By: Stacey Craig, NC Resilience & Learning Project Consultant

On March 26, the Urban Assembly and SEL4US hosted the second annual International SEL Day, with the theme “Building Bonds, Reimagining Communities.” Leading organizations in the field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), including the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), as well as Panorama and their many partners, have promoted this event as a day to honor the importance of SEL in education, especially this year. The day was perfectly timed,  just as many staff and students began to  navigate an upcoming transition to in-person learning for the first time this school year.

The transition back to full-time or hybrid in-person learning is causing a lot of apprehension, overwhelm and anxiety for many, just as the transition to remote learning did last year. These feelings and concerns are natural when approaching a major adjustment such as this one. While the availability of a vaccine is becoming more and more widespread, the pandemic continues to be with us, leaving us with many unanswered questions toward the end of a year where school staff, families and students alike have experienced so much collective stress and trauma. Many educators are rushing to prepare for fuller classrooms and hybrid teaching methods, while at the same time feeling burnt out and unable to take on “one more thing.”

Thankfully, leading organizations like CASEL and Panorama have highlighted a number of basic ways educators and schools can support a positive transition, using tools and methods already close at hand.

Below, you’ll find a compilation of the two organizations’ recommendations, focused on the simplest and most accessible ways educators can integrate SEL into their classrooms to help students (and themselves) regulate and reconnect throughout the transition.

#1. Treat yourself and other educators with lots of compassion. 

Give yourself some grace. A lot of it. And give it to others, too. Every phase of this year is new all over again, and no one yet has the answers as to exactly how it goes. Things will not go as planned or desired. Frustrations and disappointments will be felt. And that’s ok. As a wise educator once said to me recently, “The best I can do is the best I can do, and that’s enough.” The same drive to do our best to help students succeed can lead us to hold ourselves (and others) to rigid standards. Let doing one’s best in each circumstance be your standard, even if that sometimes doesn’t look the way you think it “should.”

Self-compassion is the foundation of self-care, which is the foundation of resilience. In essence, self-compassion means recognizing our own experience, accepting it as human and shared, and being warm and understanding toward ourselves. Far from undermining responsibility or giving excuses, self-compassion allows us to be truly honest with ourselves, so we can keep showing up to the best of our ability.

For more information on increasing resilience through self-compassion, see this brief summary article for educators, or Dr. Kristen Neff’s webinar, “Self-Compassion for Educators” parts one and two. CASEL and Panorama also offer resources including the Signature Practices Playbook and the Adult SEL Toolkit to help school staff build resilience through compassionate and supportive community. For those who could use a space to share what this current time in education is like, the National Educators for Restorative Practices (NEDRP) offers free listening circles online three times weekly.

#2. Check in regularly with how students, and others, are doing. 

Having regular times and ways of asking students how they are doing, including confidential ways they can respond, can go a long way in promoting SEL, resilience and learning. Panorama recommends 3-5 simple questions at a time, asked early, often, and consistently.  They offer a free questions bank to pull from, with a variety of questions for grades 3-12 assessing Student Wellbeing, SEL Competencies, and General Classroom Feedback. Another check in method is routine “Rose, Bud and Thorn” journaling, or opening circle round during morning meetings or advisory times, either in-person and/or remotely. For younger students, check-ins can be adapted by asking them to identify their current feeling using colors or faces.

Not only do responses to these check ins give opportunity for educators and schools to better understand students and their needs, but even just genuinely asking the questions has benefits. When students are asked questions about themselves in non-intrusive and low-pressure ways, this builds their self-awareness, a core SEL competency. Just labeling emotions and experiences also supports emotion regulation and helps build up these skills in the brain.

#3. Show them you’re listening.

The other benefit of checking in regularly with students, is giving them the felt sense that the school community has their back. The only way this can be communicated, however, is by showing students that you are listening to what they share. This can be by providing additional support to individual students, or by incorporating certain types of SEL practice into the school day. Panorama recommends using information gathered in check-ins to identify 1-2 focus areas which are the highest impact and highly actionable. For example, if it appears that students are struggling with relationships, build in opportunities for students to build relationships and learn relationship skills, during morning meeting or advisory, transition times, and/or integrated as a part of academic practice.

#4. Foster adult-student relationships.

Trusting relationships between students and adults are the #1 means for giving students the sense of safety and engagement they need to learn to their potential. And there are some surprisingly simple and adaptable ways to build these relationships, though the primary ingredient from adults is always a cultivated but genuine interest and belief in who each student is. One simple but powerful research-based strategy is the “2 x 10” Strategy. Spend 2 minutes talking with a particular student about anything other than school for 10 consecutive days. Use of this strategy has been found to improve behavior and classroom climate. Relationship Mapping is another strategy for helping to ensure each student has a positive relationship with at least one adult at the school.

#5. Give plenty of time and space to reestablish and practice structure. 

It is hard to help students know what to expect when educators don’t yet, either. This makes giving sufficient time to get used to new routines and ways of doing things all that much more important for everyone. Predictability and consistency is another key factor in creating a felt sense of safety and setting the stage for learning. Investing time to explain and practice expectations and routines, old and new, will pay dividends in student productivity. Have and encourage patience in this process, with yourself and with students. Every mistake is another opportunity to review and practice, just like with academic content, and it’s ok if things take a while to get used to.

#6. Recognize stress reactions and practice regulation skills throughout the day. 

When under a lot of stress and during a period of change in structure, students may not really understand why they are acting the way they are acting. When adults understand students are under stress, they can help them have compassion for their big feelings, as well as work on positive ways to cope with them. Compassion for personal feelings and needs, as well as positive strategies for self-regulating, can be taught and practiced in various times and ways throughout the school day. Brief and playful “brain breaks” can help students persevere in the long run, and inserting brief mindfulness activities after routine transitions can help students settle and refocus. These activities are good for teachers as well as students, helping everyone get their regulation needs met throughout a long day. AND the repetition of these activities actually shapes student brains for reestablishing calm and maintaining self-control.

SEL calls us to honor that we are all humans and not machines, which can be so hard to do in this high pressure, high stakes environment. Letting SEL be the mortar that can keep school communities together will keep the foundation for learning and achievement strong, through this transition and those to come.

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