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Social-Emotional Learning

The Role of SEL in Reintegrating to In-Person Learning

Nick Woolf
Nick Woolf
The Role of SEL in Reintegrating to In-Person Learning



As your district prepares to reintegrate students to in-person learning this spring and fall, you are likely thinking about ways to smooth the transition for students, staff, and family members. 

Reopening and transition plans will take shape differently in every district. However, with everything that students and adults across the country have been through over the past year, it's clear that social-emotional learning (SEL) must be prioritized due to the impacts of the pandemic. 

Social-emotional learning can foster a safe, supportive, and equitable environment that grounds students. It can also create the conditions for students to be able to access academic learning when they're back in the physical classroom.

As you build your reopening plan and welcome students back to campus, here are six principles to ensure that SEL takes a front seat in the transition to in-person learning.

Download our toolkit of SEL resources for supporting student and adult well-being during reopening. 

6 SEL Tenets to Guide the Transition to In-Person Learning

Educator resilience must come first. [Tweet This]

As Elena Aguilar, best-selling author and keynote speaker at Panorama’s 2021 Virtual Summit, put it: “Resilience is how we weather the storms in our lives. It’s how we bounce back after adversity. It’s about our ability to thrive.” According to Aguilar, building our own self-awareness as educators is foundational to practicing self-compassion. This can go a long way towards cultivating resilience in ourselves and those around us. 

It has been a tumultuous year for the K-12 education community—with perhaps no group affected more than our educators, staff members, and administrators.

Although we may overlook our adults when it comes to social-emotional learning, educators play a central role in shaping their students' psychological experiences of school, motivation levels, and engagement. To create the right conditions for learning to take place, we need to start with developing adult capacity and mindsets around SEL (known as adult SEL).

Adult SEL toolkitTo support yourself and your staff in this area, explore Panorama’s Adult SEL Toolkit, which is aligned to CASEL’s Focus Area 2 for SEL implementation. The toolkit includes resources, templates, and materials designed to build educator resilience and prioritize teacher well-being.

2. Check in on students' SEL and well-being—early and often. [Tweet This]

Neuroscience research tells us that when students are too stressed, they cannot learn. We also know that strong relationships and supportive school programs can help buffer the effects of stress. Children need to feel safe (physically and emotionally) and feel a sense of connection to peers and caring adults in order to access learning. 

As school and district leaders, we can create safe and supportive learning environments for students by listening to their feedback; by asking students what they need; by understanding how they’re doing socially and emotionally during the transition back to campus. Here are a few concrete ways to do this:

  • Administer regular well-being check-ins with students as a complement to bi-annual SEL measurement. Building in time for quick, three to five question "temperature checks" during morning meetings, advisory, or general class time can build adult-student relationships and increase students' self-awareness. Students may not understand their inner experiences until they start to label and unpack how they are feeling. Download Panorama's open-source Student Check-ins Question Bank for free-response and multiple-choice question prompts.
  • Measure and understand student voice on SEL. Use a research-backed SEL assessment to gather student perceptions of their SEL skills and competencies, their relationships with peers and adults, and the overall school climate. By looking at student perception data from this spring, your school or district can zoom in on specific topics—such as Self-Efficacy and Sense of Belonging—to understand where students are at.
  • Develop students’ capacity to accept and embrace all emotions (including unpleasant ones). Consider using a feelings wheel to help students acknowledge and label their feelings. In addition, WOOP goal-setting and “Rose, Bud, Thorn Journaling” are two activities that can help students explore emotions while building resilience.

3. Build and strengthen Tier 1 SEL supports. [Tweet This]

Students must know that their voices are changing mindsets and shifting practices. This means taking action on your student feedback and SEL data. What are students telling you they need? In which areas can schools deliver stronger Tier 1 supports for SEL? 

In the context of reopening school buildings, prioritization is key. Use the data to identify one to two focus areas that are high impact and highly actionable. For instance, if survey results indicate that relationship skills is an area for growth, consider implementing SEL supports around relationships, such as:

  • Rose, Bud Thorn, a strategy that helps students identify positive moments and areas where they need support. This intervention can be used at the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level and is a great icebreaker.

Rose Bud Thorn-1

  • Count Me Down, a strategy from Panorama Playbook partner Move This World, helps students identify ways that they are similar and different from others. For example, students might share three unique aspects of their family, two challenges they're currently facing, and one goal or dream they have.
  • Two Word Check-In is a quick way to take stock of students' emotions and feelings during the start or end of class (or during a community circle) in which students choose two words to describe how they are feeling. With younger learners, consider brainstorming a list of feelings or having students draw facial expressions.
  • "Superstar" Icebreakers, a strategy from Panorama Playbook partner Playworks, is a fun way to promote respect and inclusion while building a sense of community. Watch the video below to see it in action. 

4. Every child deserves individualized support from a caring adult. [Tweet This]

Caring adults can make a positive impact in a child’s life by building trusting relationships and connecting on a personal level with students. A warm welcome from a principal in the hallway or a greeting at the classroom door from a teacher can go a long way in helping a child feel more comfortable in their first days back on campus.

In fact, CASEL’s SEL Roadmap for Reopening Schools identifies adult-student relationships as a key component of promoting social and emotional development during transition periods. 

Here are a few ways to intentionally build and maintain connections with each student:

  • Revise schedules to prioritize relationship building, especially in the first few weeks of in-person instruction. Implement relationship-building rituals such as check-ins, morning meetings, intentional greetings, and other community-building activities.
  • Deliver daily or weekly interventions in classrooms that focus on relationships, resilience, and sense of belonging, such as: “2x10 Relationship Building” or “Check-In Check-Out.” These strategies can create opportunities to connect with students about their lives outside of school and let them get to know adults at a more personal level.
  • Incorporate restorative practices to shift the focus from punitive discipline to inclusion, healing, and relationships.


5. Help students heal and cope through trauma-responsive SEL. [Tweet This]

As Dr. Steven Dorsey, executive leadership coach at the San Diego County Office of Education, put it: “Equity, SEL, and trauma should be intertwined in the fabric of what we do. Trauma-informed means we know about it. Being trauma-responsive means taking it to the next level—building into our systems the supports that we need for students.”

pasted image 0 (3)Source: Transforming Education

Trauma-responsive practices help connect students to the SEL skills needed to deal with toxic stress and overcome difficult life circumstances. They benefit all students but are particularly responsive to the needs of youth who have experienced trauma. For example, D.C. Public Schools has focused on implementing four trauma-responsive practices for all students during the 2020-21 academic year:

  • Greet every student with positive and affirming language each day.
  • Create space for relationship-building with students and teachers.
  • Model and teach emotion labeling skills to students.
  • Give students the opportunity to reflect before returning to their learning environment.

We recommend exploring Transforming Education’s trauma-informed SEL toolkit for resources and asset-based strategies to integrate into your classroom, school, or district!

6. Partner with caregivers and community organizations to smooth the transition for students. [Tweet This]

Ongoing two-way communication is foundational to effective family-school partnerships. In the context of reintegrating students to in-person learning, it is not enough to share a reopening plan and provide family members with a form or email inbox to ask questions.

Instead, invite families and caregivers into the work by intentionally building relationships with them. How often are staff and educators checking in with families and learning from them? Do families have clear avenues to provide feedback on reopening plans? Do they feel comfortable asking questions or raising concerns? Do they have age-appropriate resources for supporting their children's social and academic development at home?

Here are a few resources to share with families during this transition period:

  • A curation of apps, games, and materials to extend SEL into the home, such as at-home SEL lessons and audio-guided mindfulness practices.
  • Panorama’s toolkit, How to Engage Families in SEL, includes a set of customizable templates, handouts, and protocols for enhancing your family engagement efforts and working together with caregivers to promote the social-emotional development of students.

It’s also important to lean on community partners during reopening. Local organizations might be able to assist with the logistics of reopening (such as coordinating transportation) or with safely bringing back extracurricular activities this spring and next fall.

Quick SEL Tips to Share with Families During Reopening

  • Encourage children to lean on their strengths and “SEL superpowers” when returning to the classroom, such as collaborating with peers or using calm-breathing techniques when they feel stressed.
  • Talk to your children about how they are feeling and prompt them to explore their emotions when they are confused, sad, frustrated, or anxious. Encourage children to use “I” statements when talking about their emotions. Help them unpack what it feels like to be happy, excited, stressed, or frustrated.
  • Model patience, kindness, and empathy. Look for examples of these SEL skills in your child's favorite television shows, books, or video games and use media to reinforce these behaviors.

For many students, the prospect of returning to the classroom for in-person learning is a beacon of hope. For others, the transition back to school will be incredibly challenging. Children are longing to be intellectually and socially engaged; to be physically together with their peers and educators; to continue to learn and grow.

While rigorous learning recovery will be top of mind this spring and fall, equally important is the need to support each student socially and emotionally.

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