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Proactive SEL

By Kathryn Hecht-Weber | September 2021

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The coronavirus pandemic continues to create an unpredictable educational landscape. To help students cope with and recover from the extreme stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools are turning to social/emotional learning (SEL) strategies.

SEL refers to building skills and mindsets necessary for students to thrive in all areas of their life. These competencies include:
  • understanding and managing emotions
  • setting and achieving positive goals
  • feeling and showing empathy for others
  • establishing and maintaining positive relationships
  • making responsible decisions
Research shows direct SEL instruction can create more positive school climates and boost academic achievement, even in a virtual environment. Emotions influence students’ attention, decision making, memory and learning. SEL can also help with student and family engagement. Students are more likely to show up and do their best when they feel connected to their peers, teachers, school counselors and school staff. We have an opportunity and responsibility to keep SEL at the center of our efforts to help students acquire better ways to manage emotions in and out of the classroom.

Obstacles into Opportunities

Although getting into the classroom can be more challenging than ever for school counselors, we are committed to delivering proactive direct and indirect student services to meet students’ social/emotional needs, whether in person

Videos: School counselors are innovating and leveraging technology to connect with students early and often. One way is for school counselors to find a camera and film social/emotional lessons. A mixture of prerecorded and livestreaming lessons can provide more access. Lessons can build skills and address the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors you need to focus on this year to meet annual student outcome goals. Going beyond lessons, one first-year school counselor sent out short (two- to five-minute) videos to her elementary students each day during virtual learning. Each video had a theme tied to the day of the week, such as Mindful Monday and Friday Funnies. Videos can connect students to their school counselor in a new way. 

Individual counseling: When it comes to one-on-one connection with the school counselor, many schools moved to comprehensive access points and intentional check-ins with all students while in virtual mode. Digital request forms for individual counseling allow students to access their school counselor virtually, which can be comforting and help students feel supported and heard. Predictability is an important aspect of social/emotional development and helps build trust. 

Small groups: For more targeted SEL support, school counselors are incorporating virtual small groups. One school counselor has incorporated What’s Up Wednesday as a scheduled time for students to connect virtually over lunch with their school counselor and classmates. Through drawing and discussion, these groups give students a safe space to build healthy relationships and practice social/emotional skills. 

Collaboration: As schools strive to build students’ social/emotional capacity, partnering with our academic teams is powerful. A growing number of schools and districts have been embedding SEL practices into classrooms and throughout the school day. School counselors can seek to utilize homerooms, advisory periods and bell work to create common language. Infusing social/emotional learning throughout a student’s school day allows teachers to get to know their students in a new way and better support their academic growth. Developing opportunities for rich interactions apart from academics helps students feel valued and cared for. 

One way to foster predictability is to create new routine communications. Check in with students early and often to help maintain core relationships. Schools and school counselors are intensifying communication and outreach with frequent (weekly, sometimes daily) scheduled emails, phone calls and newsletters. These help students and parents stay connected and give school counselors the opportunity to express care, concern and availability. 

Turn every interaction into a chance for social/emotional learning. As schools feel the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, school counselors may find themselves delivering more system support than ever before. From extra lunch duties to covering classes, school counselors are stepping up to keep students safe and in school. These interactions offer insight into students’ interests and lives and provide a way to be a constant presence in students’ school day. Face-to-face time outside of the school counseling office makes school counselors more approachable to both students and teachers. And being in the classroom can give a fuller picture of a student’s school day. As an added extra, classroom time may improve collaborative relationships with teachers, providing firsthand experience and understanding of classroom management.

Beyond Students

Educator routines and communities have also been in upheaval. Helping staff members build capacity for identifying, understanding and managing their feelings can help bring colleagues comfort, encouragement and routine that educators need right now. 

Self-care is not only important but necessary for us to best serve young people. Healthy habits in nutrition, sleep and exercise are a good place to start. And setting boundaries and creating space for self-reflection are important. Positive relationships can also be a means to support one another. Making time to reflect on shared experiences allows all parties to express emotions and connect with one another. 

Reach out to experts for additional support and resources. It is important for adults and children alike to know they aren’t alone. An expert can help provide a safe space to talk through feelings and provide strategies to help cope. 

SEL supports learning by giving students and staff the skills and tools to better manage emotions in and out of the classroom. School counselors can lead the way in creating a culture where SEL is central in all classes and throughout the entire school building. The benefits of SEL will help support students and staff through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. While we still have a great deal of uncertainty ahead, it is important to recognize the importance of this work. Building these skills right now might be one of our most critical next steps.

Kathryn Hecht-Weber is the school counseling supervisor for Omaha Public Schools, Neb.