Guest Blog: How can we support social and emotional learning during school closures?

Jean Gross, co-author of our Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools guidance report, offers some practical and evidence-based suggestions for building children's social and emotional learning into schools' everyday practices, even while schools remain closed to many pupils.

Making space for social and emotional learning (SEL) is a priority for many schools right now.

Children will be experiencing a need to manage strong emotions. They will have seen their normal social relationships disrupted. They may be struggling to recognise the emotions and perspective of others with whom they share limited space. They are being asked to make responsible decisions.

All of these experiences draw heavily on the five core SEL competencies described in the EEF guidance report, Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. 

These competencies are highly predictive of a whole range of improved outcomes for children, from educational achievement to lifelong health and success in the labour market. And although this guidance was written with primaries in mind, many of the principles can be applied to the secondary setting.

Research can help us tackle the task of building children’s SEL skills in this difficult period. It need not be a huge extra task for teachers already feeling overwhelmed. What the EEF guidance recommends are simple ways of building SEL practices into everyday teaching.

Support resources to share with parents

Support resources to share with parents

Resources to share with parents on how to support home routines.

A recent meta-analysis has found that school connectedness, or a sense of belonging, is a key protective factor for children’s social-emotional and academic functioning. Whatever we are teaching, we might want to reflect on ways of building the sense of belonging and connection that children may be missing when they are not in school.

Something as simple as having a photograph of the physical building or classroom when they log onto a website for their school work can help. Some teachers are trying to make a phone call to each child in their class or tutor group. Others are sending home ‘star learner’ postcards with a personal message.

Self-awareness (the ability to accurately recognise and describe emotions and how they influence thoughts and behaviour) is key SEL skill discussed in the EEF guidance report. Teachers can support this by:

  • Instituting a daily ‘emotional check-in’: graphing feelings, choosing an emoji to match mood, writing in a diary with prompts.
  • Using writing frames or online rounds such as ‘The coronavirus period has made me feel ...’, ‘I am finding it hard to....’, ‘What keeps me going is...’ ’, ‘What I miss most is...’, ‘I am hoping that...’

A second key SEL skill discussed in the EEF guidance is self-management – the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours so as to manage stress, motivate oneself and work towards goals. 

Support resources for schools

Support resources for schools

Tools for schools to help support home learning and maximise the impact of work set.

Remote learning draws heavily on children’s capacity for self-regulation, as the normal external classroom controls are missing. To support it, teachers might:

  • Use the ‘‘Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan’ (WOOP) strategy, described in the EEF guidance (page 17), to help children motivate themselves.
  • Help students construct a self-care plan, online or as a written exercise, listing strategies that help them regulate feelings – either to ‘up-regulate’ when the feelings are of boredom/ flatness/low mood (such as vigorous physical activity, listening to upbeat music), or to ‘down-regulate’ when the feelings are of anxiety or anger (such as deep breathing, colouring or imagining the self in a favourite calm place). Children can think through a typical day and list stressors that act as speed bumps to their positivity, then plan how to manage these using the strategies they have identified.

Effective parental engagement in SEL learning is another aspect of the EEF’s guidance on which we can draw when planning remote learning. Parental engagement is consistently associated with academic success; however, evidence about how to improve attainment by increasing parental engagement is mixed.

Flexible approaches are needed with constant monitoring of successes. Families may welcome knowledge about the self- awareness, self-management and problem-solving strategies you are helping their children develop; many will also welcome advice on how to support that learning directly. Positive, personalised learning communications can be helpful, as can celebrating successes in remote learning. 

Whilst much of the work children do remotely will be solitary, we can develop another of the five core SEL competencies – relationship/social skills – by building in elements of collaborative learning.

In synchronous (ie, 'real-time') online learning, teachers can use breakout rooms and develop group-work skills by providing learners with sentence stems when they are using a chat function, such as ‘Building on...',I disagree because...’. As with all remote learning, teachers will want to ensure safeguarding is fully considered; the NSPCC has developed content that can help.

If the online learning is asynchronous (ie, ‘pre-recorded’) we can assign children peer partners for joint tasks, or ask them to share and shape drafts of work with a partner. If they do not have the technology, we can set up ‘phone pals’ and suggest that students call each other to discuss specific topics or prompts, or send home stationery and stamps so they can share work by post.

Finally, a question schools will be reflecting on whilst remote teaching is whether dedicated SEL lessons, recommended in the EEF guidance, are possible online. It may be that PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic education), where SEL normally sits, has so far been difficult to prioritise.

Yet at this time children need lessons that teach them about ways to deal with anxiety, handle frustration, cope with change and bounce back from disappointments. Now might be the moment to return to the EEF’s Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools guidance report – recommendation 4, page 26 – to support Sequenced, Active, Focused and Explicit (SAFE) curriculum planning for the months ahead.

For schools seeking SEL teaching resources:

* Jean Gross CBE is an Early Intervention Foundation Associate, a Director of The SEAL Community and co-author of the EEF’s guidance report, Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools.