It has been a challenging couple of years for all of us. We’ve all had to adjust in our personal lives as well as professional lives. The routines we had for working, connecting with family and friends, and the many other things we kept ourselves involved in, shifted suddenly in March 2020. From that time onward, it has been a constant work in progress for everyone to figure out how to handle the challenges we faced.
As educators, we've had to push through the challenges not just for our well-being but because of the important work we do. We have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to focusing on the wellness of our students and our colleagues, and those whom we lead and learn with. These experiences can weigh heavily on us in many ways. There are emotional, mental, and physical impacts that can lead to burnout. Therefore, we need the right skills and strategies to handle them and we need to model these coping strategies for our students.
Students also experience challenges in school, especially over the past two years. They can struggle with dealing with academic stress, bullying issues, peer pressure, and other events that take place in our schools. There will be emotional, mental, and even physical effects on them as well. Being able to work through these challenges is essential for preparing for the future. A large part of this is reflecting on our experiences and being able to focus on our mental health and wellness. We can do this by providing opportunities for students to develop social-emotional learning (SEL) skills and model methods in our classrooms. When faced with challenges, uncertainties, or too many things on our plate, it can be difficult to take the break we need and focus on our wellbeing. If we don’t start with ourselves, we will not be well-prepared to provide the support that our students need.
SEL is essential
SEL has become a big focus area in education, especially over the past two years. When we think about how to best prepare our students for the future, we have to consider the essential skills that will be needed in the workplace. There is a direct correlation between SEL and the skills that employers look for, so we need activities and tools to help students develop these skills in our classrooms. Collaboration, communication, creativity, problem-solving, and resilience are just a few of the top skills mentioned by the World Economic Forum’s job outlook.
When faced with challenges, it is important that we can deal with the stress, understand and manage our emotions, and be able to set goals for ourselves to work through these challenges. Self-awareness and self-management are two of the five core competencies of SEL. If we consistently address the five SEL competencies, research has shown that it leads to increased student achievement and positively impacts student wellbeing. I recommend exploring CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, and their materials.
Managing emotions and being able to ask for help if we need it are essential skills for everyone. Not just in our professional lives, but also in our personal lives, our well-being can impact many other people with whom we interact. Starting with our mental health wellness is critical to bring our best selves to everyone we are connecting with. The start of a new school year is the perfect time to focus on this.
Why and how to promote SEL and wellbeing
Improving our mental health and building SEL skills should not be thought of as something extra that we have to fit into our work but as something that can easily be embedded into all that we do. The CDC issued a survey in which 37% of the students felt their mental health suffered as a result of the pandemic. Anxiety, depression, and stress were the main areas cited for poor mental health. Helping students learn how to deal with stress and build SEL skills will guide them to become self-aware, develop empathy and build social awareness through a variety of learning opportunities. Sparking curiosity and excitement through authentic and meaningful learning experiences will help.
With so many resources available to us now, knowing how to choose can be difficult. There are methods like game-based learning, project-based learning, and STEM activities that provide many benefits for students and are good ways to help students to develop SEL skills. Working with students through these methods or using some of the digital tools available, will help us as well. When we have the right resources available, it enables us to design activities for students that help them to focus on their well-being and that help us to reflect on ourselves too.
Here are six options to explore in the new school year
Buncee, a multimedia presentation tool created an SEL toolkit that provides educators with everything they need to get started including ready-to-use template activities for grades K-6 and 7-12. Teachers can create a Buncee to introduce themselves and invite students and families to record their introductions so we can get to know each other. Capstone Publishingand PebbleGo Create offer students so many ways to share what they are learning, experiencing, and what they are excited about. It sparks curiosity and creativity in learning and also helps to build confidence in learning, all of which help with SEL.
EverFi has a variety of free resources available for educators to use in the classroom. The Compassion Project is available for use with students in grades 2-3 and 4-5. There are courses on mental health basics for students in grades 8 through 12. Educators have access to an outline of the lessons and interactive online activities for teaching empathy and compassion in the classroom.
Flip or you may know it as Flipgrid, is great for connecting students and educators from around the world. More than just a safe space for exchanging ideas, helping students to build speaking skills and share learning in a way that helps to build confidence, it fosters the development of SEL. In the Discovery Library, there are more than 45,000 lessons available on topics like SEL, mental health, mindfulness, and of course content area topics or ice breakers for the start of the new school year. Create a space with members of your PLN to share ideas, ask for help, and to feel more connected.
Pear Deck is a great tool to use for checking in on students and will benefit educators regardless of grade level, content area, or years of experience in education. Create with Google Slides and then add in different activities for students to respond to whether a check-in, drawing, or open-ended response. Being able to see results in real-time will help us to get to better know our students.
Spaces offers a digital portfolio platform that assists teachers in better understanding students, their interests, and needs in learning. With Spaces, teachers can create individual, class, or group spaces. With individual spaces, the interactions between teacher and student help with self-awareness and self-management as students develop content area skills in a supportive space. Digital portfolios help students to develop SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management. For educators, join the Spaces Educator group for a supportive PLN and place to share ideas and make new connections.
x2VOL is a service-oriented platform that helps students to learn about opportunities in their community and to build SEL skills as they become involved. Students can be creative in the volunteer work that they do through CTE, SEL, Internships, and Service Learning. Students can then track and report the hours in the app or online. More than 50 million student service hours have been logged and these are great real-world experiences that help students to develop SEL skills and learn how to make an impact.
As we prepare for a new school year, we must be intentional about finding ways to focus on our well-being but also involve students in meaningful learning opportunities to understand what they are experiencing. A new school year brings a lot of demands on teachers, students, and families. There are new initiatives, procedures, a school calendar full of school events, and many things which are wonderful but can also be overwhelming and taxing on us physically, mentally, and emotionally, because of the time involved.
Having strategies in place, a daily routine, and a support system will help us to stay mindful of our mental health and tune in to the needs of others. Sometimes that might mean building breaks into each day and doing something fun with our classes. It may be a scavenger hunt, an icebreaker, a random game, or just getting up and moving. We have to start with ourselves and model these practices for students. When we do, we will be better able to focus on our self-care and wellness and promote the well-being of others.
Rachelle Dené is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. She was named one of 30 K-12 IT Influencers to follow in 2021.