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How to foster social and emotional learning while we're social distancing

By Kate Walker

SEL Toolkit coverIn this era of staying at home, distance learning and a new type of latchkey kids whose parents are essential workers, we can center young people’s social-emotional well-being. Schools are closed, routines disrupted and special events canceled. Issues of equity and access are worsened as families struggle with internet and technology divides, food and housing insecurities and the pressures of isolation.

Our Ways of Being model is a tool for teaching about social and emotional learning (SEL). It’s the foundation for the freely available Social and Emotional Learning in Practice: A Toolkit of Practical Strategies and Resources, which has activities you can adapt for no-tech or virtual youth programming. I've just created a set of videos that walk you through each section of the toolkit.

Ways of Relating

Now more than ever we need to connect with and have empathy for others. Meeting virtually requires specific social, communication and active listening skills. Adults can model and create norms for how to interact, handle conflict and work together from a distance or under one roof. See toolkit items like power of empathy, complaint/feeling/request, conflict traffic light and the SEL feedback template.

Ways of Feeling

We are all feeling a roller coaster of emotions these days: fear, anger, stress, gratitude, disappointment, grief. It’s important to know how to gauge, express and cope with emotions. As youth workers, teachers and caregivers, we can help young people name and express their feelings through routine check-ins. Toolkit items like reflection bank, emoji reflection, emotion wheel and emotion word bank can help.

Ways of Doing

This new normal requires flexible time management, creative problem solving and realistic goal setting. Try the toolkit’s Goal Sandwich activity to help young people plan their days, stay focused and make responsible decisions. But when making a schedule, think beyond academics and online resources to incorporate healthy living, helping others, creative projects and time unplugged.

Ways I Am

Our identities are at the heart of our ways of being. Try the mapping cultural values toolkit activity to explore how your cultural values and personal preferences show up in a crisis. Do you have more of an internal or external sense of control? Do you tend to express or restrain emotions? Are you more likely to see change as disruptive or an opportunity for progress? Be aware of your own orientations and those of the youth and families you serve.

We can be socially connected while physically distanced. We can honor all the emotions that come with this crisis. We can adapt to change, balance physical, emotional and social health and adjust expectations for ourselves and others. We need to do these things in ways that are culturally responsive and trauma-informed and with a steadfast commitment to equity. How are you helping young people be aware of and navigate their ways of relating, feeling and doing?

-- Kate Walker, Extension professor and specialist in youth work practice

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Hi Kate,

    I appreciated your comment "Meeting virtually requires specific social, communication and active listening skills."

    It is very important for facilitators of online learning to be even more sensitive and in tune with students to compensate for many of the usual social and emotional cues that a classroom environment offers.

    One way facilitators of online learning can do this is by engaging in consistent feedback with their students. I recently came across Tammy Edwards 7 step model for feedback and found it incredibly valuable to consider in an online learning environment to support students.

    1. Start with something positive
    2. State the grade and reason right away
    3. State a recommendation
    4. Provide an example to tip to reach their goal
    5. Clarify your expectations
    6. Remind them of available help
    7. End with something motivational

    I also believe the ways of being framework is very important to help youth explore right now as so many of their foundations of identity are being pushed and challenged. Whether it be sports, dance, animals or other social activities youth are facing an immense amount of pressure to their concept of identity.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Jeremy! How we think about virtual communication and feedback is critical. To build on the model you share, our SEL Feedback Template reminds staff to ask a question to start a feedback conversation rather than jumping to offering advice. Now more than ever, checking in and authentically listening to young people is key.

    We are creating resources to help support youths’ social and emotional well-being in this challenging period. Do you have ideas for how to help young people wrestling with loss to their identities?

  3. I appreciate this article and thank you for bringing it to the forefront of our minds. I specifically want to highlight that staff must model healthy SEL skills.

    We must recognize that COVID-19, and all the changes that come with it, are stressful and we too are working on our own SEL skills. With that in mind, it is important to do a personal inventory before launching a Zoom call or engaging with youth and volunteers. Even staff who have sounds skills are being tested at this time and leaning on each other is key to success. Perhaps before sending an email or hosting a virtual meeting, a colleague can review the language you are using. Does the language promote learning, or perpetuate fear, anxiety and negativity? We can recognize the changes and uncertainty, but we must be prepared to teach and coach the SEL skills that will guide us through this.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Courtney! Taking a mindful pause gives ourselves the space to see a situation clearly and choose our response instead of reacting impulsively. Such a good reminder, especially now.

    I look forward to working with you to create resources and activities that will support young people’s social and emotional well-being!

  5. thanks for the information covid is not stronger than us.

  6. Kate, this is a great approach to fostering SEL during this time. I've made videos for students I've spoken to so they can watch a message from me as a way to reconnect with them.

    I love your approach to naming feelings. I recently watch the Mister Rogers movie and his powerful quote resonates with this SEL post, the quote is: "anything mentionable, is manageable." We need to continue to help students understand their feelings and know how to communicate or vent out those emotions.

    Great post, I know my speech has already changed simply because of being social-distant from others. Thanks for sharing!

    Fabian Ramirez
    Anti-Bullying Speaker

    1. Kate, I forgot to mention that many students will need the right outlet to share how this virus has effected them. I have two daughters and they've had negative feelings toward the virus because in their 9 and 5 yr old minds, the virus took away their friends and family, literally their family because grandparents had to cancel visits from another state and vice versa.

      I believe children who do not vent out their emotions will have some sort of trauma moving forward. Right? Like, why have deep connections with people when we can't even get close to them or we have to treat them like strangers. My daughter didn't know she wasn't supposed to run up to her teacher and hug her like she did not even a month ago. Great insight. I could talk about this all day long, keep posting about how to help our kids.


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