How to Reestablish and Build Social-Emotional Skills With Returning Students

Educators will need to determine where their students are academically this year. Did they miss important information during remote instruction? Do they need more time or extra tutoring? 

But that’s not all. In addition to potential academic gaps, some child development experts are raising concerns about the social-emotional skills of students. They worry that a year of virtual learning has held them back and will hinder their social skills. 

Let’s look at what returning students may have lost and how teachers can step in to foster in-person social skills — especially in young learners. 

Did Students Lose Social Skills During Remote Learning?

While many teachers are concerned that their students may be missing social skills from a year of remote learning, some child psychologists are optimistic. They are either confident that students didn’t miss too much or that they can bounce back from any social skills they are lacking. 

“Children tend to be some of the most resilient and adaptable humans,” the team at the Exchange Family Center writes. “They can gain a lot from interacting with parents, siblings, and even household pets. Even without physical interaction with their peers, kids can develop socially and emotionally.”

While it may seem like students didn’t get much social interaction during the year, they still were able to connect virtually with peers and learn from family members. Watching characters on TV and on YouTube can also show them how to interact with others. Even mask-wearing doesn’t seem to be an issue hindering development. 

“I asked every expert I spoke to whether they were worried that being around masked children and adults would make reading social cues more difficult for this generation of children,” writes Jessica Grose, parenting columnist and reporter at The New York Times. “No one was concerned about it.” 

In fact, Grose adds, some experts believe kids might develop other skills because of mask-wearing, like improved verbal communication and eye contact. 

However, these discussions about social and emotional learning (SEL) are important. Some believe it’s about time social skills and emotional development became top priority in school. 

“It took a pandemic to make the value of SEL evident to all,” write Emma García and Elaine Weiss at the Economic Policy Institute. “The good in all of this is that finally placing SEL prominently in our upcoming education policy agenda, and/or making whole-child education the norm, will significantly boost our recovery from the pandemic and help rebuild a better education system.” 

children outdoors playing with a colorful parachute; returning students concept

Kids Pick Up Social Skills Through Interaction

Just because children are resilient to a year of social distancing and remote learning doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from returning to the in-person classroom. Many students learn their social skills from watching others and mimicking them.

Philip Fisher, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says children learn “executive functioning” skills such as impulse control and mental flexibility from being around others their own age and from facing different social situations. “Those skills don’t just develop in a vacuum,” Fisher says. “They develop in the context of being in situations where you have to interact with your peers.”

Students also form a sense of self. Children learn to evaluate themselves in comparison to others.

“They have a natural affinity for learning about not just their peers and those strong friendships, but it’s about ‘me’ in relationship to others,” says Ronald Dahl, director at the Institute of Human Development, UC Berkeley. 

Kids want to know who likes them, whom they can trust, and how they can evaluate others when they’re meeting new people. Children start to do these mental evaluations at a young age and then ramp them up in middle school. They are trying to figure out who they are and what that means. 

While many educators and parents consider social skills development a priority for very young children, teens and preteens also need to learn from their peers as they get older. 

“When a teenager has healthy friendships, they can truly reap the benefits,” the Children’s Bureau team writes. “Positive friendships provide youth with support, companionship, and a sense of belonging. They offer opportunities for the development of social skills. For example, adolescents learn to cooperate with others, communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and resist negative peer pressure.”

Simply creating opportunities for students to interact socially and in a relaxed environment can prompt the development of social skills. Activities like recess and free study help with this. 

a crying child is comforted by her teacher; returning students concept

Learn to Identify and Reduce Stress or Anxiety

While many students will return to the classroom seemingly unscathed, you may encounter some who had a harder year than others. As a teacher, you can identify signs of anxiety and stress in students, even in young learners who don’t know how to describe it. 

“Children often express stress and anxiety through their behavior because they have not yet learned to share their feelings through words,” writes doctoral student Sandra Little. “It is very important to ‘hear’ the messages children are trying to tell you through their actions.”

Identifying these emotional states allows educators to help students, and can also provide insight into the social-emotional learning needs of those students. As a teacher, how can you help a student better communicate their fears?  

“It can sometimes be difficult to speak to a young person about whether or not they are worried,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Hayley van Zwanenberg. “Often, they’ll avoid talking about their anxieties, but if you can get them to speak to you, that’s a really positive step.” 

She says to find an appropriate time to talk to students — not when they are already angry or upset. For example, if you set up daily check-ins with each of your students in the classroom, you can create a safe space for them to share their feelings for a few minutes. 

In the meantime, you can help students overcome any school anxiety or pandemic worries by creating a safe space to learn.

“It’s still important in this context to think about how to establish consistency in routines and schedules, to develop supportive relationships with students and … to plan opportunities that are built into the regular academic day to learn and practice social emotional competency,” says Justina Schlund, senior director at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Clear routines can help kids focus on learning, not the anxiety that comes with each school day.

two children smiling, one holds a puppy; returning students concept

How to Build Social-Emotional Skills in Your Students

Students of all ages can benefit from growing their social-emotional skills. Here are a few ways you can incorporate SEL into your classroom, regardless of the age groups or class sizes you have. 

First, consider how students work together. “All student groupings should be carefully planned and supported to promote respectful and productive interactions,” says Debra Meyer, professor of education at Elmhurst University. “When left to their choices, students do not always benefit from partner or group work because they do not know how to interact effectively.” 

Meyer notes that many students experienced a reprieve from bullying this past year because of remote learning. For more effective grouping, create a balance between letting students choose their groups and assigning them. When assigning groups, mix students up and develop activities with different group sizes. This way students face different social experiences each time. 

Next, look for small ways for students to practice their social skills and connect emotionally. During Social Emotional Learning Week in March, elementary school principal Yasmine Fleming  challenged her students to take on a task each day to improve their skills. For example, on Monday, students would give a classmate a compliment to practice relationship building. On Tuesday, to build communication skills, they would ask a peer how they are doing and use eye contact to show they are listening. 

“It’s really those life skills that I think sometimes we assume that you just have, but really, they’re taught,” says Fleming. 

You can also build your classroom around emotional check-ins without taking up too much time. Some elementary students engage in “Compass Circles,” where each student has a moment to check in with their teacher and peers. They can share how they are feeling and why. Even just having a few minutes each day can have a big impact.

“When you hear someone else share how they’re doing, and you connect with that, that in itself can be healing for kids and make them feel a little bit more safe and okay,” says Jenni Reese, managing director of culture at Rocky Mountain Prep, where the upper elementary students use Compass Circles. 

Simply being available as a teacher can go a long way to helping students cope with social stress. Of course, it isn’t always possible for educators to be available. 

“For students who take the bus, they might not have the same type of access, for example, that a bike rider or walking student has, if they need to see a teacher after school,” says Matt Hiefield, a high school teacher and district curriculum developer with 30 years experience.

Even after remote learning ends, he says teachers can hold virtual office hours to give students a safe space to check-in, even if they can’t meet or don’t want to meet in person.

There are many ways to help students foster social skills as they return to the classroom. The team at Positive Action shares 20 games and activities for students of all ages and ability, so you can tailor them as needed. Something as simple as a staring contest can teach kids how to maintain eye contact. Mimicking expressions teaches children how to identify emotions and create them.

Images by: Hongqi Zhang/©, Artem Kniaz, khunaspix/©, lindsrw