If possible, have some celebrations with students outdoors. Perhaps the class earns an extra recess for work well done. Maybe the class participates in a siyum outside when they’ve completed learning a body of work.
2. Be understanding when reacting to misbehavior. But, do not change the standards for inappropriate behavior. Behavior standards should still be the same, and the expectations of competency and rigor, too. You can NICELY tell a student there’s a consequence for misbehavior, but those consequences shouldn’t change. Students should feel that school is the one place where standards and routines DON’T change.
These standards and routines are especially necessary for children who have been learning at home on Zoom. After months of remote learning, children may have difficulty paying attention, staying on task, and self-regulating. They will certainly be excited to see friends but may tire easily and struggle to complete work. At home, everything could be flexible; now everything has to be done according to rules. At home, children could take a break or walk around whenever they wanted, have a snack anytime, and even turn off the computer’s camera and have a side conversation
3. Rebuild students’ sense of competency. Many students had a hard time with online education and have learned little over the last 18 months. And they know it. Teachers were sympathetic to the upheavals in students’ lives and limited the demands on their students, including students in in-person classes.
Be flexible initially with academic standards, but raise those standards as quickly as possible. Students know the difference between doing work just to get it done and putting in real effort to complete an assignment. Create open-ended assignments whenever possible where there is no one right answer, so many students can be successful.
All the students need to relearn how to socialize. They have been socially distanced and need to practice interacting. Plan the coming year with many opportunities for social interaction. Social skills can be taught in every lesson.
Make collaborative activities part of as many lessons as possible. Group work is a great way to incorporate more social and emotional learning in the classroom. Have groups set their goals, establish their roles and responsibilities, and rotate the leadership roles so everyone gets a chance to be a leader. Praise students’ efforts and encourage group members to praise each other’s efforts. Working in groups will help students form closer relationships with their peers and communicate better with one another.
4. Create emotional connections with your students. Share how difficult this time has been for you. This will encourage students to share their feelings about missing specials, social distancing, and wearing masks. We want to help students become self-aware of their emotions so they can deal with them better. How are they feeling about all the changes in their lives? These can be explored in journal writing, short stories, and even artwork.
Art projects can also be planned for self-expression, or books can be read to discuss different characters’ feelings. Exploring feelings and developing a sense of self is important for social-emotional development.
5. Remember that different students have different needs. There are also many variations in how children dealt with life during COVID-19. Children from large families were still part of a group; some from small families may have felt totally isolated or became depressed. Some children lost a loved one and are still in mourning. Some children are angry because they missed hoped-for activities like sports teams, concerts, or graduation celebrations. Some have become fearful of becoming ill, of losing family, and even of strangers.
6. Actively teach students how to make good decisions. Since the onset of COVID-19, many rules were thrust upon us, and we had little power to make decisions about them. This was even truer for children. Practicing making responsible decisions in school will prepare students for becoming responsible adults.
Give students choices in assignments so they have to make a decision. Do they want their evaluation on a specific unit to be an essay, creating a video, completing a work of art, or an oral presentation? Do they want to work alone or with a partner, or should this be a group project? The more variety and the more choices students have, the more they will practice making decisions. This will also help differentiate the curriculum so students will learn through their strengths.
7. Use a team approach. Work together with your colleagues to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. All students need compassion and patience. Staff meetings should include time to discuss the social and emotional status of students - not only their academics.
The disruptions of the pandemic have given us a heightened awareness of the importance of relationships and face-to-face connections. Strong social and emotional skills will strengthen those relationships in the classroom, build character in the students, and improve their academic performance. If students learn how to deal with their emotions, manage their relationships, and work both independently and with others, they will be successful in school and later in life.
About the Author: Mrs. Miriam Schiller
Miriam Schiller has been immersed in education for almost 50 years, teaching everything from 2-year-olds to 8th graders. For almost 30 years, she served as Principal of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL where she tripled the enrollment of the Kindergarten-8th grades and doubled the number of children in the preschool. Under Schiller's tenure, the school became known for its innovative strategies, including multi-age classrooms, a buddy system, and Schiller's one-on-one method of teaching children to read. Schiller holds a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois and a MA in Administration and Supervision from Loyola University. She is passionate about Jewish education and about using her expertise to fuel the next generation of day schools. Currently, Mrs. Schiller works in the Curriculum Department of Walder Education and is available for coaching by appointment.