As I navigate this school year, I am keenly aware of the ever-present power of change. Each day seems to bring a new challenge, a new policy, a new online platform, a new protocol, a new expectation, and at times, new quarantines. As educators, we take a deep breath, strengthen our resolve, and carry on. But what about our students? How are they navigating this new environment? Now more than ever, they need us to be aware of and support their social-emotional health and help them cultivate SEL skills.
In my work with gifted students, I’ve had the opportunity to develop strategies and purposeful activities for exploring and strengthening social emotional learning.
Realizing there is no single strategy or activity that will address every need was monumental. The SEL needs of my students are as varied as the students themselves. Therefore, I needed a well-stocked and easily accessed SEL toolbox. The ideas below are my most used and most effective tools.
Time matters: The power of belonging and being known cannot be overstated. The strength stemming from that connectedness empowers students to both survive and thrive. Set aside time each week for an individual chat with your students. Call them by name and engage them in a conversation that matters to them. This is not a time for discussions of missing assignments, test grades, or behavior issues. Use this time to really get to know the student. Show you are interested in their world.
In our current hybrid learning environments, these one-on-one conversations are even more potent. It will take a little more organizing to set up individual virtual meetings as opposed to chats on the playground or on the way to the lunchroom. But the effort is justified by the outcome. The sense of belonging and being known is sometimes dulled when filtered through a device. Take the extra time to connect to the faces in the squares on the screen. And remember, names are important. Know the name of every student.
Utilize SEL activities in content instruction: Soar with Wings: Social Emotional Skills for School and Life is a program partnership between Discovery Education and the AllState Foundation. These digital resources are fun and engaging for elementary students. Imagine students learning self-awareness and self-management through storytelling. Another bundle focuses on decision making skills utilizing games and playing. Our younger students naturally learn through play. Use that propensity to grow their SEL skills.
Our older students need a deeper dive into SEL skills. Spend some time exploring LG’s Experience Happiness Discover Your Happy content. This standards-aligned and science-based content focuses on the 6 Sustainable Happiness Skills of Mindfulness, Generosity, Human Connection, Gratitude, Positive Outlook and Purpose. Learning and strengthening these skills will empower students to protect their own happiness. As educators we know happy students learn more easily than unhappy students. Take time to foster their happiness self-help skills.
Gratitude gab: Begin each day with a time for sharing the good things happening in your classroom, your life and in the lives of your students. Gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving anymore so to speak. Speaking a simple “I am grateful for…” sentence engages a positive attitude. That positivity carries into the learning of the day. If class size and time constraints seem daunting, gift each student with a Gratitude Journal and a standing assignment for daily entries. This can be as simple as pages stapled together, a spiral notepad, a dollar store journal or a digital forum. It’s not about the medium as much as it is about the expectation of expressing gratitude. In virtual classrooms, consider creating gratitude journals as a daily activity or assignment within your delivery platform. Consider allowing video submissions as well as written entries.
Tink, think, talk: Provide each student a small bag of 6 random LEGO bricks. Give students the free choice of what to build. With only 6 bricks they can build and re-build throughout the exercise. Plus, it is much easier to manage the logistics of 6 bricks as opposed to large bins or buckets. As they “tinker,” get them thinking and talking. Be prepared with prompts like “Tell me about your morning” or “How do you feel about…?” or another open-ended question that requires thinking and self-exploration. As the students focus on the bricks their minds let go of filters and inhibitions. They speak a little more freely about emotions. They can share without the intimidation of eye contact because they are focused on the bricks. For virtual students, send home baggies of bricks. This is especially important in hybrid classrooms with both in-person and virtual learners. By having the same kinds of supplies, the students are on a level playing field.
Opportunities for success and failure: Students learn from both success and failure. Be prepared for both. Consider utilizing interest and learning inventories for learning about your students. Allow for student choice in learning and assessments. Celebrate successes individually and collectively. Foster a learning environment which sees failure as First Attempt In Learning. Encourage students to keep working through to a solution. Building capacity for perseverance is one of the greatest tools in any social emotional toolbox.
All in this together: Build a strong team for students. Include parents on your team whenever possible. Both Soar with Wings and Experience Happiness have parent resources. Empower parents to be positive social emotional influences in the lives of their children. Don’t forget your virtual team. Empower yourself as an educator by connecting with likeminded educators. There are multiple online platforms which offer support and networking. The Discovery Education Network or DEN has members from around the world all focused on rich discussions, best practices, meaningful collaborations and impactful professional development. LEGO Education has an online community offering lesson plans, idea starters, an Inspiration Corner, discussion groups along with product support. A strong professional learning network nurtures strong, empowered educators who in turn nurture empowered, engaged learners.
Creativity is good for the soul: The act of creating reduces stress and anxiety. Foster the creative talents of students by incorporating opportunities to “make”. Makerspaces are quite simply spaces for students to imagine and create. Consider stocking a corner shelf or portable bins with random art and building supplies. Give students time to imagine and create. Utilize online, kid friendly instructional videos for learning new skills like painting, knitting, sculpting, etc. Don’t forget virtual creativity. Platforms like Google Draw and Google Slides allow for student creativity within a protected Google Education environment. You may be surprised by the quality of projects and assessments when you allow creativity into the equation.
Laughter is the best medicine: It really is true! Take time to laugh with your students. Your laughter and joy are contagious. A corny joke or funny story that leaves everyone laughing will not only brighten the mood, but it will strengthen the sense of community. Something as simple as preprinted jokes on pieces of candy can become a much-loved morning ritual.
As we continue to navigate the ever-changing world of education amidst a global pandemic, is it more important than ever to support the social and emotional well-being of our students. Know your students. Build relationships. And have a well-equipped toolbox of strategies and activities.