Distance Education & SEL

4 Strategies for Supporting Students' Social and Emotional Well-Being Remotely

“Ms. O’Grady, can I share my high and low with you? My high is we went on a walk today. My low is I miss you and my friends so much.”

The content of the conversation with Armani was not atypical; my second and third graders share their highs and lows regularly as a part of our daily morning meeting. However, sharing these sentiments via FaceTime certainly is not the norm.

In this unprecedented time of social distancing and school closures, teachers across the country are trying to create new routines, schedules and means of connecting virtually with their scholars. I find myself missing these daily conversations with my scholars. I am constantly wondering how they are feeling. Do they understand what is happening? Are they scared? Are they bored? Are they healthy? What is their new daily reality?

In these challenging times, taking the time to check in with students’ social-emotional wellness is just as important as attending to their physical well-being. I am grateful that I have invested in my scholars’ social-emotional well-being as part of our daily instruction, because they now have strategies they can apply on their own to help them get through what is a stressful time for us all.

In our regular classroom environment, my students learn and practice mindfulness strategies for managing and responding to anger, stress, and anxiety and for building focus multiple times throughout the day. Once they’re able to manage their emotions and re-center themselves, they’re more prepared to learn core academic content. I hope they’re applying some of the same trauma-sensitive strategies they use to calm down, ease anxiety, and cope with a wide range of emotions in our classroom to their new classrooms at home.

Here are four strategies that my students have found to be effective in helping them work through whatever complex emotions they might be feeling and getting them ready for learning, wherever that might occur.

Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques help my students connect their breaths and their bodies. In this way, they learn to calm down if they’re angry or frustrated.

When we breathe deeply, we increase the supply of oxygen to our brains. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Breathing exercises are a great way to relax, relieve tension, and reduce stress.

There are many different breathing strategies, and my students learn to choose the breathing method that works best for them. For instance, they might like belly breathing, where they place their hands on their stomachs and feel their stomachs inflate—or they might prefer butterfly breathing, where they bring their arms up like a butterfly as they inhale and bring their elbows down as they exhale.

Stretching Exercises

Yoga and stretching exercises connect students’ breathing with movement. When my students are angry or frustrated, the last thing they want to do is sit down or sit still. Stretching teaches them to channel their emotions through positive physical movement.

Stretching also helps students when they need something more to calm them down, or when they need to burn excess energy. If my students come inside from recess and are pretty calm, we’ll focus on breathing exercises. But if they’re on edge, or if they had inside recess and didn’t get to move a lot, I’ll have them do stretching exercises with yoga, martial arts, or dancing.

Visualization Techniques

Visualization is another powerful strategy that can help relieve stress and anxiety. It involves using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind.

As students visualize an item, such as a balloon floating up into the sky or a jar filled with water and glitter, they listen to positive language and settle into a calm state of mind. Even if their thoughts stray a bit, I’m teaching them to refocus their attention on that moment.

Self-Affirmation

Simply having students tell themselves, “I’m calm, I’m focused, I’m ready to learn—and I’m smart,” is an activity in itself. These positive, self-affirming words help students build self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

How We Put These Strategies into Practice

Together as a class, we would apply one of these techniques for 10 minutes to begin each day and again after recess to get students focused and ready to learn. I would try to alternate a breathing or visualization activity with a more physical activity, such as stretching or yoga.

To lead students in these activities, I would use short, interactive videos from Adventure 2 Learning. Students like the yoga videos led by children’s singer and yoga instructor Bari Koral in particular, because they have fun while focusing on movement and breathing at the same time.

As they apply these different strategies, my students grow more mindful of their emotions—and they connect the specific techniques to calming themselves down. I have worked on these techniques with my students from the first day of class, and it didn’t take long to see most of them apply these strategies on their own when they felt anxious or upset.

Now that students are learning from home, I’m trying to make sure they continue to use these strategies. I remind them to practice their breathing, stretching, visualization, and self-affirmation, and they have access to the same mindfulness videos we used in class from home as well.

The more students are able to recognize and manage their emotions, the more capable they are of being present and learning. This paves the way for both academic and personal success. In a time where so many of us are experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and fear, these strategies can help us all cope a little more effectively.

Quinlan O’Grady is a teacher at Schmid Elementary School in Chicago Public Schools.

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