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Mental Health Check: 5 Ways to Boost Students Socially and Emotionally

By Jacques Noisette, Director Social and Emotional Learning

Life in the wake of Covid may be returning to a semblance of normal, with students in school and parents heading to work. But experts say that the pandemic is having a lingering impact on young people’s mental health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on student mental health are widespread and deeply concerning,” Suzanne Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, said in October.

In New York City, a recent citywide Health Department survey showed that one in five parents or guardians thought the emotional or behavioral health of a child in their home had been adversely affected by the pandemic. 

The afterschool field has long recognized that the hours of three to six present an opportunity to help students build “soft” social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, those skills, which focus on helping students manage their feelings and develop healthy interpersonal relationships may be more necessary than ever. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." 

Through a range of activities, afterschool educators can help students build competency in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

The afterschool classroom provides a space where students can learn to better understand their feelings and build healthy bonds with peers and mentors. If you are looking to implement SEL in afterschool, check out these five tips:

1. Integrate Emotional Check-Ins

Checking in on your students’ emotional well-being is an easy way to get students of all ages to open up. Check-ins not only provide your students a safe place to speak but they also model active, empathy-driven interaction.

There are many ways you can integrate emotional check-ins in the classroom, but all should include asking questions and practicing active listening.

For younger students or those who struggle with emotional vocabulary, try using a feelings wheel or chart to drive the conversation. Students can identify how they are feeling anonymously, in partners or groups or through open class discussion.

You can also try the “share a rose, share a thorn” practice where students can share something positive (their “roses”) from the day or week, as well as something difficult (their “thorns”). Depending on your class’ age, consider suggesting different ways the class celebrates their peers for the roses and uplifts them amidst the thorns, such as clapping/snapping their fingers or writing notes.

If you have the capacity, conducting one-on-ones with students is also essential in getting to understand and connect with student emotionally. You can ask for students to rate how they are feeling from 1 to 5, with 1 being frustrated or extremely sad. Soon after or during classwork activities you can pull a few of those students to the side and ask them, “How are you doing? I noticed you put up a one today during our class check-in. What can I do to help you?” Use this time to listen and use empathetic language to acknowledge that you care and you’re available to them for support.

2. Create a Supportive and Positive Atmosphere

Always remember, some of your students might not have someone advocating for them at home. So be your students’ biggest cheerleader.

Celebrate them and highlight their strengths. That doesn’t solely mean rewarding an A+ with a sticker and cheering the athletes on when they win a tournament. It can also mean letting students know you saw them working hard toward a goal, getting out of their comfort zone or interacting with another student thoughtfully.

Not all students will excel in the traditional academic sense, but all students have accomplishments worth celebrating. All students deserve to feel that they can succeed, and having an educator who celebrates them is a major proponent of their success.

3. Plan with Intention

When integrating SEL into your lessons, do so with intentionality, creating lesson plans with SEL goals and indicators. Your daily, weekly and yearly outcomes should be clear and should show concrete steps to reach those outcomes.

Start with your long-term outcomes. Some long-term outcomes could include instilling empathy, building emotional vocabulary, learning self-control, etc. Then work backward. What are the 10 actionable steps you can take to achieve your long-term outcomes? 

Then break those steps down into weekly or daily tasks that work toward your end goal. Those more short-term or daily tasks could include discussing a single emotional term (gratitude, compassion, anxiety, etc.), managing unreasonable fear, recognizing the signs of frustration, etc.

4. Integrate SEL Across Subjects

Depending on your subject, you can integrate your weekly or daily SEL goals through games, discussions, readings and more.

For example, in English class you can use pre-selected literature passages that open up your given SEL topic for discussion. Ask questions about the reading and relate the issues to their daily lives.

For STEM classes, consider focusing on more collaborative and problem-solving work to foster SEL. You can also gear assignments and labs toward more real-world or local issues and allow your students to come up with solutions, ultimately requiring them to combine empathy with problem solving.

Educators can implement SEL across all subjects through methods like check-ins and emotional vocabulary, and by promoting open discussion of social and emotional issues. A few minutes of intentional SEL activities paired with empathy-driven, modelled behavior can help build students’ social and emotional skills and pave the way to their success.

5. Promote SEL accountability

At the administration level, consider creating an observation checklist to hold staff and educators accountable. Encourage staff and educators to share their feedback, suggestions and successes regarding SEL in their classrooms.

Every classroom will inevitably endure some social or emotional conflict. School day and CBO Educators must be equipped with the tools to foster SEL within their instructional approaches in order to build social and emotional skills in their students.  

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