5 Social-Emotional Learning Strategies For Returning to School

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Vae Champagne is the Student Programs Manager at Sandy Hook Promise where she develops curriculum and resources for the Know the Signs programs and SAVE Promise Clubs. She is a former educator who has more than two decades of experience in youth development and urban education. She is joined by co-author Dr. La-Shanda West, a Social Studies teacher of 19 years for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools System. Dr. West became a SAVE Promise Club Advisor in 2018 following the school shooting tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Despite the unpredictable landscape of the new school year, providing bridges and opportunities for students, educators, and other school staff to socialize, interact, and feel a sense of belonging and connectedness is essential. These are the basic facets of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).  

Sandy Hook Promise’s Start with Hello program is SEL-based and contains a bundle of resources for creating a safe, secure, and welcoming start to the school year by teaching three steps: 1. See someone alone; 2. Reach out; 3. Start with “hello.” 

You can infuse these Start With Hello-inspired tips into your back-to-school plans to help everyone reconnect:

1. Boost Relationship and Social Awareness Skills with a Welcome Crew

Help students, teachers, and staff feel a sense of safety, security, and belonging at the start of the school day with a “Welcome Crew.” Designate a day of the week for a student group to welcome everyone to the building or campus.   

2. Create special outreach for transition grades and students most “left out”

Many 10th graders weren’t able to experience their freshman year.  Imagine entering a school building for the first time as a sophomore.  Similarly, transitioning ninth-graders lost the opportunity to be the leaders of middle school, now finding themselves at the bottom of the structure once more.  Paying close attention to these most vulnerable grade levels will be vital this year. Consider:

  • Including seventh-graders in the orientation and building tour for incoming sixth-graders in a grade 6 – 8 middle school. 
  • Hosting a special activity or club fair for all “new” students.
  • Offering regular “lunch bunch” and tutoring opportunities during the school day.

3. Prioritize the times of day when connecting and socializing can happen organically

Create space for students to simply connect and socialize.  Instead of the academic ‘Do Now’ assignment, set out conversation cards on students’ desks and dedicate five minutes at the start of each class for these simple student connectors. 

Other ways to encourage organic social engagement include:

  • Organizing drop-in spaces throughout the school day where students can go to simply hang out and do a simple activity, like listening to music or coloring. 
  • Scheduling mask breaks outdoors where students can remove masks at safe physical distances.  
  • Hosting student leadership club activities, like SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) Promise Clubs, during the school day whenever possible.

4. Integrate SEL and wellness checks for educators for staff

SEL for school staff is critical. Pandemic teaching and learning have taken a toll on the Trusted Adults that students heavily rely on. Make time in each staff meeting or mandatory professional development workshop to support educators with self-care time, strategies, and activities.  

5. See someone alone? Start with a “hello”

Staff and students can make intentional efforts this year to reach out to others.  Start With Hello teaches inclusion practices to support students who are showing signs of loneliness or social isolation. 

New Bonus Activities!   Check out these 10-15 minute Start With Hello SEL/CASEL competency-aligned activities for your classroom. 

See More from Dr. West: