The academic learning loss that has occurred over the past 18 months has been well documented and publicized. The problem is on everyone’s radar as we approach the return to school. But there’s another learning gap related to social emotional learning that’s equally harmful but not getting as much attention.
As we shift from a mainly remote environment back to physical classrooms, we’ll certainly see social emotional learning loss. And it’s not only students who will struggle with the shift back to in-person social situations. Many adults will struggle as well. We’ll need to provide the space, both physically and emotionally, for everyone to adjust.
Social emotional learning loss: the impact of remote education
Our social and emotional learning has been on a sabbatical while we’ve been remote. In many ways, virtual learning has shielded us from social challenges.
In Zoom or Google meetings, we can easily turn off the audio/visual to step away for a moment. We can mute anyone as our interest wanes. Staying alone in a room has been encouraged. Most homes have siblings and parents working from home, and separating everyone made that easier. However, it wasn’t ideal for our social skills.
Social emotional learning loss can be seen in how we have forgotten how to maintain attention throughout an entire conversation, how to present ourselves in person during meetings and interviews, and to manage the stress of being in proximity to one another.
The SEL challenges we will face when in-person learning resumes
Once our students begin attending school in person again, they will once again have to deal with being in a more crowded classroom, taking turns, staying attentive, and listening to others. After 18 months of remote learning, many of these skills are rusty. Increased behavioral issues in the classroom will make it harder for everyone to learn.
To address these losses and challenges, we can set up the learning environment to naturally regain some of the lost ground in their social emotional skills. In the process, we can help to fortify the adults so they are able to better support students.
How to set up the learning environment to boost SEL skills
Create opportunities for mentorship and behavior modeling
The highest level of learning mastery is when a student is able to teach another. This includes the social and emotional skills that some of our students possess.
Start by identifying those who have returned to school with their social emotional skills intact and functioning well in the classroom. Encourage them to become peer instructors, models, and guides. Relating to peers is an effective intervention for most students. Our students will typically listen more to their colleagues than to the adults in the room. Encouraging this kind of peer interaction provides the opportunity for mastery of social and emotional skills, increasing the likelihood of a sustained application.
The role of the teacher, then, will be to model the expected behaviors for the peer leaders.
This makes it imperative that the adults have an understanding of their own triggers and emotions. Just as we expect the students to work with their peers, teachers should use the opportunities available in the schedule to work with colleagues to overcome their own challenges. Take advantage of team meetings, Professional Learning Communities, and faculty meetings to explore the hurdles that staff members face individually and as a group.
Reinvent the classroom environment
To counteract the ravages of the pandemic, thoughtfully enhance the physical atmosphere of the classroom to support the development of SEL skills.
Provide space for stressed students to regroup in a quiet setting. Use headphones, soft materials, and visual separation such as study carrols and seating placement. For instance, a well-placed bean bag chair provides the following interventions:
- Sensory comfort to the body because of its shape and texture.
- By facing the student away from the rest of the class and toward a calming visual (like a poster), we diminish visual distraction and provide a focal point.
- If a headset is included, students can listen to reading material or music to help calm and focus them. Or, they can receive direct instruction from the teacher using a transmitter.
Setting up these areas around the classroom with specific activities can refocus students in various states of upset, while at the same time addressing educational objectives when possible.
Balance consistency and choices
During remote learning, maintaining consistency was difficult, if not impossible. We all know students respond best when they know what to expect. We need to re-establish a sense of consistency immediately upon returning to school.
We can set the tone right away when students enter the classroom. With a warm greeting at the door every day, explicit instructions about the day’s agenda and displaying the expectations of the day, we provide consistency that may not have existed in the remote setting. Doing so now will help students to feel connected.
At the same time, giving students the opportunity to choose helps them to feel like they belong in the classroom community. The key is to provide acceptable choices about the things students need to get done.
To use a common example from home, a parent might say, “You can eat your broccoli now or in two minutes.” When a child says, “Two minutes,” the parent’s reply should be along the lines of, “Fine, it’s up to you.” It’s important to react that way even (especially) when the child doesn’t make the choice you wanted.
You can use the same tactic in the classroom. Give a student the choice of two assignments. As the teacher, of course you want them to do both assignments. But giving them the opportunity to complete work they feel confident about, in a timeframe that’s comfortable, will encourage them over time to take risks with material they are hesitant to try.
Use self care as inspiration
This fall, we’ll all be going back to a routine that’s not quite what we’re used to. As we do that, we need to take a look at ourselves, recognize our own needs, and think about what’s helping us to cope and move forward.
How are we addressing our own challenges, or how might we do so? Do we need a little space, both physically and emotionally? Could we use a little more time to organize and get our work done? If we need to talk to someone, how do we identify the right person to guide us effectively? What other types of supports could we leverage?
Next, think about how your own challenges, and the ways you address them, could translate to the classroom setting.
That can serve as inspiration for how we can help students to regain their lost social and emotional skills in the coming school year.