Social-Emotional Support in the New World of Distance Learning

The changes the coronavirus pandemic has brought to education are just beginning. Use these strategies to support your students and yourself during this time.

One of the key factors in children’s resilience in the face of overwhelming stress is the strength of their relationships with caring adults. In 10 years, students will likely not remember the academic work they completed during this pandemic, but we can hope they will remember feeling cared for by their teachers, families, and communities. As we adjust to emergency distance learning, it’s important to focus on communicating care to our students in order to support their social and emotional well-being. Here are some strategies.

Take care of yourself.

For adults to emotionally support children, we need to manage our own stress. Working from home, it’s easy to get sucked into the tasks we need to do and end up staring at our computers for hours on end. As an educator, you know that’s not a good set-up for learning! Take frequent breaks. Drink water. Move your body. Wind down your screentime at least an hour before bed.

If you can, try to create some type of separation between the school day and the rest of your day. This might mean setting an auto-response on your email to let students, families, and coworkers know that you only answer school emails between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. You can also try creating a ritual each day that signals to you that the work day is over, such as changing into your comfiest pajama pants, taking a solo walk around the block, or having a three-minute dance party to your favorite song. Just because you could work all evening doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t help your students if you burn yourself out in the first few weeks of distance teaching. Self-care is way easier said than done, but none of the rest of the suggestions on this list matter much without it.

Work as a team.

While most of us feel pretty isolated right now, remember that you belong to a group of faculty and staff who all have the same goals. Reach out to your coworkers, and ask how they’re doing. Listen and validate the good and the bad. See if there are ways you can coordinate efforts so that each person isn’t reinventing the wheel. If there are resources or strategies that you have found helpful in fostering your own wellness, share them.

This communication is extra important as we begin checking in with students about their social and emotional well-being. If students bring up topics or share things that are concerning, it’s important not to keep those concerns to yourself. Don’t carry it alone; reach out to colleagues to help you assess what support you can provide to struggling students.

Create check-in routines with students.

If I could recommend one practice to every teacher right now, it’s this: ask students how they are, and listen to their answers. This may seem obvious, but it couldn’t be more important to create space where you can check in with our students. Maybe this is through a virtual circle or advisory meeting, an asynchronous group check-in like rose and thorn, or individual phone calls or letters (working through your class list a few times over the coming weeks). However you check in, make space for kids to share the good and the bad.

Many teachers are worried about their students’ well-being, and rightly so. Families may be experiencing job loss, food insecurity, illness, anxiety, and fear. Give students space to express their emotions. In your response, don’t try to fix or dismiss any worries: Instead, just validate and let them know you hear them. Key phrases: “I hear you,” “That sounds really hard,” or “I can hear how worried you are.”

At the same time, recognize that some students may be enjoying some of the flexibility of being home from school. Some may experience a break from bullying, harassment, or conflict that they experienced within the school walls. Others may be spending more time with loved ones or engaging in hobbies, games, and free play. Help your students acknowledge the good and the bad.  As I said before, if you feel concerned by what a student’s sharing, even if you can’t really articulate why, reach out to others. This could mean checking in with the student's parents or school counselors or following through on mandated reporting policies, depending on the situation. Following through on information-sharing can help students get the support they need. If you aren’t sure what the procedures are at your school, now is the perfect time to ask.

Be flexible.

Even as we begin to build routines around distance learning, remember: This is anything but routine. We’re all trying to survive a global pandemic. That’s not normal. It can also be pretty terrifying. We need to treat one another with flexibility and grace. This applies to your academic content. For some students, academics might feel like a breath of fresh air right now, a small piece of familiarity amidst the chaos. For others, academics might be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. Students in either of those categories might want or not want to do academic work but have other priorities, like caring for siblings or other family members. One size never fits all in education, and that’s especially true now.

So how do we proceed when everything is unpredictable and everyone needs something different? I wish I had a magic plan to recommend. Instead, I recommend flexibility. We need to let go of our previous notions of what school is supposed to look like and what academic progress should be. Let’s circle back to our priority of communicating care. View your distance- learning offerings as an expression of your care for students. Frame academic activities as a way for students to stay connected, exercise their minds, and maintain routines. Offer choices whenever possible. Competency- and proficiency-based learning are great models for focusing on the goal while being flexible about how to get there. Above all, recognize that your students and their families are doing the best they can, just like we all are, and let go of any expectations that anything else is possible.

What’s next?

The changes to our world and education system are just beginning. This is marathon not a sprint. Returning to face-to-face classes, perhaps not until the fall, will bring additional challenges and require us to approach teaching and learning in new ways, just as we are now with distance learning. There are no clear answers, but we can continually center care in our decision-making. No SEL curriculum or activity is as meaningful as the true relationships we build with our students. So take care of yourself and each other, and we’ll navigate this new world together.

Alex Shevrin Venet is a professional development facilitator, educator, and writer living in Vermont. Her focus is on trauma-informed practices and equity in education. For more, visit her website at or follow on Twitter @AlexSVenet


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