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4 Ways To Rebuild Our Students’ Emotional Health

Across the country, millions of teachers are preparing for what will be the hardest year of teaching in modern history. Educators are dealing with stress, anxiety and fear from unrealistic public expectations and rapidly changing plans. While we work diligently to perfect our Zoom skills and transform curriculum into distance learning content, the nagging thought on almost every teacher’s mind is an entirely different one; a looming problem of epidemic proportions. Our country is entering one of the biggest mental health crises we have faced in decades.


Once we tackle the logistics of where our children will physically be as the school doors “open,” our gears will have to quickly shift to where they are at emotionally, and how to best support them.

Like many teachers, some of my favorite work hours are spent learning from my PLC on social media. These days, our conversations center on how to include more social emotional learning (SEL), including diversity and inclusivity curriculum. However, with so much going on in the intersection of education, politics and public health, teachers are finding themselves with a Herculean labor to perform. Teachers are busy either preparing their classrooms for in-person learning to comply with ever-changing guidelines (often without adequate funds); or transforming their entire curriculum into a virtual learning format…or both. This leaves little time for SEL efforts, which often fall to the back burner despite our best intentions.

Many teachers know the benefits of investing time on social and emotional learning. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, has collected decades of research showing the impact of SEL education. Focusing on social emotional learning leads to better academic outcomes, such as better test performance and higher graduation rates, as well as reducing behavioral issues and improving mental health. So how do we create a safe, nurturing, relationship-based environment for students when we have so little time to invest in it? One answer is to use “SEL Hacks” from the MUSE Framework for Social Emotional Learning.

SEL Hacks are stand-alone curricular components that can be easily incorporated into the classroom with minimal effort. Start by choosing just a few of these to add on for the start of this school year. As each component becomes ingrained in your curriculum, visit the MUSE website to find new ideas and learning units. SEL Skill Set #1: Modeling Behaviors

Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky calls this concept ‘apprenticeship.’ The incredible learning that happens through apprenticeship starts very young, in the home, and continues with teacher scaffolding throughout the school years. We model emotional health for students by prioritizing our physiological and psychological well-being. We ALL must ‘Maslow’ before we can effectively ‘Bloom.’

Start by spending the first week of school sending this message loud and clear. Introduce your students to virtual tools they can use to learn and practice SEL skills, and dedicate at least 30 minutes per day to the explicit teaching and practice of social emotional learning. For example, here is a feelings board that was created using padlet. Tell students to identify which emotion(s) they are feeling each morning, and make sure you include your own name as well.

Having a feelings board shows students they are not alone in feeling such turbulent emotions. It also increases student awareness of their own resiliency as they notice their moods shift back to the positive, which can help increase optimism. Lastly, this gives you the opportunity to quietly note which students seem to be struggling more frequently. You could follow up one-on-one with these students by having private chats, phone calls home, or using apps like Seesaw that allow you to communicate with your students individually. Another great ‘first week of school’ activity is to discuss a set of classroom rules or community standards. The emphasis you place on this discussion will help you set up a safe learning environment for the school year.

Allow students plenty of opportunities to feel heard each day. Keep your lectures to a minimum and allow for group games, break out rooms, and one-on-ones. One way to accomplish this is to record your lessons for students to watch asynchronously, so that more of your synchronous learning time is spent connecting with one another and practicing their learning. Motivation theory says that allowing students to use their voice, and additionally allowing them to make choices in their learning, increases engagement.

One model example of student choice is Genius Hour, inspired by Google’s policy of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on side passion projects. During Genius Hour, students are allowed to pursue their own educational learning objectives. SEL Skill Set #2: Understanding Emotions The Feelings Board, shown above, is one way to help students to label their emotions, which is one of the first steps in building self awareness skills. You can also add mindful moments into your students’ days. Mindful moments allow your students to check in with their emotions and their body throughout the day, an important step towards building emotional regulation skills.

Another useful time in the day for a quick check-in is just before class ends. Exit slips can be used as a simple tool for seeing how students are feeling about class, or just in general. Exit slips can also be a useful formative assessment tool for teachers, allowing insight into whether or not each student is understanding the concepts being taught.

The most important part of helping students understand themselves and their emotions is to give them plenty of opportunities to speak up and connect. “Be willing to have personal, empathetic, authentic conversation,” says fellow educator Traci Browder. SEL Skill Set #3: Social Skills

While it may seem as though socialization and the teaching of social skills has necessarily hit the pause button, there are still ways to teach these crucial life skills. If your district is doing distance learning, one practical way to start off the school year is to have a conversation about virtual classroom etiquette. Here is an infographic you are welcome to use:

Teach children to show respectfulness and kindness to their peers, even via video conference. This means using non-disruptive signals, being on time and prepared as they would be to a normal class session, and respecting each others’ privacy. If you are teaching in-person, these masks that allow students to see your facial expressions will help greatly with creating connection. Practice greetings by the door, if possible, though without the hugs and fist bumps. Make mornings fun and relationship building — for example, you could ask students to do a little dance move that you mimic as they come through the door.

If you are teaching virtually, smile and greet each student every morning by name. Ask attendance questions to get students sharing and connecting right from the start of class. Having morning meetings is just as important now, if not more important than ever. Visit Responsive Classrooms for inspiration for morning meetings.

Not all of your time on video calls needs to be academic learning. Spend some time allowing students to share, getting involved in random discussions, telling jokes, and discussing feelings — just like you would in a regular classroom environment. Create break out rooms and pair students with random “recess buddies” — you could allow them to play digital games together, or interview one another. Another idea for building relationships is to create virtual ‘dialogue journals.’ You could create a journal to write back and forth with each student, and also create journals for students to dialogue with their peers, taking turns in rotation. You can include a combination of SEL topics as well as academic check-ins in your journaling prompts.

Teach students how to treat each other kindly by encouraging appreciation.

You can build student communication and conflict resolution skills by teaching “I Statements.” I statements are scripted conversations that follow this format:

I feel… because… I need…

While this format often feels stuffy and unnatural at first, with practice you may find students attempting to use a more relaxed version on their own. For example, “I feel overwhelmed by the constant changes in expectations for teachers, and I need the administration to pick one course and stick with it for at least one solid month.” SEL Skill Set #4: Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation has been a struggle for many people lately, not only for children. Mental and emotional health issues are rapidly rising, and often result in behavioral issues. One of the most important skills you can give your students is the ability to manage their responses to their emotions.

The MUSE website has a virtual curriculum called ‘Piloting Your Plane,’ geared at early elementary age students. This curriculum uses the analogy that our bodies are like planes and we are the pilots. Our responsibility is to fly our plane smoothly without crashing. In order to do so, children learn to check their control centers throughout the day, including their emotional thermometer and hunger/thirst gauges. The curriculum comes with plenty of ready-to-use activities that could be easily integrated into virtual or in-person classrooms, creating a wonderfully playful and highly effective common language.


Teaching ‘growth mindset’ can also help students with emotional regulation. The concept of growth mindset helps students to normalize mistakes, treating them as part of the learning process rather than as a sign that they are incapable of learning.

Having calm down kits and either in-person or virtual calm down centers is very helpful for students who need to take breaks in order to remain regulated. Storyline offers a wonderful online library of books read aloud by celebrities, with beautiful animated graphics to go with them. Set up your own virtual calm down center, and teach students how to use it when they are in need of a break.


While we will continue to see the effects of this pandemic on our children for years to come, incorporating the MUSE framework into your classroom will help you begin to rebuild your students’ emotional health.

For more tips on how to help your students (and yourself) during this chaotic time, please follow me. I am working fast to upload hundreds of units of SEL curriculum for all ages to my new site, EmotionalMUSE, and will send out updates as new units become available.

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