Before students can really focus on math, science or any academic subject, they need to have their basic needs met and one of those needs is emotional security.

“Regardless of how fantastic your teacher may be or how incredible that science curriculum is at engaging and motivating you, if you have a student who's dealing with stress or trauma or unable to get over the interpersonal interaction they had right before they entered that classroom, they're not going to be able to process the dynamic curriculum that's being presented to them,” says Christina Cipriano, the director of research and a research scientist at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, in an EdSurge interview.

Today that stress may be related to economic uncertainty in the family, concern about an elderly loved one or even being able to log in for class. Even prior to today’s pandemic-triggered upheaval, many educators were strongly advocating for social-emotional learning (SEL) to address bullying in the classroom as well as to help students develop the skills today’s employers are seeking such as the ability to tolerate unpleasant emotions.

Relationship building for teachers in times of COVID

“Education is about relationships, building relationships that foster a positive environment or a positive vibe or a positive/good feeling about an accomplishment or project,” says industrial arts teacher Tim Zavacki. “Teachers who make you feel good are the ones you remember in a positive way.”

He believes that one to one communication is the first step in building those relationships. Now with the pandemic he does regular wellness check-ins and finds the students really need them. Small talk with kids is typically about what they like to do outside of school, their hobbies, things they have done, places they have been or their school day but may open the door to other things.

Opening up that line of communication goes a long way to building trust, so if an emotionally loaded situation comes up students feel more comfortable confiding in him. At times when Zavacki has questions about recent attitude or behavior, he pulls a kid aside in a neutral space that they are familiar with usually in the classroom. In the case of his woodshop there are side rooms, never an unfamiliar room hallway or closed office. It’s all about making them feel comfortable in their environment.

“I start off and tell them that I want to ask them a question not as teacher to student but for lack of a better phrase ‘man to man,’ for the male students. There are days that are easier to do than others based on getting the ‘read’ on the student first.”

For students who are working remotely, it’s not just about developing relationships with the student but also the family. As teacher and teacher trainer Sarina Subhan says in an Oxford ELT blog that provides technical tips on staying connected, “If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that remote learning for students below the age of 18 must be in collaboration with parents.”

Distance learning-related difficulties like logging in are common stressors STEM educator Chad Reed sees as project coordinator for Calculus Roundtable after school programs. He's made reaching out to offer support to these families a priority.

Reflection and metacognition help students self-regulate

Although for distance learners distraction at home may be an added challenge, having students pause to reflect helps them regulate and evaluate. Zavacki, who is teaching hybrid these days, recently added reflection questions as part of students' weekly reports. This bit of metacognition has been very useful in getting them to think, be more introspective and even consider trying new strategies.

In a recent blog, Laura Ansteatt, team lead at Frameworks, shares that she’s found personality quizzes very popular with students because they enjoy learning more about themselves and their peers. Interestingly, some students began to question whether they were placed in the “right” category as they explored the different strengths and challenges of each personality type.

She took advantage of this opportunity to explain how regardless of age or experience in life, reflecting on our personal challenges can be difficult, yet that self-awareness is the first step to understanding ourselves, learning, and growing.

“Once we can recognize our strengths and challenges, we can learn to best use these traits,” she told students. “This self-awareness can also lead to possible efforts to manage ourselves and what we view as weaknesses.”

In fact, the teaching approach at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence employs the acronym RULER for the ability for us to be able to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate our emotions, explains Cipriano.

Focus on the leadership

Modeling behavior for students is a key part of their approach, explain both Zavacki and Reed.

Precisely for that reason, the work at the Yale center focuses on the social-emotional learning of the adults in the room and the educators because they’re the co-constructors of knowledge in that environment, notes Cipriano.

She emphasizes that the work doesn’t stop with teachers, saying, “It's important for the leadership to invest in social-emotional learning as something that is important from the top down, not just the bottom up.”

She explains that for students to be expected to increase in their social-emotional competencies, leadership needs to focus on the psycho-social health and well-being of teachers so they feel like they're available to teach it. For that to happen, you obviously need to focus on the leaders and their psycho-social health and well-being.

“Otherwise it just becomes another thing that doesn't stick and that is the complete antithesis of what folks in the SEL field want to happen with social-emotional learning.”