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Easy ways to teach social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom

If you teach students virtually and you want to nurture their mental wellness along with their academic development, we wrote this guide for you.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a leading priority for K-12 teachers, especially since the ongoing COVID pandemic started in 2020.

The problem is that too many internet “experts” on virtual social-emotional learning have overwhelmed teachers by promoting over-the-top online SEL curriculum programs and SEL rubrics. They make regular social-emotional support seem like it has to be a full-fledged college psych course that you fit into your regular K-12 class.

It doesn’t have to be that hard!

We’re going to make it easy for you to teach social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom.

Here, we explain practical ways – free ways! – that you can bring SEL learning into your virtual classroom, without adopting an entirely new way of doing your teaching thing.

Easy ways to teach social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom

What is social-emotional learning in K-12 classrooms?

Social-emotional learning, often called SEL for short, is a big term for a simple concept:

It’s when a teacher actively supports their students’ mental well-being, in addition to academic well-being.

SEL recognizes that mental health plays a significant role in academic success, so teachers should offer support to help students become well-rounded graduates. These teachers try to prepare students with the social, emotional, and intellectual skills they will need to navigate the “real world.”

How to teach SEL in your virtual classroom

You don’t need to turn into a whole new teacher to teach SEL. There are three easy ways to teach SEL online without a big hassle.

1. Create a classroom community

Isolation is one of the major issues with remote learning. You can help students combat those feelings by making your class feel like a safe family.

A super easy way to do this, one that kids like, is to get them involved in a class game. Team them up, and let them have a blast working together on something fun.

Virtual games you could play during class might be your own Jeopardy game, a simple trivia competition, or a Pictionary game using a virtual whiteboard.

(See our guide on Esports in K-12 schools for more ideas!)

Another great way to help students connect is to assign a classic group project, especially during regular class time. If your teaching platform has virtual breakout rooms, you can help students “see” each other and talk with their group members more naturally, as if they were sitting together at a physical table.

2. Encourage parents to prioritize SEL at home

Make sure parents and students know that social-emotional learning is a part of your teaching method and that you would love for them to work together to practice the SEL skills you teach in class.

3. Add virtual SEL activities to your lesson plans

As we said, you don’t have to develop a whole new way of teaching to give your students SEL support. All it takes is sprinkling in some SEL knowledge throughout your usual curriculum.

So without further ado, here are a few easy, free social-emotional learning activities that you can throw into your existing virtual lesson plans!

Top 3 free virtual SEL activities for your K-12 class

These three fundamental SEL activities will help you connect with your students on their level and give them age-appropriate support for their social and emotional development.

Student/parent questionnaires

Great for the beginning of the school year, you can ask each student to fill out a short questionnaire about themselves and return it to you to keep on file.

This not only helps students feel valued as individuals, but it also gives you insight into their unique needs, academically, socially, and emotionally.

You may also benefit from asking parents questions about their children. They probably have wisdom about their students’ needs that the child either doesn’t yet see or want to admit themselves.

Routine SEL check-ins or journal entries

You’re a teacher, not a psychologist, and no one expects you to play counselor for your students.

What you can do is find out where their SEL weaknesses are, and then choose SEL activities that focus on those weaknesses.

If a lot of your kids seem to struggle with self-worth or trauma, but they do just fine with making friends, then you can gear your SEL lessons more toward the emotional side of the social-emotional learning coin to help them where they need it most.

Scheduling routine, one-on-one virtual check-ins with each student is one way to give them that chance to bring up anything they might be struggling with. The downside is that this is time-consuming and might not suit students who are uncomfortable talking about personal struggles with their teacher.

If journaling appeals to you over virtual check-ins, this could give your students a comfortable way to express daily or weekly thoughts with you, knowing you’ll review each entry for a grade.

You can allow students to think outside the box when expressing themselves in their SEL journals. Let them know, for example, that if they would rather draw a picture than write out an entry, that’s perfectly acceptable.

Emotional coping lessons

While making your class feel like a community can help with the social side of SEL, teaching emotional regulation, coping mechanisms, and overall human resilience is important on the emotional side.

Virtual SEL activities that support emotional development include:

Feelings circle time: Ask students to volunteer sharing with the class how they feel that day, encouraging them to use specific words for their emotions (happy, sad, angry, etc.).

Talk about how they know what they are feeling, what that emotion feels like in their body, and what they can do to respond to the emotion in a positive way.

Breathing exercises: Focused, deep breathing is a proven method for calming yourself down when you’re “triggered,” in a state of “fight or flight” anxiety.

Taking slow, deep breaths helps switch off the sympathetic nervous system and allows the body to physically return to a calmer state.

You can incorporate practical social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom by teaching breathing exercises that students can do right in their homes.

Benefits range from helping students stay calm during important exams to showing them how to manage disagreements with their parents.

Self-care homework: Offer your students grade points for completing a self-care assignment. It’s a great way to emphasize the value of self-responsibility and make students feel like you’re giving them a freebie at the same time.

A student could complete the self-care assignment by going to bed half an hour early, taking a fancy bubble bath, reading a favorite book, taking a day-long screen break, painting or drawing a picture, or writing an extra journal entry.

Get started with your first online SEL activity

You really can implement social-emotional learning in a virtual classroom with only a few tweaks to your lesson plans.

Whether you start with a student questionnaire, a journaling assignment, or a self-care freebie, your way of teaching SEL online will be worth it for your students – just watch.

If you need a great online platform where you can offer your virtual classes, HiLink makes it easy to use any of the SEL ideas we've outlined above. Contact us today for more information!

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