For students and teachers alike, back-to-school time can be an overwhelming experience during a typical school year – and this year is anything but typical. With new safety measures, including masks and social distancing – to keep students and teachers safe, the upcoming return to school will look and feel significantly different. It’s also a special time for students who look forward to learning, reconnecting with their friends, and sharing about their experiences from break. However, students’ reflections may look drastically different this year and include more traumatic experiences. Some students will have lost family, friends, and even teachers due to COVID-19. There is also an added layer of complexity given the social uprisings across the nation, catalyzed by social justice issues on race.

As educators prepare to return to the classroom, they will be expected to help students bounce back from learning loss, potentially accelerated because of the pivot to remote learning during the spring, and to create a culture that nurtures community and encourages culturally responsive teaching practices. At Catapult Learning, we advocate using a “whole-child” approach to fully support students with their social and emotional development.
Below are five strategies that support social-emotional learning and set the tone for a successful school year:

1. Explicitly teach the five social-emotional learning competencies. Teaching developmentally appropriate skills connected to the five overarching social-emotional learning competencies – self-awareness, self-management, relationship building, responsible decision-making, and social awareness – can cultivate the 21st century skills students need to succeed in the classroom and beyond. The goal is to help students recognize and internalize these skills, which can be taught through conversations, book discussions, writing activities and naturally, reflections.

2. Set personal and academic goals with students. The earlier students set personal and academic goals, the more invested and confident they will become as they track their goals during the school year. Students will be able to appreciate the results of their learning as well as manage the processes involved and feel motivated to achieve their goals.
3. Overcome barriers to productive conversations. Identify opportunities to engage all students through conversations that allow them to share openly from their own perspectives. Before any sharing activity, make sure students agree on a set of norms or rules for respectful engagement (e.g., confidentiality, listen activity, use “I” statements) to help establish a safe and supportive environment, which is especially important when students are sharing about difficult or traumatic experiences. Staff can open the dialogue by sharing about their own experiences before students speak to their own.

4. Integrate current events into the curriculum. Including top news headlines and events in the curriculum can help students increase their awareness about complex subjects. Learning these topics can further develop their empathy as they discuss and gain understanding about different perspectives. Additionally, teachers should combine a diverse range of cultures, experiences, films, texts, and visuals in their instruction to ensure all students are positively represented.

5. Provide at-home resources. To continue helping students regain academic ground and thrive once they return to the classroom, teachers should send resources home frequently. The coronavirus pandemic and early school closures pushed families to become more engaged with their children’s learning, leaving many to feel overwhelmed and unsupported. Providing tangible resources for families will not only help children extend their learning beyond the classroom, but also alleviate feelings of helplessness and increase motivation and dedication.
As we continue to navigate these challenging times, it is imperative that we equip our students with the tools they need to navigate the demands of the classroom and their daily lives. Prioritizing social-emotional learning provides us with a unique opportunity to address the needs of each child while ensuring that they are adequately challenged and supported beyond the classroom. Social-emotional learning activities also help to create a sense of normalcy and routine for students who may be feeling anxious because of all the changes.