How are Schools Encouraging Social-Emotional Development During Distance Learning?

April 17, 2020 Daren Worcester

A student maintaining social connections with classmates through a virtual conference.

As we all know, K–12 schools provide much more than academic studies and extracurricular activities. Schools are instrumental in the social-emotional development of adolescents, an educational component that’s seriously challenged by distance learning. The longer school doors remain closed and students are plugged into virtual classes, the harder it gets to keep them engaged and connected.

How are schools addressing the challenge of distance social-emotional development? To answer this question, we asked the experts—our schools. Through our online Community and various discussions, we returned some great feedback.

Make virtual school fun and interactive.

Distance learning can be exhausting—for students, teachers, and parents. Amidst this new normal, students are doing their best to juggle school work, siblings and other at-home distractions, and the challenges of missing out on time with friends, sports and activities, and possibly even prom and graduation. It’s a lot for adolescents to process.

Getting creative and adding fun twists to lessons that encourage interaction helps keep students engaged. “Our teachers are trying to make online learning interactive and not just a one-way delivery,” said Linda Lawrence, director of technology development at Metairie Park Country Day School.

“We actually played Go Fish in my class. Their assignment was to bring a deck of cards to our Google Meet, but they didn’t know why. My point was to teach them about designing functions and returning a value, so we started with Go Fish so that we could tie it into an asker and a respondent, parameters, and return values. They thought it was a blast!”

At River Oaks Baptist School (ROBS), Head of School Leanne Reynolds issues a fun challenge for students every morning. “The kids record or take a picture of themselves doing the challenge and send it back to us,” Reynolds said. “I’ll comment and say something like, ‘Oh, you beat me!’ So it’s not real-time interaction, but they know we’re paying attention to them.”

Via the Blackbaud Community, Alison Carpenter at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy weighed in with suggestions from the youth groups she supports. She recommended posting a silly daily question, weekly photo challenges such as image scavenger hunts, bringing a (school appropriate) joke to Zoom calls, and creating polls such as “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”

At Webb School of Knoxville, Director of Technology Jim Manikas sees a variety of fun prompts taking place. “Our middle school had a crazy-sock contest and pajama-day contest. We also started a virtual juggling club school-wide.”

Maintain personal connections and emotional support.

Even with fun class activities and school-wide challenges, students require individual attention to feel involved and build confidence. “One thing that I think has been really heartwarming at our school is that teachers are calling each of the kids in their class individually,” said Meghan Blanton, director of marketing and communications at ROBS. 

“My son is in kindergarten and he got to talk to his teacher today, and she was saying, ‘Oh, I’m so used to sitting next to you every day.’ It was a live conversation, and it’s a lot of work for the teachers, but it means so much.”

“We have a buddy system between our kindergarteners and seniors,” said Hiram Cuevas, director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School. “The latest challenge has not prevented our seniors from maintaining contact with some of our youngest Saints. Our seniors have been creating videos of reading picture books to their buddies. It's a great way to stay connected and also a wonderful way to provide guidance for our seniors about publisher rules regarding recorded readings.”

Many schools are also finding ways to maintain advisor-advisee connections. “All our teachers are calling or video conferencing with each of their advisees at least once a week,” Manikas said, “so every student connects with someone at school regularly, and we can check up on how they are doing.”

Student support has also been a point of emphasis at The Bush School. “One of the things we did early on was to make sure we got all of our support services staff online and accessible in ways that are HIPAA compliant,” said Director of Technology Ethan Delavan. “Whether it’s learning support or emotional counseling, the counselors have gotten themselves out there and made students aware of how to contact them.”

Counselors at The Bush School are also working closely with teachers to recognize warning signs and “identify students where a counselor may need to reach out. That’s one of the big things we put in place. Teachers are also meeting with students in smaller groups so there can be more social time and a little more goofiness—kids can show off their stuffed animals and they can show off their pets. There’s a lot of just hanging out time woven into the discussion.”

Take part in Wellness Wednesday.

To keep students from getting overwhelmed, some schools have developed a two-day-on, one-day-off, two-day-on schedule. The sandwiched off-day is becoming known as “Wellness Wednesday.”

“Our school's continuous learning plan has evolved to include Wednesdays as non-academic days,” said Lawrence. “We hold advisories and social-emotional learning time, club meetings, interest groups, and online school social time. Our middle school has a Wellness Wall with postings of ideas for students to try, and a collection mechanism for sharing video clips and photos of ‘time away.’

“We're thinking of doing a Chain Reaction Challenge inspired by some of the social media postings of Rube-Goldberg-ish feats that travel throughout the house. Keeping minds engaged and problem-solving is always healthy!”

Keep clubs and activities going—from a distance.

Whether schools are designating Wednesdays for extracurricular, or are setting aside blocks during school days, they’re getting creative and finding ways to keep the social interactions and enrichment inherent in these activities going. 

“Regular affinity, interest, and alliance group gatherings help to provide a sense of normalcy for students,” said Emma Fedor, director of marketing and communications at The Cambridge School of Weston. “Kids in our Junior State of America (JSA) chapter, for example, have had to grapple with the cancellation of in-person debates and conferences this spring, but they've continued to meet via Zoom to discuss important world news and political events, and one of them is working on a run for a leadership position with JSA Northeast. These meetings and goals have given them things to look forward to and provided them with a stronger sense of structure."

“Here at KES,” said Derek Parker, manager of information technology at King’s-Edgehill School, “we are holding daily chapel meetings to keep everyone spiritually connected, weekly assemblies to provide a broad range of information to students and acknowledge those doing great things, and we are also hosting a daily Fitness Fix on our YouTube channel with special videos and instruction from coaches, teachers, staff, and students to promote physical and mental wellness.”

Keeping kids active and giving them things to do away from screens has also been a focus at Sinai Akiba Academy, where a teacher is creating a series of at-home workout videos. “He’s done an amazing job really figuring out how he can get the students up and moving with five-minute exercises because that’s what they have for time between classes,” said Marketing and Communications Director Stacy Jagodowski. “It’s working really well.”

Solicit student feedback.

To help keep students from dwelling too much on the things they’re missing out on during social distancing, some schools are finding ways to make them feel involved and empowered.

“Our Student Council is still going strong—albeit virtually,” said Cuevas. “Their last meeting was on Zoom with school admins, and [the admins] provided responses to many of the questions students have regarding canceled events, assessment, and graduation, to name a few.”

The Cambridge School of Weston is finding ways for students to forward the social justice component of their education during the coronavirus outbreak. “School administrators have been partnering with students to sew and collect protective masks for donation to local hospitals. We've also started a letter-writing initiative to thank and cheer-on essential workers and a collection box for non-perishable items for a local shelter," said Fedor. "It's been through clubs and service-oriented student groups that these ideas have been able to come together, allowing students to brainstorm and think about how they can respond to the coronavirus crisis from the safety of their homes." 

Get the school community involved.

Many schools are providing resource boards with information to help families adjust to distance learning. In addition to its support services and professional development for parents, The Lamplighter School received an unexpected contribution from one of its alumni members.

“One of our awesome alumni is a popular local DJ, and she created and shared a Spotify playlist for our community,” said Advancement Specialist Shelly Gammieri. “If I may, it’s pretty dope.”

At Sinai Akiba Academy, Jagodowski organized a Passover Cookbook. “Everybody loved it so much, we’re actually talking about doing another cookbook that isn’t related to Passover,” she said. “We’ve been doing a lot of community things online. We’re talking about doing happy hours with the faculty, having Zoom lectures at lunches with the faculty—lot’s of fun things.”

Keep teachers’ wellbeing in mind.

Delavan echoed the importance of focusing on faculty. “A big part of the mid-game is determining how we are going to help teachers take care of themselves,” he said. “We’re helping them brainstorm how to be effective online so that they’re not overtaxing themselves.

“There are a lot of emotions that come up when we're remote from each other that we handle socially when we're face to face. Because we're not in that social situation now, we're hungry for those cues in a way that's not fully conscious to us. And so we’re trying to help teachers think through the social cues that can exist online, and how to take care of their own emotional health while they figure out how to operate within [distance learning].”

Join the discussion.

Current Blackbaud schools can ask questions and share how your school is supporting social-emotional development and keeping students engaged during distance learning with this Community discussion thread.

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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