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How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers

Teachers in school districts all over the country are asking the powerful question, “How do you stay connected with students during distance learning?”

From the time of Socrates, teachers have shaped the intellectual and moral compass of our society by challenging students to view the world through fresh eyes. Now, educators are finding ways to do this by inspiring students to love learning and helping them develop into future leaders and professionals without being in the same physical space during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. WiSH – William S. Hesse, Ph.D., founder of Core Purpose Consulting “Making your healthy school WiSH come true”

To do this, teachers are using a digital learning framework focused on collaborative, interactive synchronous teaching and learning that includes educational applications or software grounded in social and emotional learning (USDE, 2010; The Economist Intelligence Limited, 2020).

History has shown that during difficult or challenging times we grow, create and invent, and this is exactly what teachers and school districts across the country are doing now.

This is article seven of 12 in a series for AZEdNews on the school’s role in best practices for creating healthy learning cultures for educators, students, parents and administrators across America. These resources connect with PreK-20 education levels, all learning environments, and all subjects. This article will unpack ways teachers and students can benefit from teaching social and emotional learning in the digital classroom by looking through the lens of students, administrators, professionals and educators. Our Social and Emotional Climate Module in “The Ultimate Guide to Best Practices for Creating Healthy Learning Cultures” offers a variety of new strategies and practical application opportunities from some of the top experts in their fields. Social and emotional climate is one of the highest sought out after components of the WSCC Model in present day education. Students and teachers are experiencing stress at some of the highest levels in recorded history. Our social and emotional experts offer tools to use to reduce stress and anxiety. Featured resources are “The Ultimate Guide to Best Practices for Creating Healthy Learning Cultures” Version 2.0, “The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Home Learning” Version 1.5, and “The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation” Version 1.0 and can be found at CorePurposeConsulting.com.

To understand how essential feeling connected is for distance or online learning, we need to take a broader look at  how we develop relationships in person and on social media.  

When social media burst onto the scene, people were able to connect virtually with others they hadn’t seen in years and also meet new people they may not have met otherwise.  These distant connections with others felt exciting and rewarding, and added to the deeper-level connections they developed through in-person daily interactions with friends, family, teachers, coaches, and others. 

Now, teachers and students doing distance learning are working to develop connections online that feel as rich as in-person daily interactions so they can create a learning culture where everyone feels inspired, encouraged, supported, understood, and valued. This can be challenging when they are physically apart from each other and working in home environments that differ greatly from a traditional classroom. 

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers VIP-Photo-2-1000
A student works with his tutor in an online learning format in Paradise Valley Unified School District. Photo courtesy Paradise Valley Unified School District

Re-defining social and emotional climate

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage their emotions, define and achieve goals, show empathy for others, build healthy rewarding relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL, 2020). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools (2013), found that 95 percent of front-line teachers believe SEL is teachable and is developed through five essential competencies: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 

Educators define social and emotional learning as the ability to work collaboratively in teams using real-world skills, or the ability to self-regulate and get along with others. 97 percent of teachers believe SEL benefits students from diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status (The Missing Piece A Report For CASEL, 2013).

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Researchers attribute 31 percent of the variance in student academic success in grades 5-12 to positive emotions like hope, well-being, and engagement. Findings show hope ranked highest at 13 percent, followed by engagement at 10 percent, and well-being at 8 percent (Heitin, L., 2012). Having positive emotional well-being is crucial for successfully navigating new environments, engaging in meaningful relationships, and realizing one’s fullest potential (Allport, 1961; Erickson, 1959; Maslow, 1968; Rogers, 1961; Ryff, 1989a; Smith, 2012).

Teachers’ social awareness and unconditional positive regard predict school adjustment and academic achievement among students (Baker, 2006; Cornelius-White, 2007; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Wubbels & Brekelmans, 2006). 

“Teachers enter the profession to provide a well-rounded education and support the whole student, which includes social and emotional skills development,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers in The Missing Piece A Report For CASEL, 2013. “SEL is a critical part of every child’s growth, both as students and as contributing members of society. Teachers have shared with us how important this is – now it’s up to all of us to support them in this essential work.”  (Link to https://www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/the-missing-piece.pdf )

One study found the implementation of SEL enhanced teachers’ abilities to make individual connections with students that foster a positive relationship that helps teachers respond to students’ emotional needs and non-academic concerns. 

How do we create this connectedness?

First and foremost, there isn’t a perfect answer or solution, however, when people come together to create a new way of doing things the results are usually mind blowing. We will all need to come together to create a way to discover new answers and solutions that improve ourselves, learning cultures, schools and communities. Let’s take a moment to look at what it means to be connected in the arenas of distant learning.

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Social-Emotional-Climate

To do this, we will delve into the idea of connect to me, connect to we, connect to us and connect to all.

Connected to me looks at the first arena: Students.

We want to make sure we build a solid foundation that starts within each student. A person’s ability to connect with others begins within themselves first.  It is like anything with mindful health. It begins with me to receive from others.  When looking at creating a quick connection, take that first step of a personal check in and encourage your students to do the same. 

There are many ways to do this; however, I prefer a quick scale from 1-10, one being low or “I don’t feel great” while 10 means “I feel great.”  Another quick check in could be a stop light where green means “I am doing great,” yellow means “I am ok,” and red means “I am not doing well at all.”  If you would like additional resources, please check out the latest version of the Ultimate Guide to Creating Best Practices for Healthy Learning Cultures

After the quick personal check in, it is important to create a sense of groundedness in one’s self.  One of the easiest ways to do this is to take a minute or two for intentional deep breathing.  (Link to Deep Breathing – https://youtu.be/YFdZXwE6fRE)   When a person intentionally connects with their own breath, they connect more powerfully with themselves as well as see a decrease in stress or anxiousness.  It also helps slow the heart rate, more oxygen enters the blood stream and ultimately communicates with the brain to relax. Deep breathing also increases endorphins – the “feel good” chemical in our bodies.

This connection to me helps set up the student for success in many avenues, including the area of connectedness.  When we feel better, we are more apt to be willing to connecting with others.

Connected to we looks at teachers. Because SEL competencies are teachable, the digital classroom is an excellent opportunity for teachers to embed these competencies in their digital classroom culture, instruction, teacher-student interactions, and skill-building activities that support peer-to-peer social awareness and positive relationships.

Today’s teachers have to learn to teach their content outside their comfort zone. Likewise, students are being asked to self-manage their behavior and focus on instruction in an environment that is far removed from the traditional classroom. This increased usage of the digital classroom levels the playing field for teachers and students who are both immigrants to the digital learning platform and SEL can help each build their skills daily while managing discomfort.

When SEL is consistently implemented, healthy relationships between teacher and student improve by 94 percent, peer-to-peer connections likely will improve by 93 percent, while student standardized test scores improve by 77 percent. (The Missing Piece A Report For CASEL, 2013). According to Dr. Teresa A. Smith (Dr. TAS), teachers are pivotal in helping students recognize their emotional stressors and how to self-regulate and understand how others’ experiences influence their attitudes and behaviors.

The virtual learning environment provides teachers a unique insight into their students’ lives and experiences and the opportunity to foster wellness by replenishing their HEART. HEARTis an acronym that means:

  • Hope fuels future potential and expectations.
  • Experiences are different, expect challenges
  • Allow time for acceptance
  • Relationships are built on what we know
  • Trust by honoring others’ truth

Teacher Benefits

  • Increase self-awareness that may contribute to a reduction in burnout and turnover
  • View students as both an individual and part of many subcultures to build connections and better respond to their academic and social needs
  • Build on students’ assets and strengthens instead of focusing on deficits
  • Scaffold learning from a learning style and social lens
  • Positive classroom environment

Connected to we also looks at students. When asked about our health, we automatically think about our physical health, rather than our emotional or mental well-being. Poor mental health has always been “nothing to worry about” or something that somebody was “just making up.”  However, it is very important to de-stigmatize this topic and take into account the impact our mental state has on our lives. Luckily, as we focus more on our emotional health, we see our teachers as they educate us about our social and emotional wellness through learning.

The transition to learning online impacted teachers and students. In an online learning environment, students and teachers are able to promote a safe and positive learning experience. With a more flexible schedule and even some self-paced courses, students can work without the pressure of deadlines and can focus more on the lessons being taught. The idea of a positive learning experience will look different for everyone. Some prefer the normalcy of being in their regular classroom, while others are enjoying this new experience of school at home.

Sandra Day O’Connor High School Student Hayden L. says: “I was talking to a new student in my class about how I am enjoying online learning because of the opportunities it brings. Without hesitation, I told her “I was able to act like myself while learning online rather than try to be someone else.”
“The idea of everyone learning the same way from home made me not care what anyone else thought of me. My teachers had taken some time during the day to play some ice breakers and that allowed us to really get to know each other. We were given breaks throughout the classes to get up and stretch. These would not have been given if we were doing in person learning.”
“Although doing online learning gives us more responsibilities, we are also given more freedom and treated like young adults. We know when to turn in our assignments, when to sign onto our classes, we know to keep our cameras on. While doing online learning, we encounter the same problems, anxieties, and struggles as we would normally face in a classroom structure. However, being online is helping to empower us students, and create a safe, diverse classroom space.”
“Not only are students benefiting from teaching about our emotional health, but they too are learning what it means to have a positive outlook on school and online learning. In order for a teacher to appropriately teach a student about their social and emotional health, they too need to have high social-emotional skills. By managing the classroom, the teachers are managing their own stress, just as us students are being taught to do. Although being taught online looks a little different for us than it normally would, teachers are still able to teach us about our emotional wellness.”

It is important to not only de-stigmatize the topic of poor mental health, but to also help improve it by learning about our emotions. Life can get stressful. But we already knew this. What we didn’t know before was how crucial it was to manage our stress and emotions in a different way. Social-emotional learning is that new way. It benefits us all, not only by teaching us what it means to learn, but to also take care of our health, both physically and mentally.

Student Makenzie K. says: “We students can benefit from online learning in ways that we could never imagine. We students can learn a household environment from other students and get a feel of what they are like in person.”
“The social environment of online learning is prestigious. There are fewer classroom distractions, so you can focus on what the teacher is talking about.”
“ Breakout rooms are specifically good for students, because it makes students brave to be outgoing. It also helps students make more friends before entering the classroom.”

Student Benefits

  • Increase the feeling of self-acceptance and belonging
  • Learn stress management skills
  • Increase student engagement and motivation
  • Increase empathy for peers, reduction in bullying
  • Reduce absenteeism
  • Increased mastery of coursework

Connected to us looks at school administrators and healthy leadership. To grow as a healthy leader, you have to be able to be agile and adapt. Especially in times of crisis as we are in now. One aspect that must be addressed is Social and Emotional Learning for our students and with our teachers.

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Building-Leaders

I believe one of the first things we must do is to create a positive mind-set. Realize that obstacles are not obstructions, but opportunities for success. An example of this would be when my beautiful bride, who is a Kindergarten teacher and teaching from home, is completed with her Zoom instruction for the morning. She takes our new puppy out for a walk.

This emotional release assists her along with the physical activity to get her mind off any problems that occurred in her earlier sessions. She can cleanse her mind, recalibrate and reload for the afternoon sessions, thus leading to more attentiveness, alertness and increased emotional availability to nurture her students’ needs.

One of social emotional benefits that I heard this year from students is that they feel more comfortable and less stressed about going to school as it is right in their home and they are more comfortable in a digital platform, like the other social media platforms they use.

Albeit, there still is stress, but it is centered with not being physically close with their friends or being able to have direct access to the teacher. But as we continue to grow as leaders, we are finding avenues and strategies to even assist in this area. Learning remotely also allows for students to eat healthier as they are in their homes along with being able to exercise in between their learning.

One of the neatest things I have seen is a virtual cool-down room that had soft music and fish floating on the screen. It allows for the participants to choose what they felt provided them the safety and security they were looking for to reduce their anxiety.

There are many benefits to learning in person, but it truly comes down to maintaining a positive mind-set in all we do. So, as you continue to adapt and grow with this digital learning platform. Find the positive and uplifting podcast, music and motivational videos that you can view, listen and apply to your life as you are waiting in between Zoom meetings and learning opportunities.

We have choices as leaders and learners, to embrace the situations that come our way and become better or let the situations within our lives negatively affect us and become bitter. I choose as a leader, the healthy option of creating a positive mind-set in situations that come my way and to take advantage of this digital remote learning time as an opportunity to make a positive impact on all those around me.

Stay healthy, safe and positive in all you do.

Healthy leadership connection benefits:

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Healthy-leadership-connection-benefits-1024x524

Connected to us looks at healthy communities. Building Healthy Communities is a concept quickly being embraced throughout America, and this effort to unite communities and schools improves the well-being of all stakeholders.

Building the healthiest social and emotional climate, culture and community should be the forefront of our decisions moving forward.

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Healthy-Communities

As students, parents, and educators react to the world around them it is imperative that we focus our recovery efforts in specific areas: Providing a safe place for students outside of their homes, preparing our staff for what a safe return to physical school will look like, and prepping staff to have those difficult conversations to consistently lower anxiety with all stakeholders throughout the school day.

Schools play a major role in building a healthy community. The school’s investment in human capital is pivotal to the development of the community’s success. As school leaders, we must equip existing employees with the knowledge, training, and skills necessary to meet both physical and social/emotional development needs of young children. When school entities partner with the community, we show all stakeholders that we stand united in working together to solve problems in the community where we work and live. This means teachers and staff are equipped, prepared, and ready to dive-in to action with strategies and expertise in areas such as nutrition, physical activity, social/emotional development for students in the form of counseling, and academics.

Why should we develop a healthy culture for our students, communities and educators? The bottom line is that culture drives success. A healthy culture provides educational opportunities and incorporates engaging, equitable, and healthy decisions that impact our community. 

Healthy Community Benefits:

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Healthy-Community-Benefits-Chart

If healthy kids are our focus, we need to be humble, willing to learn and become facilitators of building a comprehensive healthy culture. That means we need to have high academic expectations for students and value the education of the whole child the whole day, not just the child from the neck up.

In closing, our team would like to share one way how learning can be fostered from our amazing students and the ultimate community impact she can create with the help from our readers. 

Student Hayden L.’s healthy community project this semester: “I wanted to share with our readers my project implementation idea that I will be working on in my Health class this year. It is called “Letters of Love”. As part of the Sandra Day O’Connor Student Wellness Advocacy Team (S.W.A.T.), helping our community and the people in it to build healthy cultures is what we’re all about.”
“For my project, I want to write motivating and impacting letters to those facing hard times. These letters are something I have written before and I loved helping not only those around me, but those around the world. But I need your help! If you would like to help support me, and my project or have someone in mind to write a Letter of Love to, I encourage you to contact my S.W.A.T team leader Dr. Hesse at [email protected] and he will make sure I get the message. I look forward to your support I have while writing “Letters of Love”; an O’Connor Healthy Community Initiative.”

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Social-Media-image

Resources:

Our mission at Core Purpose Consulting is to revolutionize education by shifting the focus to the Whole Child. By helping schools to achieve healthy school and community environments, social and emotional climates, healthy communities, healthy learning, movement driven learning concepts, educational equity, healthy leadership, physical education and activity programs, nutrition programs, and complete active school programming.

The following featured resources can be found at CorePurposeConsulting.com and clicking the links below… 

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Best-Practices

“The Ultimate Guide to Best Practices for Creating Healthy Learning Cultures” Version 2.0

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Healthy-Home-Learning

“The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Home Learning” Version 1.5

How social emotional learning helps build online and in-person connections for students, teachers Healthy-School-Design

“The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation” Version 1.0