Checking In So Students Don’t Check Out: SEL in Distance Learning & Hybrid Classrooms

Checking In So Students Don’t Check Out: SEL in Distance Learning & Hybrid Classrooms
Kate Mendoza September 23, 2020

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In my experience, students come to us with two kinds of backpacks: the one that holds their school supplies and the one that holds all their experiences prior to setting foot in our classrooms. My heart broke several times during my first-year teaching as I discovered how much the negative parts of our society had deeply affected my students. However, my heart was healed as I saw my students’ resilience, perseverance, and desire to achieve their goals. I realized that it was as much my responsibility to help them build the social-emotional skills needed to make their dreams a reality as it was to teach them academic standards. For the better part of a decade, I have researched and implemented many different social-emotional learning techniques and have seen students grow dramatically.

We’ve all been thrown for a loop this year in many different ways and we all feel deeply worried that our students are very much at risk in this pandemic. Schools are a safe place for many students, especially our vulnerable ones, and knowing that staff members on campus truly care for them is a major motivating reason for a lot of students to come to school. I have been fortunate to work with many incredible teachers and administrators, and at my current school I am lucky to be part of a team of dynamic, caring, and forward-thinking educators. One of the pieces I am enjoying the most right now in our team’s conversations is reflecting on how a fundamental element of instruction or culture-building can translate most effectively in a digital environment. I would argue that social-emotional learning is one of, if not the most, important pieces of a child’s education and as such, it must be included in all types of learning, virtual or not. Let’s dig into a list of some of the most critical pieces of social-emotional learning and how they can be applied in a virtual setting.

Social-emotional Learning in a Distance Learning or Hybrid Model

Checking in at the beginning of class

Knowing how students are doing at the beginning of class is a game changer if I ever knew one. Luckily, this can be done in many ways in a virtual setting:

  • Instead of holding it as students enter the classroom, an emoji poster can be displayed through a screen share or on a digital platform, such as Nearpod or Google Slides, and students can send you a private message with the word that describes how they are feeling that day.
  • Survey sites and online polls, such as Google Forms and Poll Everywhere, can be used to ask Entry Questions. These can be a great way to ask questions that provide insight into how students are feeling, such as “If today was an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be?”

For most of my teaching career so far, I’ve taught English Language Arts and Italian. I have learned a lot teaching two different subjects and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that many great instructional strategies transcend content areas, particularly when it comes to social-emotional learning. My favorite part of every school day has always been greeting students at the door because, just as with any beginning, there is opportunity to learn, connect and grow. One of my favorite ways to greet students is to hold a laminated sheet of paper with many different emojis on it and ask students to identify which one they are feeling at that moment. If it is for Italian class, the emojis are labeled in Italian and if it is for English Language Arts, they are labeled with high-level adjectives so that students can practice vocabulary as well. Doing this 10-second check-in with each student before the bell rings allows me to gauge how they are doing that day so that I can better teach them. If a student says they are feeling energetic, they might love an opportunity to help pass out papers or help with other classroom duties. If they say they are tired or sad, I know that they might need to be given some space and will likely not participate as much as they normally do. I will also know that I need to find time during class to check in with them one-on-one to see if they need support. Knowing the range of emotions that my students are feeling before the bell even rings gives me the chance to think of ways to help them and, most importantly, it lets them know that their emotional wellbeing is just as important as their academic progress.

One-on-one conversations

Just as in a brick-and-mortar classroom, one-on-one conversations can make all the difference when it comes to understanding the reasons behind a student’s behavior, and they provide one of the biggest opportunities for SEL through reflection and restorative practices. In my experience, when a student is having a rough day or is being disruptive, there is always a reason for it. Speaking with students individually instead of in front of the entire class lets the student be themselves, without the pressure that comes with being surrounded by their peers. Normally, this would happen right outside the classroom door, as the teacher positions themselves so that they can both observe their classroom and speak with the student. Here’s how that could look in a digital classroom:

  • Send a private message (if your platform allows it) or an email to a student, letting them know that you noticed they were “off” that day and asking what the reasons could be. This will open the door to a conversation that will most likely give you insight into what they need to be successful and learn from the experience.
  • Schedule a one-on-one check-in with the student, whether online or by phone. The power of this social-emotional technique is that students are given the opportunity to make sense of why they acted the way they did. This reflection is a chance for them to learn, with the teacher’s support, how to correct the current situation and develop the skills to choose a different path the next time.

Activities that promote self-expression, personalization, and student dialogue

One of the central pieces to social-emotional learning is providing chances for students to express who they are and connect with their classroom community in meaningful ways. Luckily, all of that can be done in a virtual classroom! Here are some ideas:

  • Allowing student choice in activities is a great way to provide personalization for students. Students can choose to draw their response and show it on camera in place of typing it, or they can record a verbal response in place of writing it if that works best for them. Nearpod has some fantastic activities embedded in their platform for students to draw or record their responses and Padlet provides opportunities for creative responses as well.
  • Community circles can easily be done in a digital classroom if acceptable norms are set (mics off while your peer is talking, snaps or other quiet hand signals to show support and appreciation). I find that low-stakes questions such as “What is your favorite candy?” can help students find common ground and over time develop the trust to ask deeper questions like, “What is one of your proudest moments?”

You can implement a variety of SEL classroom activities. With some imagination, and inspiration from this article, you can adapt any activity for a virtual environment.

Opportunities for feedback and reflection

Students, just like all stakeholders, appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on what is working and what could improve the classroom experience. When students have been in situations where they did not have a lot of input, knowing that they are an important part of a classroom community that values their feedback is a powerful thing.

  • Google Forms is a quick way to design surveys to gather meaningful feedback. Here are some questions I’ve asked that promote insightful responses:
    • What are your favorite ways to learn? Why?
    • What has been your favorite activity in this class? Why?
    • What could make this class better?
    • What types of activities would you like to see more of?

At its heart, social-emotional learning both creates an environment where students feel supported and part of a community—and builds the skills needed for our scholars to live happy, fulfilling lives. None of the strategies I’ve discussed are brand new ones for this year, but rather strategies I have been implementing for years. However, I think this represents an important lesson in the adventure that is teaching in 2020: we do not have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to redesign it a little by thinking of ways to make the most impactful pieces of our classrooms evident in our online setting. In a time where our most vulnerable students are more at risk than ever of slipping through the cracks, we must make sure that students know they are valued members of our classroom communities and that they are capable of achieving their goals. By checking in with students and providing them with opportunities to reflect, explore and grow, we are helping them build the skills they will need to navigate this pandemic and beyond.

Kate Mendoza is a secondary literacy instructional coach in Los Angeles. She is passionate about reading, languages and Italian food. You can find more at her blog.

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