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Wednesday / July 8

Plan for a Successful Return to School by Focusing on SEL 

“This has been an emotional rollercoaster.” 

I have heard this and many statements like it in the work that I do to support educators in implementing Social Emotional Learning for adults and students.  I have been in “zoom rooms” with educators across the country and I often start with a checkin.  I ask questions so I can understand the concerns that they are experiencing.  Educators are worried about their spouses who are first responders, balancing home and work, the emotional well-being of their students, academic lag, sustaining quality work through the remainder of the school year, and what will happen next year.  But I also hear from people who feel guilt that they are not doing enough or not doing what is expected of them.    

These feelings are normal and need to be expressed or supported so they don’t become more difficult to manage.  As we move forward to return to school, here are some suggestions to better support students and staff. 

1. Past: Allow people to grieve 

Our educational stakeholders have experienced loss. Those losses can be big or small. They can be tolerable with adequate social support or they can become toxic depending on the context of the stressful experience. Ignoring these losses and the feelings that they create can cause some students to feel misunderstood or unsupported.  

Supporting the grief will have the following elements:   

  • Be available and provide emotional support for both adults and students 
  • Discuss what the grief process looks like and some of the typical stages of grief 
  • Provide differentiated supports depending on need, including universal supports, group counseling, community supports, mentoring, and peer support groups 
  • Give time to recognize and reframe the losses that we have experienced 

Our students are not alone in feeling the grief of loss. As a community of educators, we must support each other, and that means both giving and getting support. The hope is that we may be able to find the positives that come from this unusual time. 

2. Present: Understand your stakeholders experience 

Now is the time to dig in and get the pulse of your educational community.  How are they doing?  Are there students who are suffering or thriving? Is your staff suffering or thriving? The answers will differ based on the internal and external resources to which they have access.  It will also depend on the way they navigate what is expected of them personally and professionally.   

Expectations can be especially demanding in our current environment.  We are finding it challenging to feel a sense of accomplishment in any of our roles.  When I speak to groups, I often ask them to share with each other how their expectations influence them.  Which of the expectations of your role inspire you or make you feel proud that it is your duty to fulfill?  Which of these expectations are exhausting or overwhelming? 

Use whatever means necessary to get feedback about your school stakeholders.  Surveys, discussion groups, or daily check-ins can be good ways to begin to understand how we are doing. You may be surprised by what you find. 

3. Future: Integrate social emotional skills supports from day one when we return 

The first few weeks will likely continue to be an emotional rollercoaster. My concern is that we will want to get back to “business as usual” without realizing that we have been through something unprecedented. And it won’t be the same. Some of our students and educators, especially those who have previously experienced trauma, will need some time to feel safe and ready to learn. 

Recommendations for starting school: 

  • Focus on relationships. Give teachers time and resources to build relationships with students.  Examples include indoor or outdoor games, get to know you icebreakers, 20 questions for the teacher, classmate interviews, conversation starters, etc. 
  • Make every classroom a community.  Begin with a morning greeting, a class circle, use restorative discipline practices, allow students to plan and prepare activities as appropriate, have a team name and create classroom traditions and celebrations. 
  • Plan for ways to teach stress management. Examples include belly breathing, brain breaks, calming corner, moment of silence, journaling, movement, etc.  
  • Prepare for different needs within your school. What universal interventions that focus on social and emotional competencybuilding and relational skills are you planning? How are you using your mental health staff (school counselors, psychologists, social workers, behavior specialists) to support your students and staff? 
  • Encourage self-care and self-compassion for everyone, including parents and guardians.  Use meeting times to promote and support staff self-care. Discuss ways that you can balance your care for self with care for others. 

We will face many unknowns as we move forward. Uncertainty, novelty, and unpredictability cause stress for most people. Give yourselves grace as you plan for the future. 

The best course of action is to plan with the intention to make schools feel safe and supportive.  We can do that by allowing people to grieve, learn more about their experiences, and use that information to integrate social and emotional skills supports from Day One. 

Written by

Jennifer Rogers is author of Leading for Change Through Whole-School Social-Emotional Wellness (2019) and Founder of Rogers Training Solutions, LLC, which provides consulting, professional development, workshops, coaching, and one-on-one leadership support for individuals and organizations exploring social, emotional, and behavioral interventions in school environments.

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