Teaching The ‘New’ COVID-19 Social-Emotional Skills

Learning is a collaborative process that relies on social interaction. However, with the current limitations on in-person engagement, it poses a challenge for children to develop their social skills. According to Education Week’s analysis of school reopening plans, less than a third of districts intend to incorporate some form of in-person classes. In these scenarios, students and teachers will have to adhere to safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining a six-foot distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Ensuring that students continue to nurture their critical social-emotional skills in this socially distant environment calls for administrators and teachers to not only reconsider existing approaches to social learning but also teach children how to navigate the new social skills required during the pandemic.

Justina Schlund, the director of field learning for CASEL, emphasizes that traditional social-emotional learning programs heavily rely on face-to-face interactions between students and between students and adults. Collaborative problem-solving and open discussions about emotions and experiences are integral to these programs. To adapt to the current circumstances, schools and educators will need to exercise creativity in their communication of social-emotional learning.

Here are some essential recommendations for school and district leaders to consider when planning for in-person social learning during the pandemic:

1. Assess the risks associated with maintaining or modifying existing activities.

Research on the coronavirus suggests that it can easily spread through both the air and surfaces. Studies on "superspreader" events indicate that speaking loudly, singing, and prolonged close contact all increase the risk of transmission. School leaders face challenging decisions as they develop strategies for reopening schools amidst this global pandemic.

Education Week’s comprehensive coverage explores the key challenges that education leaders must address, such as operating socially distanced schools, reimagining transportation methods, and addressing learning gaps. We present a range of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies adopted by some districts, and provide estimated costs.

Unfortunately, personal protective equipment like facial masks can interfere with students’ ability to engage in social learning effectively. A recent study discovered that covering the lower half of the face impairs communication, interpretation, and imitation of facial expressions. Positive emotions are harder to recognize, while negative emotions are amplified. This reduction in emotional understanding and expression affects bonding between teachers and students, group cohesion, and the overall learning experience, as emotions play a significant role in driving learning.

In summary, finding effective ways to facilitate social learning in a socially distanced world requires innovative thinking and adaptation from schools and educators. By assessing risks, exploring alternative approaches, and considering the impact of protective measures, we can strive to provide students with valuable social-emotional learning experiences during these challenging times.

2. Find strategies to provide emotional support to students from afar

In light of social distancing measures both inside and outside of schools, traditional methods for relieving stress among students and teachers have been eliminated. As a result, experts suggest that educators and support staff actively check in on students’ emotional well-being and teach them alternative ways to cope with feelings of isolation and anxiety. According to Perry, when it comes to elementary school students, they may not always be able to express their emotions verbally, but their physical actions can provide insight. For instance, a sad child may seek physical closeness by holding someone’s hand, sitting close to them, or even wanting a hug. Therefore, it is important to teach children the importance of verbal communication and how to express their emotions using words in such situations.

Many schools already utilize "color checks" to gauge students’ emotional state. These checks use colors such as green, yellow, red, and blue to represent different emotions or feelings. However, in a distanced classroom, teachers believe that students require more explicit language and cues to effectively communicate how they feel.

Nancy Duchesneau, a social-emotional learning researcher at the Education Trust, highlights that social-emotional learning does not necessarily have to occur in close proximity to students. It can involve showing students that they are cared for and providing them with opportunities to express themselves, both verbally and through written assignments that allow their voices to be heard.

3. Assist students in adjusting to new social norms

The pandemic has brought about significant changes to social norms both in and out of school. To help students navigate these new norms, social-emotional learning should focus on equipping students with the necessary skills. According to Justina Schlund, the director of field learning for CASEL, it is crucial to establish consistent routines and schedules, build supportive relationships with students, and create opportunities within the academic day for students to learn and practice social-emotional competencies.

For example, younger students who may not yet grasp the concept of social distancing will require explicit instruction to maintain appropriate distance. This can be achieved by having pre-measured carpet pieces for students to sit on or using a rope with knots to mark a safe space.

Integrating social-emotional instruction into academic classes can enhance the effectiveness of the lessons. Julie Donovan, a supervising social worker for the Springfield public schools in Massachusetts, explains that English and language arts teachers have incorporated social skills instruction into reading lessons during school closures. By explicitly teaching concepts such as taking turns and effective communication, teachers can simultaneously address social-emotional objectives while teaching core subjects.

Teachers and counselors have also taken the initiative to educate students on the new social rules that have emerged during the pandemic. These lessons cover various topics, including maintaining proper distancing, practicing good hand hygiene, and adapting social interactions with friends to adhere to the current circumstances. For instance, Perry mentions teaching students alternative ways of physical contact, such as fist bumps, elbow taps, or high fives, in order to respect personal boundaries. Now, with the return to in-person schooling, educators are adapting their lessons to promote safe interactions, such as waving from a distance or using "air hugs."


  • stanleybyrne

    Stanley Byrne is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher. He has degrees in education and political science from the University of Notre Dame and has worked in various teaching and research positions since he graduated in 2014. He is the author of a number of educational blog posts and has written for Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Salon.