5 ways to promote SEL skills and a sense of community during COVID-19

Potential learning gaps are alarming, but just as worrisome is a lack of SEL skills as students feel increasingly isolated at home

The nation’s abrupt shift to remote learning in the wake of COVID-19 has left teachers, students, and parents scrambling to find balance in their daily lives. And while maintaining academic learning is important, it’s just as important to focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) skills to help students maintain their mental and emotional well-being.

SEL skills are among the top priorities at the St. Thomas School, a PreK-8 Seattle-area school that went virtual the first week of March. Head of School Dr. Kirk Wheeler champions the importance of SEL skills, community, and a sense of belonging to unite the school, both in person and when the school suddenly went virtual.

St. Thomas School already had a one-to-one K-8 Microsoft Surface laptop program in place, ensuring all students had a device when learning went remote. Teachers use Microsoft OneNote to tailor students’ learning experiences and push out readings, tests, worksheets, and videos directly to students. Middle and high school students also use the tool to submit homework. St. Thomas School uses Microsoft Sway in its early learning center to deliver links, videos, and updates to parents.

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“I’m a big community culture person–it’s such a powerful human need,” Wheeler says. “One of my big concerns when we went remote was that we’d lose community and our sense of belonging. I didn’t want students, faculty, and parents just floating out there.”

The school’s teachers, specialists, and staff employ a number of strategies to keep developing students’ SEL skills and to continue cultivating a sense of belonging–even while students are learning from home.

“Part of what schools provide for families, and I think we forget this, is a sense of belonging, routine, ritual, and those elements are part of what helps us manage anxiety. I think when you lose the routines and rituals school offers, you suddenly really feel adrift,” Wheeler says. “So we’re building off things that already existed.”

1. Find a way to keep special routines going

School staff identified rituals and routines in place when everyone was meeting on campus and attempted to approach those routines differently given everyone’s virtual environments. Just continuing some of those simple routines have already made a difference for students and teachers.

St. Thomas School is a nonreligious independent school founded by an Episcopal church, and every morning the school holds chapel, which Wheeler says is more of a community meeting. Before schools physically closed, everyone at St. Thomas School gathers for 30 minutes to meet and focus on their goals, their values, and to gain a sense of belonging in the school community.

“We launched chapel virtually,” says Wheeler “It’s a very powerful routine. We use chimes to call everybody to focus their attention on our school community, and we’re doing that remotely as well. We also light a candle, and I invited students to safely light a candle during our virtual chapel to talk about the meaning of light in our lives.”

2. Use small group meetings to check on emotional well-being

At the middle school level, Wheeler says students continue to have small group adviser meetings, and those meetings are often emotional check-ins covering topics such as homework, life skills, organization and self-care, and staying focused during extended screen time.

Teachers in younger grades are hosting synchronous learning sessions. If students cannot attend those sessions, which Wheeler says can sometimes be challenging, teachers record those sessions and also record welcome videos and story hours.

“Also in those younger grades, smaller groups of 3-4 students have a 20-minute lesson with their teacher,” says Wheeler. “That really allows the teacher to take the pulse of how the kids are feeling.”

3. Keep in touch with teachers–adults can feel pressure, too

“I hold a meeting every Tuesday morning with all 75 of our faculty and staff–we use chat quite a bit,” notes Wheeler. “For example, I’ll ask everyone to write one word that describes how they’re feeling now that school will remain remote for the rest of the year. When you watch that chat flow, you get a really good gauge on how everyone is feeling. We do that with students as well.”

4. Make time for virtual special events and spirit days

Learning specialists, learning support associates, and counselors are holding virtual one-on-one sessions with students, but they’ve also created their own fun meetings for students. Those fun sessions include a Monday hot chocolate club, and a meeting where students bring an item, such as a stuffed animal, and have a chance to share it.

5. Be flexible

“Whether it’s around a sense of belonging, community, or academic, it all goes back to flexibility,” Wheeler says. “One of our mindset shifts has been trying less to replicate what we do in school and now do it online, but rather recognizing that we might want to approach this differently. We’re thinking about instruction, teaching, and learning quite differently.”

As for the fall, Wheeler says the school community is hopeful it will return to campus in September, but will follow state mandates and guidance.

“Having said that, we’re already in conversations focusing on what we would do differently and what have learned so far, so we can shape the fall if we have to make decisions or if we were mandated to not open,” he adds. “What if we open in September and then in November, there’s a second wave and we’re required to go remote for a month? We’re absolutely in those conversations. At this point, we have a little bit more time to think, plan for that, and do what we’re doing even better.”

Laura Ascione