12 Ways You Can Meet Students’ Social-Emotional Needs While Teaching Online

Out of the Box March 20 / March 30, 2020

Featuring Jon Harper and Mandy Froehlich with Phyllis Fagell and Joe Mazza

Educators have been working around the clock to provide, develop and deliver quality instruction to their students. One teacher I know said she’s had days where she has worked from 8:00 in the morning until 9:00 p.m. at night.

Mandy:

Right. I know Jon, I’m seeing the same thing, and teachers are doing everything they can to meet all of the curricular needs of their students, but I can’t help but worry about the social and emotional needs as well. How can they possibly be met? Well, today on Teacher’s Aid, we will be speaking with Phyllis Fagell, the school counselor for the Sheridan School in Washington DC and the author of Middle School Matters and also Dr. Joe Mazza, the principal at Seven Bridges Middle School in New York. Joe and Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today on Teacher’s Aid.

Jon:

Phyllis, how can teachers possibly meet the social and emotional needs of their students when they’re not even in the same building?

Phyllis

Well, they can’t really meet all of the social-emotional needs of their students even when they are in the building. It’s very, very complicated to meet the social needs of middle schoolers, and they rely heavily on their friends to meet those needs, which is what makes everything so challenging right now. I think the most helpful role teachers can play throughout this quarantine is to keep an eye on kids that they might be especially worried about because they are either home alone or they don’t have the same resources as other kids or they have underlying depression or anxiety anyway or under ordinary circumstances they have trouble connecting with peers. And then for the majority of kids, they can create opportunities for them to connect with one another to the extent possible using technology.

Jon:

No, that’s true. Those are the kids I worry about the most. The ones with the most intense needs that just need school to almost keep them halfway regulated. Joe, what do you think? How can teachers, how are you expecting your teachers to meet the social-emotional needs or at least try to during this time?

Joe:

This is an interesting piece. We have teachers that don’t understand truly what’s going on at home. And parents also don’t understand what’s going on in the lives of teachers. For example, here I’ve got four kids running around, and I’m trying to principal from my bedroom on a desk. I think some of it is just understanding each other, being empathetic, not setting too high of expectations and just communicating, just hey, we’re here for you. We’re all in the same boat. … This is unprecedented. We’re all reinventing school and quite frankly, our innovation’s going through the roof. I think on the other side of this, parents will know more about their children academically. And I feel like teachers will also understand those kids from a home standpoint but also understand what works when we’re using these digital tools with kids and what’s getting the biggest bang for our buck.

Mandy:

Okay. Phyllis, do you think teachers should spend more time focusing on what their students need from them and less time worrying about the core subjects? And if so, what would this even look like?

Phyllis:

I think right now the main priority is helping everyone to adjust to really almost unimaginable circumstances. And I think the best way to really put ourselves in their shoes is just to pause and think about how all of us are feeling and to acknowledge the fact that there’s a sense of loss and a sense of uncertainty and people are grieving opportunities and things that they had wanted to do that they no longer are able to do. And kids are really no different. They also are worrying about missing out on birthday parties, sports teams, graduations, all of the things that they were looking forward to. And so I think our first priority is to help them get in a place where they’re able to access learning at all. And I personally feel that every single time we engage with kids during this period, we should start by doing a mental health check and asking everyone what their biggest challenge has been this week. Or maybe what an unexpected joyful experience was. Not just focusing on the negative, but giving them an opportunity to talk about the things that are on their mind. And to normalize that everybody is feeling that sense of loss.

Mandy:

Yeah. And that’s so true and even I was talking to my daughter who’s in high school, the other day, and she’s missing, prom is on its way to being canceled. And she’s one of the leaders on leadership team for National Honor Society. Her National Honor Society things have all been canceled. And while as adults, that seems like a little thing, to them it’s a huge deal. They’re never going to have those experiences in the same way that other kids do. And so recognizing that those things are important, I think is even a big part of supporting them in their emotional state right now.

Jon:

This is going to be a landmark time. My daughter’s even mentioned missing one of her teachers who in the very beginning of the year she said was so strict and she thought he was mean. And it’s funny now, she’s like, “I actually miss so and so.” And it’s like, wow, that’s crazy.

Phyllis:

Yeah, no, that makes complete sense to me. I have two high schoolers. One of whom is a senior, one’s a junior, and then I have a sixth-grader, and so they’re all experiencing a different type of loss. But the best thing we can do in terms of reframing it is to focus on how this is a really momentous time in history and they’re all doing what they can to help. I think all kids like to feel that they are contributing in some way and to find ways to empower them to help others, to sort of transcend their own situation and to help them and encourage them to continue to connect to those kids that they miss so much. And those teachers that they miss.

Jon:

Joe, what do you think?

Joe:

Whatever personal touch that we can add, regardless of if it’s synchronous or it’s asynchronously online, we need to do our very best to make those personal connections because they’re not getting very many of those right now. And I feel like that’s a real opportunity for us teachers to build relationships at a deeper level than they’ve ever been in partnering with students and partnering with families right now.

Jon:

And thinking about that, I mentioned this earlier, I worry so much about our most traumatized students, our students that school is a safe place for them. And these are students that are living in more trauma now. They’re living all day in this trauma. What do you think we’re going to come back to in May, June or possibly next year? How are most traumatized students going to handle this time? And what can teachers do now to help ease that?

Phyllis:

I think that we need to be checking in more with the kids who we know are more likely to struggle during this time. The kids for whom a break or a weekend even is not a welcome relief. These are kids who look at school as the place where they have consistency and relationships with caring adults. And so while we can’t completely replicate that experience, we can do the best we can to reach out to them and to let them know that those same adults still care about them and that we’re still available for talking or video chats. And I do think that there’s a big difference between an email and talking on the phone and then even another level to talking on video. I think when you can really see someone’s facial expressions and see them smiling at you during those conversations, I think it’s important for teachers to ask them about themselves and to show genuine curiosity in their life. I think that that is what they’re missing, that feeling of connection.

Joe:

And not having too solid of a rigid line in terms of this versus that. And you don’t get credit for this and or you didn’t show up for that. It’s not that our kids or families might not care, it just might not be humanly possible. And quite frankly, it just might not be the first priority right now. We’re all going through different things. I think we’ve got to be more empathetic than we’ve ever been.

Mandy:

Yeah, that’s really great advice. Just kind of going off from that, what parting advice do you have for teachers that would want to sort of strike some sort of balance between meeting their student’s curricular needs with their social-emotional needs?

Phyllis:

Nothing is going to have permanent damage if they don’t master the curriculum fully, but there can be lasting trauma if they feel lonely and isolated and traumatized from the sort of collective sense of grief and uncertainty that we’re feeling as a society. In the long run, I think we need to set aside our fears about whether they master every concept. Do the best we can. Try to help them stay organized, try to help prevent them from developing bad habits, help them feel a sense of competency, answer their questions and relay what we can and then spend the vast bulk of our energy on helping them get through a difficult time emotionally.

Jon:

Joe, what do you think?

Joe:

I think the more communication that we can have, the clearer we can make directions, the more open-minded we can be when it comes to assignments, due dates, assessments, the more we can listen to our kids, and we’ve started in a certain point, we consider this iteration one. We’re four days into distance learning, and to evolve it further, we’ve got to be leaning on asking kids and asking families, what’s working, what’s not? How can we tweak things? We’ve got a spring break coming up. How can we tweak them on the other side of that to make them even better? I think we just got to be open-minded. There’s a lot of different situations out there. If you’re on a team of teachers, this is the time where you need to be talking with that team, whatever medium that is every day.

Jon:

Phyllis and Joe, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Mandy, and I about a topic that I think is weighing on many teachers’ minds.

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Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.




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