Students need to develop both academic and social emotional skills to be successful in the 21st century world, where technology, access to information, and work/school routines are rapidly changing. Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, application of knowledge to novel situations, and the ability to self-direct will become increasingly important as today’s students move into their future. At the same time, students need to develop empathy and compassion to connect with others and build cultural competence to navigate a complex and diverse world.
Traditionally, educators have supported the development of these important skills within in-person classroom settings. They now have the opportunity to reinforce these life skills through virtual environments. Creating a healthy, equitable, and inclusive digital space, where deeper learning and meaningful relationships can take place, does not happen spontaneously. Educators need to intentionally create the social and emotional conditions that support the development of these skills, attitudes, and relationships in all students as they mature.
Social emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which all people acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.1 Through effective and ongoing SEL instruction and support, educators can provide the safe and supportive digital communities for students to thrive.
California is committed to ensuring that SEL instruction is a part of every student’s school experience, as exemplified by the state’s participation in the Collaborating States Initiative hosted by the Collaborative for Academic Learning and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the creation of California’s SEL Guiding Principles2 and SEL Resource Guide.3 In 2020, the Advance SEL in California Campaign was launched to gather large-scale input from educators, school leaders, and families and share best SEL practices to support students dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The work culminated with a final report that includes recommendations for advancing transformative SEL in California.4 Considering how to strategically integrate SEL practices and programs in online and blended spaces is a critical priority for educators as they reimagine the future of students and education.
The 2020 global pandemic brought to light the persistent inequities affecting the income, education, and health infrastructures in the United States, which disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), individuals with visible and non-visible disabilities, and those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness. As schools work to strengthen their distance learning and blended programs, SEL becomes an essential tool not only for supporting student mental health, engagement, and resilience through the development of essential SEL skills, but also to “foster community-level responsibility and empowerment”5 through centering systemic efforts in collective well-being and the pursuit of a more equitable and socially-just society.
In developing the California Digital Learning Integration and Standards Guidance, a focus group of students were convened in partnership with Californians for Justice to discuss their reflections after a year of technology-infused learning in 2020 and 2021. The students shared that a priority of teachers should be to build a supportive and genuine relationship with their students. Several students shared how challenges in their personal lives impeded their learning process. The challenges they faced included having to care for siblings and helping them with their schoolwork, being the primary caretaker of ill family members, and experiencing the loss of loved ones. They found that managing these unforeseen circumstances made them feel “out of control,” which sometimes led to difficulties in focusing, procrastination, and declines in academic performance.
Other students expressed that in a face-to-face classroom environment, they may have found it difficult to speak directly with teachers about these circumstances. However, in a digital learning environment, students were able to use private-messaging functions built into various video conferencing tools or even text their teachers directly. Some teachers responded by providing flexibility with assignments, while others were open to hosting one-on-one conversations remotely to check in with the student and hear their concerns. “Treating your students like people, I think is…a start to building a relationship,” one student emphasized.
Students suggested strategies to help foster supportive and genuine student-teacher relationships, including mental health checks, such as those sent privately to the teacher through Google Forms, and setting aside a day to place less emphasis on academics, thereby providing a safe, open space for students to discuss the world around them. For example, teachers can provide opportunities for students to discuss issues and current events that may cause trauma and stress.
Creating equitable and inclusive digital communities requires schools and districts to purposefully center their SEL efforts in nurturing these authentic relationships in service of equity and social justice also known as transformative SEL. According to CASEL, this form of SEL is aimed promoting social justice through increased engagement in school and civic life. It emphasizes the development of identity, agency, belonging, curiosity, and collaborative problem solving.6 After 20+ years of growth in the SEL field, a need has arisen to shift the focus from individual-level skills, which prioritize individual responsibility, to developing these skills in service of collective healing and shared responsibility. Within a digital space, adopting a transformative SEL approach prompts educators to consider not only students’ equitable access to technology, but also centers students’ lived experiences and views their identities as an asset within the learning process. Advancing transformative SEL implementation in service of educational equity means that cultural integration is a core principle in distance learning environments.
SEL is not just about the students; it is also about the adults: “the social and emotional competencies of the adults in the building matter, and they matter a lot” (Martínez Pérez, 2021). In fact, a report collecting lessons learned from six years of systematic SEL implementation in some of the largest urban school districts in the U.S. found that SEL initiatives were more successful when schools consider teachers’ own social and emotional competencies.7 Educators cannot teach what they do not understand, practice, or intentionally model. In addition, adults need support to explore their unconscious bias and develop assets-based mindsets to their work with underserved students. To create healthy and supportive digital communities, consider the SEL strengths and needs of the adults supporting children, and engage them in a continuous process of reflection about their values, views, assumptions, and biases.
This chapter provides background information related to the impact of emotions on learning and well-being, the importance of relationships in digital spaces, and adult SEL competencies. Then, CASEL’s five social and emotional dimensions are presented through an equity lens, and strategies are offered to teach and infuse SEL in distance learning.
Cultivating Educator and Student Well-Being
Educational practices and programs that promote SEL have a positive impact on students’ academic performance, classroom behavior, ability to manage stress and depression, and attitudes about self, others, and school (Durlak et al., 2011). Although the research connecting distance learning and SEL is still emerging, there is a broad consensus among parents, educators, students, and scientists that SEL matters and has an impact.
When teaching remotely, teachers can create safe and supportive environments that improve students’ ability to engage and learn, where students’ identities are affirmed, and a sense of belonging is nurtured. In digital spaces, educators can feel competent, purposeful, show compassion towards themselves and others, and work to create partnerships with families and community organizations.
When educators teach and promote SEL in a virtual environment, they are building individuals’ capacity to integrate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to accomplish important tasks in daily life, acquire the tools for digital citizenship, and increase their well-being.
Emotions Impact Learning
Maria, a Kindergarten student enrolled in distance learning, rushes to open her tablet when she realizes that her device has no power. She calls for help, but her parents are both in virtual meetings and cannot help her. She becomes increasingly frustrated as she tries to find the charger, which she finally finds under her notebooks and folders. When she accesses the link for her morning class, it takes her teacher what feels like an eternity to let her in the virtual room. By the time she can see her teacher and classmates, she feels agitated and keeps tapping the raise-hand-icon so she can share with her teacher why she is late to the morning meeting. When it is Maria’s turn to greet the teacher, she has her head down on the table.
Maria’s teacher realizes right away that something had made her very upset and asks her about it. During the virtual morning meeting, Maria has an opportunity to share why she was late and is encouraged to name her feelings. She feels better after that and is able to engage with the day’s lesson.
Emotions are an important part of human life, and they greatly influence students’ readiness for learning, including in digital spaces. Emotions drive a person’s attention; they influence one’s ability to process information, learn new concepts, and make decisions. If this teacher had not recognized Maria’s emotional state and helped her to process these feelings through the digital morning meeting, it would have been difficult for Maria to pay attention that morning. Students need a space where they can process their feelings, refocus if needed, and prepare for learning.
In recent years, new knowledge about human development from neuroscience and the science of learning and development has demonstrated that emotions and social relationships strongly influence learning (Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018). Dr. Immordino-Yang, affective neuroscientist and human-development psychologist, states that “emotions form a critical piece of how, what, when, and why people think, remember and learn” (2015). These findings have important implications for teaching and learning in virtual spaces because young people need to understand and process their emotions in order to engage in complex thought or make meaningful connections about new concepts. Learning is impaired when students are fearful, traumatized, or overcome by challenging emotions. Therefore, educators play an important role in creating an emotional environment that is conducive to learning in virtual spaces.
Educators might reflect on their own experiences with online meetings. They may have felt excited to see their colleagues, curious to get new information, or accepted by a supportive community. If teachers experienced any of these feelings, they were probably attentive, focused, and receptive to new information during the meeting. However, if they felt unseen or dismissed in an online space, they were more likely focused on these feelings than on the content of the meeting.
The same is true for students—pleasant emotions, such as curiosity, acceptance, and excitement—support meaningful learning. While other emotions, such as rejection, dismissal, or fear, hinder students’ ability to pay attention, follow directions, or authentically engage with the material presented to them. In summary, the emotions children and youth experience originating in the distance learning environment influence students’ engagement and performance.
It is critical to consider the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are stressful or traumatic events children experience before age 18 that negatively impact the nervous system and the ability to regulate emotion. Virtual spaces do not immunize BIPOC, neurodiverse students, or children from low-income backgrounds from experiencing stress and microaggressions. It is critical for educators to understand the emotions students bring from life outside of the classroom, as well as those originating in the virtual space, and how they impact their ability to engage, perform, and thrive in online environments. Once teachers are familiar with the critical role that emotions play in learning, they can design educational experiences that support students as they navigate the demands of their diverse contexts and engage with instructional content.
Strategies to Incorporate Emotions in the Virtual Classroom8
- Give students choice. Choice, when provided in a structured manner, can motivate students and instill a sense of ownership over the learning process. Educators can make it possible for students to choose their research topic, ways to complete a task, or how to show mastery of a standard.
- Help students relate the materials discussed in class to their life and personal interests. The brain does not pay attention to things that are irrelevant and not of interest. Students will be able to pay more attention and focus for longer periods of time when the material presented in their virtual classroom is meaningful to them. Educators can get to know their students by using surveys or personal inventories, in which students share their likes, dislikes, their hobbies, special interests, and/or people in their lives.
- Create opportunities to solve open-ended problems. Highly prescriptive activities most likely provide little opportunity for emotional engagement. Engaging students in activities, such as classroom discussions, work groups, or project-based learning, in which students can wrestle with problems that do not necessarily have a right/wrong answer, provide opportunities for meaningful engagement. This engagement in virtual or blended settings allows or encourages students to establish the emotional connections that are important for cognitive learning.
- Offer a variety of tasks and activities. Educators can use different platforms and strategies to engage students in diverse ways. During synchronous and asynchronous time, educators can use tools such as digital manipulatives, instructional videos, interactive tools, or have students record mock-ups or engage in discussion boards. Providing this variety helps students build confidence with certain tools and grow their ability to use others.
- Include regular check-ins with students (beginning, during and/or at the end of the day/class). Regular check-ins might include engaging with mood meters during virtual classroom meetings, starting class with a song, or asking students to share how they are feeling using chat or a digital whiteboard. The goal is to create a welcoming environment for students to check-in with each other and build a sense of community. It also provides the opportunity for teachers to note students who are unusually quiet or visibly upset. As an active participant in the check-in, the teacher models how to name and express feelings appropriately.
- Create space and/or provide time in the virtual classroom to refocus. Teachers can schedule quiet time or a peaceful breakout room for students to take a breath or do free drawing. The idea is to help students refocus and de-stress, so they can get ready for learning. A short time devoted to these strategies may support sustained focus in the long term.
- Incorporate “brain breaks,” “energy boosters,” and physical movement. Brains are wired for novelty. Educators can enhance virtual learning by providing short activities to refresh students’ thinking, breaking up predictable and repetitive processes, and moving students away from their devices. Regular physical activity improves memory, concentration, and positive outlook. Physical movement can be easily incorporated in online learning through free platforms, such as Go Noodle, where students dance and move their bodies following instructions from a recorded video. It can also be done during asynchronous time, where students log physical activity, create and share games that involve physical movement, or record themselves playing or dancing.
Nurturing Positive Relationships in Digital Spaces
Children’s relationships with adults are an essential ingredient for learning and healthy development. When positive relationships exist between students and teachers in the classroom, students are more likely to use their teachers as resources to solve problems, actively engage in learning activities, and better navigate the demands of school.
According to research in developmental science, positive relationships create not only the developmental pathways for lifelong learning, adaptation, and integration of social, emotional, and cognitive skills, but also make qualitative changes to a child’s genetic expression (Osher et al., 2018). Brains change in response to the experiences, relationships, and environments encountered from birth into adulthood.
Positive relationships also foster resilience, and reduce the impact that negative factors, such as ACEs, may have on children’s healthy development. In other words, positive relationships are a protective factor for all students, but especially young people dealing with chronic stress, trauma, and impact of ACEs.
It is important for educators to examine their biases when considering how to build trust and foster positive relationships with students and families who are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse. By developing cultural competence, educators can gain awareness of their own cultural identity and how they perceive differences with their students and families. Differences in social and cultural background and circumstances make it more difficult for some people to trust others. This trust gap may hinder students’ ability to meaningfully engage with peers, teachers, and classroom content. To further foster productive, positive relationships, educators can learn about and build on the rich cultural and community assets of students and their families.
In digital spaces, it is critically important that educators intentionally design and implement practices that create a sense of emotional and identity safety, belonging, and connection. Teachers can create virtual spaces that intentionally cultivate trusting relationships, affirm and celebrate students’ backgrounds and assets, and foster a sense of belonging and community. Teachers who build classroom cultures that prioritize mechanisms of support and focus on cultivating relationships are likely to be less reliant on traditional punishment when challenges inevitably arise.
Strategies to Nurture Positive Relationships in Digital Spaces
- Engage in personal reflection. Educators can examine their teaching philosophy, beliefs and values, and the way culture has influenced their lives. They can reflect on their identity and learned biases9 and how these may impact their expectations and relationships with students and families.
- Learn about each student. Educators can invest time learning about their students and their cultural identities and history. Students can create identity artifacts museums10 with items from home that are important to them or complete an inventory of their likes and dislikes. Educators can incorporate what they learn about students in their lessons and during interaction with students.
- Create intentional routines that nurture emotional connection. Distance learning does not need to mean disconnected. Educators can create circles of gratitude for students to share something they appreciate about themselves or their online learning community. Invite students to share about non-academic topics (i.e., their favorite sports or TV shows). Educators may encourage positive emotional connections with students by sharing appropriate personal information (i.e., show a picture of their pet, share a favorite song, mention a new skill that they are trying to learn, etc.). It is important for students to connect with the adult behind the screen.
- Routinely engage students in team-building activities. Team-building activities may be used either as a whole group or in breakout rooms. Educators might let students choose their groups based on personal interests and hobbies, or partnering students so they can get to know each other and discuss topics related to distance learning or their lives outside of school.
- Co-create norms and expectations with students. Allowing students to create ground rules of how the group will function enhances students’ ownership and accountability over the learning process. Students can remind each other when they stray from the group’s plan and discuss how to get back on track. This also shows that educators trust students to self-organize and co-regulate.
- Communicate to students a belief in their ability to learn. Effective teachers hold high expectations for students, while providing the appropriate amount of support. As students navigate learning in a virtual space, it is important that educators build their confidence while continuing to challenge them to do their best work.
- Offer unconditional positive regard for each student. Unconditional, positive regardis not contingent on compliance, finishing work, or good grades. When students feel that they are worthy of care, they are more likely to seek help, be motivated to finish schoolwork, or pay attention during virtual meetings.
- Build partnerships with families. Educators can learn about students’ families, their beliefs, hopes and dreams, and traditions. Consider inviting family members to the classroom in-person or remotely to share information about special celebrations, careers, or appropriate community activities. Regularly communicate with families through multiple methods, such as phone calls, virtual meetings, mail, and emails.
As schools and districts strengthen distance learning programs, their SEL initiatives should include supporting the social and emotional capacity of educators and staff working with children and youth. Adult SEL skills not only support educators as they build their resilience and face the emotional challenges that come with teaching, but also positively impact the learning environment:11
- Teachers’ social and emotional competencies influence the quality of teacher-student relationships. Teachers who are calm, positive, and content are likely to be better equipped for teaching students warmly and sensitively, even when students behave in challenging ways.
- Teachers model SEL skills, intentionally or not. Students pay attention to how teachers navigate stressful situations. They learn from how their teachers deal with conflicts or respond to challenging behavior, and whether or not they foster a prosocial classroom environment.
- Teachers’ social and emotional skills influence classroom organization and management. Maintaining a sense of calm, being organized, and cultivating social trust can promote a supportive distance classroom.
Teaching is a highly demanding profession, physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Prior to the pandemic, almost 60% of teachers reported being under great stress. Before COVID-19, 200,000 teachers left the profession, with nearly two out of three for reasons other than retirement.12 This teacher turnover is estimated to cost $7 billion per year in the U.S.13 However, there can be a perception that educator burnout is the individual responsibility of each teacher, rather than looking at the systemic organizational issues that are often responsible for teacher burnout and attrition. Although any teacher can take steps to develop their social and emotional capacity, having support from school and district administration is essential in increasing educators’ effectiveness, building adult connections, and maintaining their well-being in the long term.
Organizational Strategies to Nurture Educator Well-Being
- Collect and analyze data from teachers and school personnel using online surveys to identify their strengths and current social and emotional needs with tools, such as the Educator Resilience and Trauma-Informed Self-Care tool from the Center on Great Teachers & Leaders.14
- Establish space and time for staff to come together with the goal of strengthening their relationships, and problem solve together ways to build a healthy school community. Schools can hold virtual circles, where staff can share their feelings, challenges, and how they would like to be supported.15 This can also be an informal check-in at the end of the meeting, where teachers share in the chat how they feel.
- Examine how the distance work conditions and school structures and resources support online educator well-being. Consider providing support for educators to develop a self-care plan and have a well-being buddy, and alternate video conference meetings with other types, such as walk-and-talk meetings. Support educators as they reflect on their values, views, assumptions, and biases when working with BIPOC, neurodiverse individuals, or those coming from low-income backgrounds.
- Ensure access to trauma and mental health support for staff.
- Include well-being goals or activities in professional development plans to facilitate the development of adult SEL skills, and consider tools to effectively deal with stress. Incorporate virtual mindfulness, yoga, or journaling in staff meetings. Consider providing teachers with different choices for their professional development plans.
- Check-in with teachers and school personnel on a regular basis, communicate and celebrate individual and group accomplishments, acknowledge challenges, and be open to feedback. For instance, administrators can host virtual office hours or remote coffee with the principal.
Infusing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Online Teaching and Learning
Effective, deep learning is dependent upon trusting, meaningful, and supportive relationships between educators and students. Motivation, engagement, and a sense of belonging are established and maintained over time through these relationships. The screen necessary for virtual learning may become a barrier to connecting with students and an obstacle for learning unless educators intentionally plan to teach and infuse SEL in their online instruction.
Educators can infuse SEL in virtual environments by using the five broad, interrelated areas of competence established by CASEL known as the CASEL 5. The definitions presented below are grounded in transformative SEL and have an equity lens:16
Self-awareness: The understanding of one’s emotions, personal and social identities, goals, and values, including the ability to accurately assess strengths and limitations, having positive mindsets, and possessing a well-grounded sense of self-efficacy. High levels of self-awareness require the ability to recognize one’s own biases; understand the links between one’s personal and collective history and identities; critically self-analyze; and recognize how thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected in and across diverse contexts.
Self-Management: The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacities to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation and agency to accomplish personal/collective goals. Perseverance and the ability to proactively address personal and group-level challenges to achieve collectively defined goals are indicators of high levels of self-management.
Social Awareness: The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. This involves having the critical historical context to practice perspective-taking with individuals of various backgrounds and cultures. It also involves understanding social norms for prosocial behavior in diverse interpersonal and institutional settings and recognizing family, school, and community resources and supports for personal and collective well-being.
Relationship Skills: The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. This includes the interpersonal sensibilities needed to establish and maintain healthy relationships and to effectively navigate settings with differing social and cultural norms. Active listening, clear communication, constructively negotiating conflict, offering leadership, seeking help, working collaborative, and resisting social pressures are all indicators of competence in the relationship skills domain.
Responsible Decision-Making: The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This incorporates the cultivation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to make caring, constructive choices about personal and group behavior in social interactions within and across diverse settings that prioritize collective health and well-being. It requires the ability to critically examine ethical standards and behavioral norms while making realistic evaluations of benefits and consequences for one’s actions.
How Can SEL Be Infused in Virtual Classrooms?
These important social and emotional skills can be enhanced by using three key implementation strategies in the virtual classroom:
Explicit instruction. This strategy refers to teaching the specific SEL skills and attitudes in developmentally, contextually, and culturally-responsive ways. When starting to teach SEL in the online classroom, explicit instruction is very important because it provides students and teachers a common language to communicate and discuss daily issues and routines.
Teaching practices that enhance students’ SEL skills. Teachers intentionally plan and organize activities in the virtual environment to provide students with the opportunity to practice, apply, and extend SEL skills. Teaching practices, including activities such as cooperative learning, project-based learning, asking students to understand another person’s perspective, guiding students to accept and act upon feedback, or allowing students to make choices about their own learning, all require students to use their SEL skills.
Integrate SEL with academic content. By integrating SEL with content, teachers can connect the content and vocabulary of their SEL instruction with their English language arts, English language development, mathematics, science, social studies, and health instruction.
In addition, SEL instruction is most effective in nurturing environments among students and teachers who have positive and caring relationships. Establishing emotional connections, creating trust, and developing educator social and emotional capacity are essential conditions to creating these healthy and inclusive digital spaces. A supportive environment is created when:
- expectations, norms, and routines are co-created and represent the diverse perspectives of students and educators with the goal of creating psychological safety and belonging;
- identities and cultures are uplifted and promoted by the school community, and inequitable practices are challenged and dismantled;
- relational trust drives the learning environment, and students and teachers are supported to learn from mistakes with a restorative approach to discipline;17
The five broad, interrelated areas of competence established by CASEL serve as a framework for infusing SEL in a virtual environment. Strategies include the following:
Incorporate emotional check-ins daily. Educators can support students’ self-awareness skills by starting lessons with an emotional check-in. This is a time when teachers and students come together to connect and reflect on how things are going. It sets the tone for the day or that particular class. To help students communicate their feelings, educators can use a scale, such as, “On a scale of 1-10, how bored are you feeling?” or “Are you feeling a little lonely, somewhat lonely, or very lonely?” In addition, teachers can use apps like Mood Meter, Padlet, or Mentimeter to help students name their emotions and thoughts, and create a visual representation of the data. This is an opportunity for educators to model, so they should also share their feelings, while gathering important information about their students. If most students are overwhelmed, sad, or frustrated, educators may need to support students to process these feelings before starting to address any academic content.
Encourage students to express their feelings in non-verbal ways. Educators can model and normalize expressing emotions by giving students opportunities to express themselves in nonverbal ways. This may include drawing a picture on a digital whiteboard about how their lesson or day is going or showing the most important thing that happened to them that day. Teachers can complete this exercise first and share with students to model how to share with others in a way that feels safe and helps them feel connected.
Support students in exploring their multiple identities. An important part of helping students develop self-awareness is supporting them to explore their cultural values, consider their sense of belonging to different groups, and develop their self-efficacy. Lessons plans on identity from Learning for Justice can support educators in elementary, middle, and high school and can be easily adapted for the virtual classroom.18
Help students identify their strengths and assets. Students who can identify their strengths will be more likely to build on them to face academic challenges and improve their areas of growth. Educators can support students in exploring their strengths by having students complete a personal inventory,19 or by providing feedback about what they observe in the virtual classroom. Students’ assets can be related to academics, but they can also incorporate students’ character strengths or skills that students have in other areas, such as music, art, or cooking.
Acknowledge and help students identify their emotional reactions to different online learning activities and topics presented in the virtual space. Students may display different emotions depending on their prior experience in distance learning. For example, students who may have been bullied or felt unsafe in online spaces may be hesitant to turn on their cameras, participate in breakout rooms, and engage in whole-class discussions. Furthermore, different subjects can also generate a variety of feelings: certain students will feel excited about science projects, while others may be uninterested. Explicitly bringing these emotions into the virtual conversation can help teachers know their students better and normalize the fact that individuals have different feelings.
Teach and incorporate mindfulness and self-soothing exercises to help students navigate their feelings. When educators notice their students come to the virtual space agitated, they can encourage self-regulation by teaching simple breathing techniques, such as four-corner breathing. This exercise involves inhaling deeply and exhaling deeply four times. Students can complete this breathing exercise by standing up and taking one inhale and exhale breath while facing each of the four corners in a home room. There are several free apps that educators can use in their classrooms, such as Insight Timer, Calm, or Smiling Mind with guided meditations for children and youth.
Teach students to recognize the physical signs that indicate the body is going into stress mode. This is very important in online environments since teachers are not in the same physical space with students and may miss information. When students are able to identify these signs, they can more effectively choose a strategy to avoid a meltdown. Educators can use the “Hand Model” of the brain to help students understand how brains react to stress.20
Identify the stress and discrimination that students experience inside and outside the virtual classroom. When teaching students to navigate their emotions and respond constructively to their virtual environment, educators should acknowledge how the sociopolitical context impacts students’ emotional experiences and their ability to cope with stress.21 Violent and discriminatory events may influence students’ emotional health and increase their stress levels. Educators can support students by creating a safe space where students can express and regulate their emotions, acknowledging these societal challenges, and working with students to pursue collective solutions.22
Support students’ executive functioning skills. During distance learning, it is important to support students to develop effective ways to manage their time and get organized. They can benefit from using tools that help them stay on track, such as using timers as well as digital calendars embedded in LMS. Choosing an accountability buddy or closing all tabs when they are in a virtual classroom will support students’ executive functioning skills. The goal is helping students stay engaged and aware of the distractions they may face.
Discover negative self-talk. Many times, when individuals make an error, they tell themselves negative things when they discover their mistakes. This is true for both educators and students. These negative thoughts can limit individuals’ ability to be present and do their best work. Teachers can describe a time when they made a mistake, the negative things that they told themselves, and encourage students to come up with alternative thoughts that would have been more helpful and supportive for that situation. Students can create a virtual collage using Padlet or Jamboard of positive statements that everybody can use when they feel stuck or overwhelmed by a situation, or when they make a mistake. This collage can help support students in developing an optimistic mindset.23
Support students with developing skills for digital learning
Students discovered that they needed new skills to manage and organize their learning in a virtual environment. Students had to learn how to stay organized and keep track of their progress in a digital space. Students needed support in developing executive functioning skills. Students shared that various functionalities built into learning management systems, such as a digital calendar, helped them to keep up with and understand their progress. Students also appreciated when teachers focused on a common or limited set of digital tools and provided an introductory lesson for each tool, as this scaffolded their learning.
Teach and learn about other people’s perspectives. Transformative SEL can help educators increase their awareness about how other people—especially those from culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse backgrounds—experience life in virtual and in-person environments. Educators can help students develop empathy by discussing current events, using tools such as Newsela, and how these events impact their own or other communities.
Monitor caring moments. Students pay attention to those things that educators emphasize on a daily basis. When educators notice and acknowledge student support for each other, students learn that those moments are important. Teachers can keep track of this by tallying when they observe students helping each other with an assignment, providing comfort when something difficult happens, or encouraging others to do their best. Teachers and students can collect and share this data with the classroom and monitor how it increases or decreases over time.
Role play. Role playing is a learning structure in which students take the role of a real or imaginary character and act it out. It creates an opportunity for students to take on a different persona (one that may have different values and experiences) and connect with the kinds of emotions and thoughts this person would have. This activity can be done in the virtual classroom by organizing students to prepare their characters in breakout rooms and then bring them together to role play as a whole class. The role-playing situation can be adapted to students’ grade and the current or historical events they are studying.
Create social justice art. Artists have historically used their creations to communicate injustice and highlight social challenges. Art can be a powerful vehicle for educators and students to examine students’ multiple identities, the assets that ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students bring to the classroom, and the challenges they face. Creating self-portraits or a virtual classroom mural, using music and dance to express injustice, or making a documentary film can be ways to bring the arts into the virtual classroom, while addressing important social justice topics.24
Focus on building connections with students. Although virtual educators have less informal opportunities to connect with students, there are still ways to establish meaningful relationships in a virtual space. Teachers can regularly communicate with students one-on-one or as a class via email, audio message, virtual office hours visits, and check-ins. The goal is for students to know that educators genuinely care for them as people. Questions that educators can use to build relationships with students.
- What helps you feel welcomed?
- How would you like to be greeted?
- What goals do you have for yourself?
- What can you tell me that helps me better understand you as a person?
- How can I support you and be the best teacher for you?
- How can our school and virtual classroom be a place where you feel affirmed, connected, and excited to learn?
Practice gratitude. Gratitude is an important aspect of building resilience. When students and educators focus their attention on the positive aspects in their lives, they can gain energy to face challenges. Educators can set up virtual or long-distance appreciation or gratitude circles and encourage students to write one thing they appreciate about themselves or their classmates. Teachers can also share written or oral appreciation for each of their students.
Use collaborative structures. Educators might create opportunities in the virtual classroom where students can work together to meet a common goal. Group projects help students to know each other better and appreciate the different talents in the group, while enhancing students’ SEL and academic skills. While individual activities may be easier from a management perspective, learning is a social process. Strategies, such as group problem-solving, think-pair-share, or jigsaws, are also possible in the digital space with some preparation.25
Develop cultural humility. Differences in the understanding of norms, social roles, and other rules can cause students and adults to misinterpret each other’s attempts to share and collaborate in the virtual classroom.26 This can cause disagreements to become conflicts that may end up being addressed through discipline, instead of a restorative approach. Cultural humility can help educators effectively negotiate the cultural differences that may exist between them and their students and then support students to do the same.27
Use students’ interests, diverse identities, and cultures to enrich academic content. When students have an opportunity to know each other and learn from their varied perspectives, they are able to establish stronger bonds and be more engaged in learning. Readings in the virtual classroom should be connected and reflect students’ life experiences; authors should represent students’ cultures and ethnicities, and the diversity of the human experience—from joyful and proud moments to challenging and painful times. Platforms, such as Epic or Storyline Online, have diverse libraries that can be accessed online. In addition, educators can invite students to share their favorite musicians, artists, and authors, and use this information as a vehicle to build meaningful content for students and with students.28
Teach and learn about civic action. There are many examples of youth and adults involved in making their communities a better place by identifying inequities, and affecting positive change. Students should investigate and evaluate a variety of approaches to civic action. Through this approach, teachers can help students examine how SEL skills are put into practice, including ethical considerations in the decision-making process. Learning about civic action can also expand students’ awareness about the challenges facing communities and responses to address those challenges.
Promote student voice and autonomy. When students feel empowered to contribute to their classroom community, they are more likely to stay engaged even when things are difficult. Fostering students’ autonomy and engaging their voices is a great way to teach and practice responsible decision making. Students could make decisions about how to complete an assignment or select a topic of interest for a project. Students of all ages can lead parent conferences and share their work.29 Conferences give students an opportunity to use their voice, ask questions, and feel heard. Educators should promote varied opportunities for youth voice across all grade-levels. Teachers can use this information provided by the students as feedback to enhance their teaching and strengthen the learning community.30
Create leadership opportunities. Students generally have great ideas about how to improve their schools or what teachers could do better. Educators can design leadership opportunities for students to improve things that are important to them and/or support the classroom community.31 These can range from simple to more complex opportunities, such as leading an online game, contributing to a student club and organizing a student council event. The use of videoconference tools can help students to bolster, along with teacher support, important skills, such as public speaking, mediation, or decision making. By recognizing students’ voices and supporting their leadership development, teachers can encourage students’ civic engagement and recognize their value in becoming change makers in their communities.
SEL as a Lever for Equity: Principles and Reflection Questions32
As educators integrate transformative SEL, they can consider the following principles and reflection questions to guide their instructional decisions and the strategies they use to build nurturing relationships and a supportive virtual space for growth and learning.
Principle 1: Centering Students’ Lived Experiences and Identities in SEL Instruction
- Reflection question: During SEL instruction, how am I affirming my students’ identities, drawing on their lived experiences, and addressing their urgent needs?
Principle 2: Using SEL Discussions to Validate Student Experiences of Oppression
- Reflection question: During SEL instruction, how am I acknowledging and supporting students’ emerging understanding of oppression as well as its emotional toll?
Principle 3: SEL Instruction as a Space to Encourage Youth to Use their Voice for Social Justice
- Reflection question: During SEL instruction, how do I encourage and provide opportunities for students to engage in developmentally-appropriate and community-connected civic and political activities or projects?
Infusing SEL in Blended and Online Learning
“Social emotional skills can be fostered in any environment – virtual or in person,” Valerie Sun, a teacher specialist at Glendale Unified School District, says. “It is any moment the educator intentionally creates to help students feel welcome, connected, and heard in their environment. In making these connections and developing relationships, students have the opportunity to build their skills in all five categories of SEL in CASEL’s framework.” Doing this work remotely presents unique challenges, but for this Los Angeles-based educator, at the heart of any endeavor to bring SEL into distance learning is the underlying need for students to feel safe in order to learn.
“I can’t stress the importance of genuine check-ins,” says Valerie. “We need to give our students the feelings that they belong and are connected to their peers and to us.”
When teaching online, Valerie recognizes participants with virtual kudos in the form of Google SlidesMania and SlidesGo certificates in her slide deck [online presentation tools]. She takes note of character-building moments from previous classes and highlights one or two students who displayed admirable qualities, such as being a Fearless Questioner (for not being afraid to ask questions) or Persistent Learner (for those who say they’ve been trying hard and the results don’t show it).
“It’s small, but the recipients are always surprised and feel really proud,” she says. “My favorite part is always when students email me to see if they can nominate another person for the award. I have teachers who told me they started doing this in their own classes and saw great success in building their classroom environment and community.”
Another way to connect with students – and help them connect with themselves – is through breathing and meditation. Valerie talks her students through a quick three-minute guided meditation that she adapts to their needs of the day, especially when she feels their anxious energy. For teachers who are not comfortable reading from a script, there are many age-appropriate apps and videos to guide students through this process, such as MyLife.
The challenges of connecting through a screen can be overcome with creativity. Valerie suggests that teachers make connections through a phone call or a letter. The key is to remain student-centered. “Ask them open-ended questions regarding their activities, games, movies, etc.” she says. “If it is a student who has not been attending class, the last thing they want to respond to is why they haven’t been attending class. If we ask about their hobbies and demonstrate genuine interest, with some persistent calls, they may feel inclined to join our class.” Valerie believes the power of students receiving a letter from their teacher is immeasurable. Even if the message is similar for each child, it helps them see the effort the teacher has made to connect. “My preference is a short, handwritten letter,” she says. “However, because time is precious and if the message is long, then type it, and add a handwritten part like, ‘We miss you!’ or ‘You are appreciated!’”
Making genuine connections and developing relationships is a critical foundation for teaching and learning. The SEL framework gives educators the structure to put that into action to advance students’ development. With a little creativity and extra care, teachers can provide meaningful moments throughout each student’s day to make their in-person or virtual classroom a space in which they can feel safe to learn and grow.
Infusing SEL as a Schoolwide Approach
Online and hybrid learning experiences create a great opportunity for schools to respond to students’ individual needs through existing systems of student support. SEL goals and practices can be integrated with universal, targeted, and intensive academic and behavioral supports offered virtually to best accommodate students’ assets and areas of growth.
In addition, partnerships with families can be strengthened in online spaces by inviting parents to share their expertise, cultural norms, values, and traditions in classrooms or school-wide virtual events. It is also important for schools to maintain open and regular communication with families focused on mutual goals and building connections. These efforts can support families in developing trust and a sense of belonging, and experiencing the value of developing socially and emotionally competent children and youth.
SEL implementation requires a systemic approach to include collaboration across all stakeholders in a variety of settings, including classrooms, schools, families, and communities, to ensure supportive and equitable learning environments for students as they continue to grow. These coordinated efforts have the potential to foster youth voice, agency, and engagement; establish supportive classroom and school climates and approaches to discipline; enhance adult SEL skills; and establish authentic family and community partnerships.
Note: Digital tools and resources to support the implementation of the strategies and considerations identified in this section are included in the Appendices. Please also note that digital tools referenced in Appendix B include free and premium options, and their inclusion in the guidance are largely derived from interviews with California educators. LEAs exercise local control when selecting digital tools and resources. Resources and digital tools included in the guide should not be considered endorsements by the CDE.
 Adapted from Martínez Pérez, L. (2021). Teaching with the HEART in Mind: A Complete Educator’s Guide to Social Emotional Learning. San Carlos, CA: Brisca Publishing.