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Connect – Teaching With a Social Emotional Perspective to Connect With Students

Connect – Teaching With a Social Emotional Perspective to Connect With Students

Jessica Orapallo

Jessica Orapallo

Jessica is a middle school social worker working in Brooklyn, New York.

This article is the second of three in our "Get Set, Connect, Engage!" Back to School Series for Teachers. Today we're focusing on how teachers can Connect during this unusual year to provide meaningful and impactful instruction; while ensuring that students' social and emotional needs are met.

Get Set – With a Plan to Get the Most Out of 1:1 Devices This Year

In the beginning of the pandemic, educators were tasked with the difficult job of moving teaching to online platforms. Several months later, many educators needed to figure out how to simultaneously instruct some students in person and others online. As we move into the next school year and prepare for almost all in person instruction, we have a new unknown to navigate.

We must grapple with the question of how to provide meaningful and impactful instruction while ensuring our students' social and emotional needs are met in the midst of a pandemic. For some students it may be their first time back into a school building since March 2020. For others it will be their first time with several students sharing the same space. As we enter a new kind of back to school, it will be important that students feel safe, supported and connected.

 

It Begins With Self-Reflection

Before we start with the work of navigating a new kind of back to school with our students, we as educators need to do some reflective work of our own. When we engage in a reflective practice, it can support us in making more intentional and effective decision-making. First, consider the following questions:

  • What were the various feelings that came up for you since March 2020?
  • How did you (or how did you not) take care of yourself?
  • What did you learn as you supported students academically, socially and emotionally during distance learning?
  • What are you feeling anxious about when thinking about the upcoming school year?

I encourage you to sit and engage in this reflective work through journaling, drawing and/or talking with someone. Tapping into this honest and reflective space can aid in best supporting our students for the upcoming school year. Before we can support students to do the work of showing up mentally and emotionally in addition to academically, we need to make sure we are doing the same work.

Journal Prompts

As we strive to manage our feelings and expectations of the upcoming school year, we need to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for the range of emotions and reactions from students. For the students we worked with in person prior to the pandemic, we should both keep in mind their possible triggers and typical responses as well as be prepared for new triggers and responses that we may not anticipate.

We may have worked with students who loved coming to school before the pandemic but feel hesitant about returning. If you work with late elementary to high school, I recommend starting the school year with journal prompts such as “How are you feeling about being back in the school building?”, “What would you like me to know?”, and “What was your experience like during remote learning?”.

This will help students begin their own reflective work and give you insights into how to begin supporting their transition into the new year.

Make a Space for Mindfulness

If a student is triggered, it can be beneficial to know what they find helpful in regulating their emotional state. We must meet the student with compassion and empathy. Having a peace, calming, or mindfulness corner that has soothing colors, images of nature, and comfortable seating is a great way for students to have a space inside the classroom to process and self regulate. This corner should not be a punitive consequence but a space students go to when they are feeling triggered or overwhelmed.

At first it may come from the teacher’s recommendation but when consistently used in a non-punitive way, students can begin to advocate for themselves and utilize the calming corner on their own. In addition, allowing students to co-create this space by decorating or adding encouraging quotes gives them a sense of ownership and belonging. Start the beginning of the year with a space that has relaxing and self-regulating items and ask students how you can make it more impactful for them.

Create More Social Space

Aside from creating a physical space to decompress, creating more social space for students will be vital this school year. Some students stayed in touch while others may have not had the opportunity to or were not comfortable.

Students have experienced a range of losses from the loss of social functions to the loss of loved ones. It can feel uncomfortable hearing about loss and we must be mindful not to engage in toxic positivity by making comments such as “well just look at the bright side”.

At the start of the school year, it will be helpful to hold welcome back circles and/or activities, such as discussions, classroom decorating time, or games. These activities may be grouped on one a day or you can create several days of social spaces that give time for students to connect, pause, reflect, and prepare for the upcoming school year.

When we give students the space to process socially and emotionally, we show that we value their well-being. If we want to serve the whole child, we must ensure that we spend intentional time listening and forming authentic connections before attempting to tackle academics and potential learning loss.

Offer a Support System Advisory

Another way to support in the formation of authentic connections is through the use of advisory. Advisories may have a number of various names, homeroom, crew, or breakfast club just to name a few, but all serve a similar purpose of creating a support system that aids in students' academic, social and emotional development.

When intentionally created and maintained, this can be a space that allows for student expression, group bonding and a way for students to actively listen and support one another as they transition to a new kind of back to school. For more on making meaningful advisories check out this article.

In Closing

While we do not know with certainty what the next school year will hold, we can do the work of preparing ourselves through reflective practice, mentally preparing for a range of emotions and responses students may experience and plan ways for even more social connectedness to take place in our school buildings. A new kind of back to school will require more deep breaths, an intentional commitment to trauma-informed practice and critical thinking to best support the various needs of our students.

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in one place. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

 

Ready to bring digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

You might also be interested in these articles:

5 Distance Learning Positives That I Never Expected

5 Distance Learning Positives That I Never Expected

Jessica Orapallo

Jessica Orapallo

Jessica is a middle school social worker working in Brooklyn, New York.

Middle School Social Worker Jessica Orapallo shares how distance learning has brought surprising positives to one learning community in Brooklyn, New York.

When we first started with distance learning in March, I remember thinking how are we going to do this? My school was as prepared as we could be. My principal ensured students had a school-issued laptop and the necessary books, but it all felt strange. 

I remember focusing on the negative at first, simply out of fear. How will students engage online? We only know how to do this middle school thing in person. How are we going to meet the unique needs of our students virtually? How will we maintain a sense of community when we are all far apart? 

As time went on my team and I grappled with answers to these questions. Simultaneously, I discovered many unexpected positives of distance learning that strengthened our school community.

1. Emotional Support Animals Extend Healing Beyond the Screen

For starters, I have met so many furry friends through zoom who took on a new role: emotional support animals. We tried to get an emotional support animal in The Wellnest, our counseling and student social-emotional space within the school building, but there were just too many logistical hurdles. 

At home, many of the students who have cats, dogs, hamsters and even birds have their emotional support with them all day. Students light up when you mention their animal's name and are eager to hold them to the camera. 

These times can be stressful, scary, and sad for us all but the impact is felt more deeply by our middle school students. Having their animals with them is one way for students to cope with the stress and intense feelings.

For those who may not have animals at home, we created Animal Club. This once a week virtual space is where students come to talk and view animal videos, even taking virtual trips to zoos. While we may not have been able to supply an emotional support animal within our brick and mortar school, it is amazing to see students connect virtually over a love of animals within their homes or viewed online.

2. Increasing Digital Literacy Skills

Another fear turned unexpected highlight during this time has been our consistency in staying digitally connected and increasing student’s digital literacy skills.

Our school is not immune to the common struggles of remote learning, from difficulty focusing at home to unreliable internet connections. While it is important to acknowledge these struggles, it is also important to recognize the student strengths and how we have creatively collaborated with students and families to maintain connection.

For our students who are easily distracted, our school was able to provide noise-canceling headphones that changed the way they were able to focus during online classes. In other cases, students share with me that they prefer to work from home and find it less distracting than being surrounded by students in a classroom.

For students with internet connectivity issues, we watched how students were creatively thinking of solutions on their own. Frequently I hear students say “my internet cut out, can you send me an email with that I missed?”

3. Increasing Self-Advocacy Skills

I have witnessed our students' self-advocacy and problem-solving skills grow just by navigating the new world of remote school. Some of our students have said that this experience has prepared them for life beyond middle school. Their typing skills have improved and they are more familiar with a plethora of digital academic learning tools.

My initial anxieties that digital learning would result in disengagement did not materialize as significantly as I thought it would. While this is something we have often taught in the past, distance learning has provided students with growing opportunities to practice these implicit skills in a way they hadn’t before.

This leads me to what I consider one of our greatest highlights, the enhanced connections our community has made.

4. A More Connected Community

One of my greatest fears as we rapidly closed our physical doors last year was that the relationships our students had developed with staff and peers would look different online. However, our school has found that the digital platform has increased our ability to connect with some students and deepen the connections we had already developed.

For some who travel far to get to and from school, they now have an opportunity to be more involved in after school activities- something they could not do prior to the remote environment. We have expanded our daily clubs and activities and now regularly host movie nights that entire families can participate in from home!

At a time when we must navigate through an unknown world rife with pain, grief, and confusion- we have taken the time to strengthen our student community connections.

Prior to the pandemic, our amazing After School and Community Partnership Director facilitated a weekly school-wide community circle. During this time, students come together for an hour to recognize student of the week awards followed by a guest speaker or performer. When we are in the building, we are limited to who can join in these weekly activities. Which brings up another positive highlight: 

5. More Universal Learning Experiences

Now that our weekly community circle is on Zoom, we have guest performers from all over the world, from distant states such as North Carolina to far-off countries like Spain, India, and Australia!

Our guest speakers have been authors, dancers, fitness instructors, lawyers and we even had a visit with an animal shelter. Our students have an opportunity to ask questions in real time and participate in a world outside of our school. During virtual community circle students are able to post reactions and thoughts in the chat, deepening their connections with peers, staff, and guests.

One of the most rewarding experiences has been our revised virtual Winter Showcase. While the Winter Showcase was a yearly tradition during in-person school, giving all those who participate in afterschool programs an opportunity to demonstrate their new skills and talents, this year’s event was unlike any other. We had parents, school board members and community members who, in years past, have not been able to attend due to time constraints and distance.

Our students cheered for each other, danced, and even enjoyed the virtual spotlight to give props to their peers. In many ways the energy that was created in the virtual space reached further than it ever had; it reached the homes of our entire community.

What’s next?

While I wish we were all back together, it has been beautiful to see students uncover new talents and let their strengths shine.

Whether it's meeting student animals, hearing students more confidently self-advocate and navigate a digital space, or developing a sense of togetherness through virtual community events, I have found positives during remote learning that I did not think would be possible. I hope we can all continue to look for light as we sift through the ongoing newness of virtual learning.

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in one place. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

 

Ready to bring digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

You might also be interested in these articles: