Incorporating SEL No Matter Where the Classroom Is

As students and teachers return to school this fall, we know it’s a trying time for everyone. Schedules and protocols may be changing daily, and back-to-school routines you may have relied on in years past are now obsolete. In previous blog posts, we’ve shared information about the importance of social emotional learning (SEL) during this unique back-to-school experience, and also about components of school climate like safety, relationships, respect, and student engagement that are key to incorporate into back-to-school plans, regardless of learning environment structure. This past week, we teamed up with Felicia Ryerson, a curriculum resource teacher at John Young Elementary School in Orlando, Florida, to understand what incorporating SEL into the classroom – whether that is in-person, online, or hybrid – looks and feels like in practice.


The John Young Elementary School Approach

About a year and a half ago, Felicia and the John Young staff decided to prioritize SEL. Their goal was to build a school-wide culture of respect and kindness, build a safe and positive learning environment, and empower students to adopt mental toughness. “Life is tough but so are you” quickly became a go-to phrase amongst students and staff as they moved to intentionally embed SEL into every school day. They set three goals for their SEL implementation: to build relationships within the school, to teach social skills, and to provide a safe, calm learning environment. Below, we share some strategies that the John Young staff used to reach these goals, both pre-COVID and following the shift to virtual instruction post-COVID.


Building Relationships within the School

During the 2019-2020 school year, John Young implemented several strategies to help students form relationships with peers and school staff. One strategy was engaging all students in daily class meetings. Morning meetings were held in classrooms to allow students and teachers an opportunity to greet one another, preview the day’s schedule, and engage in a purposeful activity or discussion. Closing meetings also happened each day, during which students debriefed on what went well and what they could do differently the next day. They also had regular Student Spotlights of the Week, in which students took turns sharing about themselves with their peers. In addition to these universal practices, John Young implemented extra supports to help their large population of English Language Learner (ELL) students build a sense of community and relationships with one another. They engaged in culturally affirming practices by using the Super ELL curriculum and supported one another in the transition to American schools.

Adapting to a Virtual Environment

When instruction shifted to virtual after COVID-19 hit, John Young teachers were able to lift and shift these strategies in order to continue implementing them in their new virtual classrooms. Web conferencing sessions still started with morning meetings and ended with closing meetings, and Felicia reported that these helped increase attendance. Students didn’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with their peers and teachers at the start and end of each day. Student Spotlight of the Week continued and became even more engaging as students could now introduce their peers to their homes and families. The ELL course also continued online, and student experience was enhanced by being able to engage family members in class activities.


Teaching Social Skills

At John Young, teaching social skills started with teachers. All PD sessions included a SEL-building exercise, and teachers were encouraged to model these skills to their students. All adults and students greeted one another by name, and teachers greeted students before they came into their classrooms. Teachers also made use of role playing in brick-and-mortar classrooms to model social skills.

Adapting to a Virtual Environment

Just like teachers did in their brick-and-mortar classrooms, they continued to build students’ social skills via virtual class meetings. They continued to greet each student by name, held the expectation that students do the same, and practiced things such as making eye contact and paying full attention to the camera screen, even in the new virtual environment. For all of us adults finding ourselves in virtual meetings all day everyday – we know practicing social skills in online environments can be a challenge!


Providing a Safe and Calm Learning Environment

In order to achieve the goal of providing a safe and calm learning environment, teachers learned to practice self-discipline in their interactions with students. PD sessions helped them control voice levels and tone when handling student behavior, treat misbehavior as an opportunity to learn, and model calming strategies like taking a deep breath and walking away.

Adapting to a Virtual Environment

With some creativity, these strategies also transferred to online behaviors. Misbehaviors tended to look different in online classrooms (e.g., side chats or not paying attention), but the management techniques remained the same.

For this school year in particular, Felicia recommends beginning the school year with an open conversation about students’ chosen learning environments. It can be confusing for students why some peers are in school buildings while others are home. Helping students understand one another’s personal and family choices regarding chosen school setting can be a helpful way to create an open, respectful, and mutually understanding learning environment.


We are Resilient, and We Can Do This

This year, the John Young staff went back to school with three models in place: e-learning, face-to-face, and hybrid. Despite these challenges, Felicia is confident that her teachers and students can do this given their commitment to SEL and efforts toward building a positive school culture. As we reported in a previous blog post, we have actually seen students increase in mean levels of Maintaining Composure since the onset of the pandemic. Therefore, we send all of you navigating shifting back-to-school plans the same message John Young students hear daily: this is tough but so are you!

For more strategies to foster climate and build relationships this back-to-school, regardless of what learning looks like, and to hear Felicia’s full story, check out our CASEL SEL exchange webinar recording here.

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.