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5 Ways to Bring Social Emotional Learning to Your In-Person or Virtual Classroom


No matter where students are learning from this year, they’re facing stressors and uncertainties like never before. From shifting learning environments to concerns about health and safety, students are navigating a range of emotional challenges before they even sit down for algebra.

As the adult often closest to kids (outside of family), teachers are stepping up to the plate and helping students process those big feelings we’re all experiencing — all while helping them keep up with learning. We talked to teacher experts in our community to hear how they’re serving students’ social and emotional needs throughout the school day.

Here’s what they shared!

Create time to build relationships and connections 

Building one-on-one bonds with students is more important than ever this year, but is proving extra tricky! With so many students learning digitally and with attendance and connectivity troubles running high, getting to know each students’ interests, struggles, and goals can feel like climbing a mountain. Teachers shared a few easy tactics for breaking the ice and helping students feel comfortable:

“I ask them about their weekend. They show me their pets. I talk to them as little people and they get to know me as well. They see that I am a real person and not just their teacher. By doing these things they see that I care about them and in turn they open up to me and are able to socialize via Zoom with myself and their classmates.”

“Something as simple as saying hi to each one of them and asking how they're doing has made my kids open up. I even offer days where if they all finish work on time we will take a few minutes out to play Among Us together... Seems menial but honestly they just want connection!”

“I send a lot of happy mail with all sorts of surprises and treats inside. Today I mailed them all this package (below) to help them work through their thoughts and feelings.”

DonorsChoose project ideas to bring this to life:

Tap technology as an ally in social and emotional learning

Technology has played a huge role in how we’ve stayed connected throughout the pandemic, and there are plenty of tactics to use in the classroom! From platforms to games, teachers are putting a range of technology to use in support of their students.

“Positive reinforcement has been huge. I use Canva, which has a free educator account, to make shout out posts that are very professional and put them up on ClassDojo for students that go above and beyond during our Zoom sessions.”

"We like to use Kahoot.it to keep the students engaged. It is a website where you can create interactive online games and quizzes and the students use their devices as responders. It works great both in person and during virtual instruction."

Nearpod Gold has a lot of awesome SEL-focused lessons that are short or long depending on the need. They have quick check-ins as well as more in-depth ones. I love it because it is a nice break for us and my students do a ton of great reflections!”

DonorsChoose project ideas to bring this to life:

  • Create a project for Nearpod, available on DonorsChoose through our vendor AKJ Education. Need inspiration? Check out Mrs. Manning’s Mrs. Manning’s project.
  • Create a project for paper and paint supplies for students to share their creativity virtually with one another. Need inspiration? Check out Mrs. Lopez Moreno’s project.

Open space for students to talk privately

Getting students to open up over video chat can feel especially tricky. Sometimes, all a student needs is to know the door is open for a private conversation, if ever they need it.

“I only see my kiddos for about an hour a week (visual arts) and we do a quick check-in at the beginning of class with a poll so other students can't see who selected the "I need to talk" option and I can follow up with students individually.”

“I have a form students can fill out if they need to talk. They can choose whether they want to talk to me, or a guidance counselor and they can just tell me the severity of the problem. I check it daily. I also have a link to SEL activities and encourage students to practice one a week.”

DonorsChoose project ideas to bring this to life:

Weave social and emotional learning through the curriculum 

Social and emotional learning is a lifelong skill. Building the topic into existing curriculum not only gives students a chance to practice their SEL skills, but it also gives students a novel way to connect with learning material.

“Every morning we start with a story that leads back to some SEL lesson. Not only do my students love being read to, but I love it because it leads to great discussions that seem easier to have. I love when students can share that they can relate to characters within the story. This opens up doors for them to talk about their emotions in a non-invasive way.”

“I am a music teacher and I have been doing a ton of movement activities to keep my kids engaged.”

“I’ve been making hands-on activity kits for my students to make/do at home! This gives them a break from the screen and helps to fill some of the “white space” in their days. It also provides an activity that we can all have in common and talk about together.”

DonorsChoose project ideas to bring this to life:

Have fun!

The most important advice teachers in our community shared is to have fun! There’s no feeling quite as great as making a room (or Zoom!) of 11 year olds laugh. Here are just a few ways teachers are making that happen.

“Playing silly games like ‘describe an object near you, and we will draw it and see how close we get to the real object’. I always do it with them and they love to see how terrible my drawings are! It makes me seem more human that I can make mistakes too.”

“I like to play instrumental music during transition and then anyone who can guess the song when we come back gets extra classroom points.”

“To keep them engaged during science lessons, I dress as a “mad scientist” complete with wig (blue or orange), goggles and lab coat. Tomorrow she will make another appearance as we make butter.”

DonorsChoose project ideas to bring this to life:

  • Post a project to create a bright and fun learning environment with posters and decor. Need inspiration? Check out Ms. Gregory’s project.
  • Create a project for puppets, teaching props, costumes, or silly disguises. Need inspiration? Check out Mrs. Betancourt’s project.
  • Create a project for a microphone headset so every student can hear you as you move around and can be heard. Need inspiration? Check out Dr. P’s project.
  • Create a project to bring a ‘guest reader’ to your classroom. Need inspiration? Check out Ms. Wong’s project for a virtual visitor.

Inspired to create a social and emotional learning project for your students? Get started!

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