Stephanie Jones is the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She is the primary author of the July 2021 report “Navigating SEL from the Inside Out: Looking Inside & Across 33 Leading SEL Programs, A Practical Resource for Schools and OST Providers, Revised and Expanded 2nd edition,” commissioned by the Wallace Foundation.
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.