10 Social and Emotional Learning Strategies for Responding to COVID-19

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on HMH’s recent report titled The Connected Learning Era: Mitigating the COVID-19 Learning Loss.

This is an unprecedented time for education and the world. All of us are living history, and our children and youth will be defined in part by their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we prepare for their return to school for the 2020-21 academic year, we don’t know precisely where or how we will get started. But what we know for sure is that the well-being of students and the social justice issues being raised are the top concerns of educators and communities.

This generation of learners will be coping with educational, economic, and social justice issues for the foreseeable future. The Learning Sciences and Research teams at HMH collaborated to develop a guide to help plan for what may come next. In it, we examine the potential learning loss our students may incur and describe a research and practice-based Connected Learning System. The system includes evidence-based practices that can support rigorous, intensive, motivating, and personalized connected learning. The goal of attending to students’ social and emotional needs influences all aspects of the work of teaching and learning. Let’s take a closer look at how social and emotional learning (SEL) is addressed in the guide and propose recommendations.


Researchers and educators are projecting negative effects on most students’ learning overall due to disrupted schooling. Beyond that, all students have experienced a sense of “loss” as they have had to adjust to a new reality where school does not include seeing their teachers and friends in person. The pandemic has caused stress, grief, and anxiety about the future for many students and their families. The lack of social interaction and feelings of isolation have increased mental health issues.

There are three research-based principles that can form the basis of a school or district’s SEL plan for addressing the well-being of students, educators, families, and the community amid the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of the school year:

Educators can use the SEL framework provided by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which considers a research-based systemic approach to social and emotional development. Schools can begin with intentionally cultivating a caring and equitable learning environment and implementing evidence-based SEL practices that actively involve all students in their social, emotional, and academic growth.


© CASEL, 2017

Here are 10 SEL strategies that schools and educators can use to nurture students’ social and emotional development.

1. Build Community

Educators and families can support a systemic and connected approach to learning by nurturing the whole child and infusing SEL into every part of students’ daily lives—across their classrooms, during all times of the school day, and when they are in their homes and communities. A supportive environment includes a caring, culturally responsive learning community where students are well-known and valued; structures that allow for continuity in relationships, consistency in practices, and predictability in routines; and relational trust between and among staff, students, and parents.

2. Assess Social and Emotional Needs

Conducting a needs assessment for SEL for students and educators in addition to understanding families’ home environments during remote learning and at the start of the back-to-school season can help schools understand how best to provide resources to address the challenges students may have faced. It is crucial to identify and build on the strengths, yet pinpoint and nurture the areas that need attention. By starting the first meeting with “How are you?”, educators will demonstrate that they are putting the well-being of their students first.

3. Engage in Self-Reflection

When individuals are experiencing stress and anxiety, it is difficult for them to focus and pay attention, keep their emotions under control, or handle frustration in an appropriate manner. Providing individuals with the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and accurately identify their feelings through journaling or conferencing is essential. It allows them to recognize, label, and share their feelings during these uncertain times. While looking out for the students and community, educators and families need to do as the airlines advise: put their own masks on first. In this context, it means that all of you who care for others must take time to care for yourselves and to reflect on how you are feeling in this time.

4. Reinforce Self-Regulation Skills

As students have experienced collective trauma through the pandemic, misbehaviors and lack of self-regulation from prolonged physical isolation may be more noticeable. Rather than immediately punishing the students for their misbehavior, working to understand and identify the cause of the emotion may help students overcome the behavior. Forming a stronger bond with the educator can result when the student feels cared for rather than judged.

5. Promote Stress Management

Invest time in teaching students effective stress management techniques and provide physical activities or spaces within the classroom for students to practice deep breathing and/or yoga stretches. Stress management is not only important for students but for educators, school leaders, and family members alike. Practicing self-care and maintaining one’s own positive well-being are essential as educators model those behaviors to their students and children.

6. Nurture Diversity and Empathy

Considering multiple perspectives and appreciating those from diverse backgrounds and cultures are integral SEL competencies. Addressing the recent issues of racial disparity, social justice, and equity can help unify communities, rather than divide them. SEL includes having empathy for others, the ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and showing respect for others, according to CASEL. Particularly during these challenging times of anxiety and uncertainty, listening to each other’s experiences and showing empathy towards others helps bring communities together. Understanding that one’s experience may greatly differ from someone else’s is important to acknowledge, and demonstrates that we each have unique stories to share while collectively experiencing a common trauma. Promoting respect for all rather than harboring discriminatory thoughts and behaviors is essential for the educator to model and for all to exercise in daily interactions.

7. Serve as a Confidante to Promote Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making centers around the individual’s ability to make respectful and constructive decisions around issues related to the self and in social situations in everyday life, according to CASEL. Serve as a confidante for students when they need to make difficult decisions, as this not only strengthens a trusting relationship but also develops students’ problem-solving and analytical skills.

8. Establish a Sense of Belonging

A sense of belonging in the school and classroom is essential to students’ feelings of comfort and readiness to learn. Creating bonds with peers, educators, and others at school, and establishing feelings of school belonging, are also key factors in preventing misconduct, research shows. Whether online or face to face, promoting a sense of belonging and connection leads to happier and more engaged learners. For example, beginning the day or class by asking a question of the day or week leads to students sharing information about interests, family, and community values. Educators and leaders collaboratively create an environment where all students feel like they fit, are safe, and can continue to grow and learn.

9. Build Relationships

Research illustrates that building and strengthening the relationships that students form with educators, and with each other, plays an important role in their face-to-face and remote learning environments. In positive relationships built on mutual feelings of care, trust, and safety, students’ emotional well-being, positive sense of self, and social and academic skills are promoted. Hold office hours to provide a safe haven for students to discuss their feelings. Schedule one-on-one check-ins with each student—especially those who may be exhibiting depression, stress, and/or anxiety issues.

10. Partner with Mental Health Professionals

Build and deepen relationships with mental health professionals within and outside the school. As a school or district, prioritize investments in social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists when possible. Educators can serve as liaisons with health care professionals to identify students who may need additional follow-up counseling support.

By being proactive and starting the return to school by addressing the social and emotional needs of students, the adults who care for them, and ourselves, we as educators can provide a supportive environment that will accelerate learning. Focusing on SEL can help to mitigate the pandemic’s negative impact on all aspects of our lives. We have children who are near and dear to us whom you are helping to navigate this challenging time, and we’re very grateful. You are teaching us that distance and remote learning are just terms of delivery—but not ones that have to describe relationships. We are learning the value of making connections and being better together.

Additional Resources:

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To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.