How Teachers Can Help Students Cope With the New Normal

A Q&A with social emotional learning expert Shai Fuxman.

Administrators and teachers are working toward the same goal as the school year unfolds: Finding a way for students to succeed despite the many changes in their learning environments.

Experts say that a focus on social emotional learning (SEL) can help. SEL is an education concept that focuses on how to intentionally and schematically teach children skills that are important both for academic and life success. 

“SEL makes sure students are ready to learn. If you’re stressed and you have other things on your mind, or you have low self-esteem, you’re going to struggle academically,” explains Shai Fuxman, a Senior Research Scientist and Project Director at the Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit education consultancy. 

We talked with Fuxman about how teachers can help students stay connected and engaged in a new learning environment. 

STAPLES: Is focusing on social and emotional learning harder now?

FUXMAN: Yes. Checking in with students individually and helping them work collaboratively is so much harder if you’re working remotely, or in class with students wearing masks and being 6 feet apart. But, it’s so important, especially early in the school year, to be intentional about developing positive relationships. 

You need to let students know you’re there and show that you’re a trusted adult in their lives. That was a priority for a lot of educators when we went into remote learning back in March 2020, so students knew that they could rely on and connect with teachers. But, in the spring, we had the advantage of having already developed relationships in person. Now, it’s harder, as teachers are meeting new students in this strange environment. 

STAPLES: Given those challenges, how can teachers incorporate SEL into their day?

FUXMAN: It can be done in all kinds of ways. You can build office hours into your schedules; let students know when and where they can find you, and encourage them to do so. Or, you could write postcards or letters, or create one-on-one connections by email. Another is giving students a way to check in before class starts. One tool you can use is the Mood Meter, a colorful grid that students can mark off to show whether they’re feeling very emotional in a negative or positive way, excited or upset, or energetic or not. This helps teachers read the room for emotions and see which students are struggling, so they can check in with them. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which came up with the Mood Meter, has an app you can use in a remote environment.

STAPLES: How can teachers show students they have empathy for what they’re feeling?

FUXMAN: There’s no better way than having a conversation, in an age-appropriate manner, and acknowledging the situation up front. Teachers can bring all their training in understanding students to this context. Just like you create a lesson plan when you’re about to teach a new unit of math, you need to create a plan to have these conversations.

STAPLES: What’s a good way to begin the conversation?

FUXMAN: Start by humanizing yourself as a teacher. In person, it can be even harder now because there’s the distance and the masks; you don’t see facial expressions, so the teacher literally becomes a faceless person. Let students know that you’re there for them as fellow human beings. Show vulnerability — obviously, you can’t burden your students with your personal problems or open up about every struggle. But, let students know we’re in it together. They may be having a hard time, but so are their teachers and classmates. If you create that foundation, students will feel more comfortable coming to you when they have a problem.

STAPLES: How can teachers help students who are having trouble focusing in a remote or hybrid learning environment?

FUXMAN: Flexibility is the name of the game this year. Covering the academic curriculum is important, but if we just focus on the academics, we’re going to lose our kids. They’re going to struggle and fall behind. We can’t ignore that they may have trouble focusing. We need to create a balance between supporting kids emotionally and dealing with stress, and helping students relearn how to learn. Students figure out learning habits in a particular context, and now, all of a sudden, it’s different. Think about your lesson plan. In the first week, you might cover X amount of content, so maybe this year you focus on only 60% of that, and use the rest of your time to ease in and transition.

STAPLES: Given the need for flexibility, should teachers be concerned about students falling behind academically this year?

FUXMAN: Teachers should be assessing where students are in terms of academic milestones and standards, including identifying any regression due to the three months of full remote learning in the spring combined with the summer break. If students are falling behind, they can determine how to help students catch up. But this should also include social and emotional support, as well as direct academic support — the two go hand in hand. We need to be aware sometimes that, when students struggle academically, it is because they are struggling emotionally. A student who has a difficult time managing stress or has anxiety will not be able to concentrate on their schoolwork and may fall behind. Therefore, supporting their emotional needs will help them be better learners.

STAPLES: What are some ways teachers encourage peer-to-peer collaboration and socialization, both in hybrid and remote contexts?

FUXMAN: Relationships are crucial. If our kids are struggling to find their own ways to connect with peers, we need to help them. Teachers have their bags of tricks for collaborative learning in a classroom setting, and now those have to be adapted. In the remote part of hybrid, it’s easier to do than in the physical part because it’s hard to have a conversation when you’re separated by masks and plexiglass. Online, you can give assignments that are designed to be collaborative and have students work in partners, maybe on the phone or however they would like to communicate to encourage connections. 

STAPLES: How can teachers support each other in these challenging times?

FUXMAN: This is so important. Just like you have to build connecting with students into the classroom time, you have to incorporate time for teachers to meet with each other into teacher development time. If you have an hour-long planning meeting for teachers, dedicate the first five minutes to checking in with each other to see how everyone is doing, then move on to the planning. Or, even use something like the Mood Meter, just to see how everyone is doing.

STAPLES: Are there ways school departments should get involved here?

FUXMAN: Think about it in terms of concentric circles. You need to build self-care into your day, and there’s peer-to-peer support. Then, what can the school and the district do to make sure the workplace environment is both supportive and safe from a COVID-19 perspective and a mental health perspective? We need to reduce the stigma around mental health and make sure assistance is provided. There’s a whole context of teacher well-being that everyone needs to be aware of.

STAPLES: Have you seen any creative ways school departments have supported teachers?

FUXMAN: One school I worked with decided to train teachers in mindfulness meditation. The first part of the training was educating teachers on how to do it themselves and incorporate the practice into their lives. The second part of the training was how to teach their students. It’s like the analogy of being in an airplane: Once you put the oxygen mask on yourself, then you can help the people around you. It showed that this school not only cared for the students, it showed they cared for the teachers and wanted them to care about each other.

For products and tips to help you create a supportive learning environment for your students, visit Staples’ Back to School Center.