Let’s face it: this is not going to be a typical Back to School season. With the tumultuous events of COVID-19, economic issues, and antiracism efforts nationwide, students are coming back to us with questions and concerns that are weighing heavily on their minds and hearts. They’re also facing the same “quarantine fatigue” that we are, carrying loneliness, grief, overuse of technology, and whatever other struggles they may have dealt with in their homes since we saw them last.
Social Emotional Learning must take center stage this fall. When students encounter trauma (as we all have this year), it often manifests itself in unexpected behaviors and social struggles. Emotional and mental health need to integrate into our schedules and lesson plans whenever possible to teach students strategies to self-regulate and increase their awareness of others. As teachers, we’re in a unique position to help guide them with strategies and help support families this school year.
So, before we start designing bulletin boards and drafting up First Day of School lessons, here are some ways to help support students’ mental and emotional health this year at school, with their families, and online:
- READ GOOD BOOKS: Books can be a gateway to so many important conversations. A read-aloud each day is a simple, 5-minute way to open up students’ minds to difficult topics. Even intermediate and high school students benefit from a carefully-chosen picture book. Often, it’s easier for students to unpack the problems in a character’s life than their own, which can lead them to powerful reflections and self-awareness. Try books like The Dot (to foster creativity), A Bike Like Sergio’s (to build empathy), or Your Name is a Song (to open a discussion about cultural identity).
- GIVE STRUCTURE: Whether teaching online or in the classroom (or a mix of both!), don’t throw out the structure of your classroom this year. Post up a schedule of the day, have routines (like a Morning Meeting), and think about continuing classroom jobs or celebrations. With so much uncertainty right now, students thrive knowing that they can count on something in their day. For example, in my class, we look forward to our mindfulness practice together every Monday and know that our Wednesday Google Meet will start with a quick game!
- USE TOOLS FROM THE PROFESSIONALS:If your school or district has a counselor, tap into the resources they have to build SEL strategies into your classroom community. If you don’t have access to those resources, check out WholeHearted School Counseling on TPT! Our elementary students loved using the Mindfulness Brain Breaks and Kids Coping Strategies this year. It’s a great way to empower your students in their self-management skills and be aware of how they’re feeling throughout the day.
- SHARE HIGHS AND LOWS The past few months have been challenging for everyone---children, teenagers, and adults. Make time each day to share the happiest and most difficult parts of your day. Listening to your child’s reflection will help them process what went well in their day and how they struggled. You can share too--it’s powerful for kids to hear how adults talk about their emotions, reflect on their actions, and move forward.
- CHOOSE WHAT YOU WATCH + READ TOGETHER Try reading a book together and build empathy by thinking of how the characters might be feeling. Watch a favorite show or movie together, then talk about how you may have acted differently if you were in their shoes. Thinking through difficult situations via books and TV will help if they’re faced with similar choices in real life.
- CREATE A CALM DOWN CORNER A “calm down corner” is a spot in your home where you or your child can learn to self-regulate when feeling anxious, angry, or frustrated. It may be an actual corner of the room, or even just a special chair or space. Some families like to include a favorite book or funny photos, coloring pages (even for the adults!), or peaceful artwork. Encourage them to try sitting in the calm down corner when emotions are running high. Sit for a few minutes, practice some mindfulness or relaxation strategies, and then rejoin the family.
- BETTER WORLD ED This Social Emotional Learning curriculum has created incredible wordless videos that give a glimpse into one person’s life throughout the world. These videos give opportunity to discuss global SEL and build empathy and compassion. Their Learning Journeys pair each video with academic standards in math, literacy, social studies, science, and art through lesson plans and stories. It’s a must-have for teachers and families!
- PLAYWORKS Never underestimate the power of FUN! Playing a game together creates opportunity for conversation, relaxation, and learning how to support one another. Playworks created a YouTube channel filled with games for classrooms or families to play together---even following CDC guidelines! Their Facebook page is full of ideas for families, too.
- TEACHERS TO FOLLOW: Instagram has some genius educators who are sharing books, ideas, and resources to help families and teachers during this time. If you’re looking for diverse books and new literacy ideas, check out @diversereads and @hereweeread on Instagram. For more tips on SEL strategies, follow @SELebrategoodtimes and @brightfuturescounseling.
Jeanette Lopez has taught elementary school in Southern California for nine years. She strives each year to build a community of student leaders who value literacy, integrity, and compassion. She is passionate about getting technology and SEL strategies into the hands of teachers. She spends her free time with her husband, three energetic children, and copious amounts of coffee.