How to Prioritize Social-Emotional Learning in a Time of Social Distancing

Sel Social Distancing

Business as usual in the United States has come to a screeching halt, leaving many wondering if and when things will go back to normal. While resource-strapped hospitals are kicking their operations into high gear to test, treat, and house newly infected patients, one of our essential institutions has closed: our schools. 

Learning has shifted from the school to the home, and many teachers and parents are scrambling to figure out how to best meet children’s social, emotional, and academic needs. This is easier said than done given that we are in the midst of practicing social distancing for an undetermined amount of time. 

With all of this uncertainty and isolation, we can easily become bored, anxious, lonely, and even depressed. Adults and children alike are experiencing a certain level of trauma, except that children have even less control over their circumstances. They are missing out on highly anticipated events like socializing with friends, engaging in sports activities, going to prom, and even attending high school graduation. In addition, they are being asked to learn remotely with varying levels of support from teachers and parents who are learning to navigate these challenges as we go. While the task seems daunting, there are many things that teachers and parents can do to support the social, emotional, and academic well-being of kids during this difficult time.

How can parents and educators foster an environment of social and emotional learning despite the fact that students can’t interact with their teachers or each other face to face? This can be done by creating opportunities for students to engage in the following activities or reinforce the following behaviors, which are aligned with the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) five core competencies.

Credit: CASEL, 2017


  • Identify children’s emotions and understand there will be a range of them during these uncertain times.
  • Determine if those emotions are helpful or harmful, and make adjustments to your environment to put kids in a better state of mind.
  • Encourage kids to share feelings with others to keep them from getting overwhelmed.


  • Set new goals for learning at home, having fun, completing household chores, and spending quality time with loved ones.
  • Be sure kids take a shower or bath daily and get out of those comfortable pajamas.
  • Maintain some sense of a school schedule and create new routines.

Social Awareness

  • Teachers: Understand that some students may be separated from loved ones, without sufficient food or adequate housing.
  • Teachers should know that many students have limited academic support at home and take this to heart when assigning work.
  • Parents and children can spend this time identifying ways to help others in their families or communities.

Relationship Skills

  • Have children stay connected with family and friends outside of the home via social media, video chat, and online activities.
  • Encourage them to reach out to classmates or friends they haven’t connected with in a while to check up on them.
  • Tell kids to appreciate what they can in the present, like spending quality time with members of the household, cooking or eating meals together, and playing games.

Responsible Decision Making

  • Practice social distancing and limit contact with others outside of the home—and reinforce the importance of doing so to children.
  • Teach students to take the initiative to be active learners by completing any assignments given by the teacher and exploring other topics that interest them.
  • Identify projects around the house they can take the lead on, like reorganizing a closet or cleaning up the basement.

In these uncertain times, it’s very normal for us all to experience social and emotional dips. We are operating outside of our regular routines and, in many cases, under stressful conditions. To minimize the negative impact this time outside of school can have on students, teachers and parents can provide students with additional support by practicing some of the behaviors above.

Our schools may have shut down. But this can also be a great opportunity to create the post-COVID-19 reality that we want in our schools and in our families.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.

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