Seeking Critical Connections: SEL Considerations in Remote Schooling

“In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It's always about critical connections.” The words of Detroit activist and political organizer Grace Lee Boggs feel more prescient than ever and serve as the focal point for my work during COVID-19. As the social emotional learning (SEL) coordinator at University Prep, a 6–12 school in Seattle, I am interested in how we might reframe “social distancing” to our community. We are not moving away from each other socially, but we are actively seeking social and emotional connections while we remain physically apart.
A shift to online schooling cannot only center on academic content and technological tools: It must also center on SEL. Students need critical connection with their peers, educators, and families during these days, along with learning that helps them understand our current pandemic reality. As we—educators who were drawn to teach because of connections with our colleagues, our content, and most important, with young people—scramble to new platforms, we need to keep the heart of our work at the core. Like all SEL competencies, building connected community leads to deepened learning.
Since UPrep made the transition to distance learning in early March and a date for the return to brick-and-mortar education is not known, I’ve been examining two aspects of SEL: How do educators help fulfill students’ need for community and help them build relationships during distance learning, and how do we make course material relevant to what our students are experiencing during COVID-19?

The Student Surveys Say …  

What do the students truly need? We can only know by listening to them. Advisers are often the main points of connection for students, and our vigilance has increased in the shift to remote learning. As I listen to my ninth grade advisees, I hear some common refrains from my virtual conversations: Part of this experience has taught me how much school is my link to a social life; I wonder if I’ll ever get used to this; I can FaceTime my close friends, but I miss the people I’m not best friends with who I still kind of talk to; and I wonder how my classmates who don’t have their own rooms are doing.
In March, my counseling colleagues and I, along with our learning support team, designed a survey called “No Really, How Are You Doing?” to better understand the student experience. About a third of students responded to the three questions: What grade are you in? Which of the following statements apply to you right now? Which of the following options would be helpful to you?
Three weeks later, just after spring break, students on our Mental Health Advisory Board suggested following up with the same survey. They wanted to do something to support our community, and we’d just found out that we wouldn’t be returning to school this year. This time, there was a 55% response rate. Several results include:
  • Students are seeking more support services, including strategies for better sleep and how to balance screen/nonscreen time. Eleventh and 12th graders reported that they are concerned about changes to their mood (33% and 40%), and students in all grades reported wanting the school to plan virtual meetups so they could talk with peers during the school day.
  • The majority of students (56%) report low motivation to get their schoolwork done. Difficulty finding motivation increases with grade level: sixth and seventh graders report the least trouble finding motivation (29% and 27%), while 11th and 12th graders report the most trouble finding motivation (66.7% and 85.3%). We typically see drop in motivation to complete work during the spring of senior year.
Though prepandemic narratives stereotype Generation Z as being attached to devices and unable to connect in real life (“IRL”), this forced shift to online-only has created space for students to see and yearn for the value of real in-person community, our survey revealed.

Exploring the New Advisory and Virtual Classrooms

As we shifted to remote learning, UPrep has taken a closer look, based on these survey results, at how advisories and individual classes can best support students during this time. We must prioritize students’ needs for interpersonal connection by helping students develop their individual emotional awareness and vocabulary, which can help students better articulate their needs. In the beginning, we held advisories every day, with a longer session once a week. Now we’re meeting twice a week, and we also set up one-on-ones.  
In one recent advisory, we wrote to a prompt about what the equinox makes us think about. Students wrote about how much they appreciate the outdoors, the need for balance, and a shift toward deeper mindfulness—maybe responses that they wouldn’t have had before the transition to learning from home. My students also took part in a meme challenge, in which students from a few advisories created and shared memes about their experiences.

Through these activities, a connection and sense of purpose will help students with both their emotional health, and support them to deepen their intrinsic motivation in a moment of uncertainty. Emotional check-ins need to move beyond “How are you doing?” and invite students to write, giggle, and connect.
Meanwhile, teachers are thinking about how they make connections between learning and current events. How might they bring their skills and frameworks to the real world?
The eighth grade science curriculum is shifting from the earthquake unit to spend some time on viruses. Teachers informally polled the students, and most students expressed a very strong interest in knowing more about what is going on in the world around them. Teacher Alexa Johnson says, “I'm hoping that by focusing on this for just a bit, we can provide some measure of comfort and a feeling of control to the situation.” 
The students researched a variety of topics, including what viruses are and how they reproduce; how vaccines are created; a history of pandemics; how to understand statistics; and how to be careful media consumers. A social justice component addressed how COVID-19 creates new problems for some of our community members who are already furthest from racial or economic justice and consider what can be done to illuminate these disparities.
I’m partnering with Johnson and the diversity and community offices to keep the focus on empowerment, knowledge, and empathy. “This time that we're living in may be challenging,” Johnson says, “but it also provides us with the perfect opportunity to follow the directive in our UPrep mission statement: ‘Guiding our students to become intellectually courageous and socially responsible citizens.’ ” 
In making this shift, we hope to support students’ empowerment during a moment of powerlessness. We need to also hold a space for students who need support to process their feelings and fears about COVID-19.

Making Critical Connections

When students can articulate their needs and we listen to them, we can facilitate critical connections. Last week, one of my advisees reminded me that teachers must do intentional work to build connection during distance learning. This ninth grade student said, “You don’t really go to school to learn the information. You go to school to make those connections, so taking away those connections makes the school environment so different … being in an environment where you have to unmute yourself to talk with people is really bizarre. Teachers have to make that connection in order for us to really learn.”
This student’s thoughts reinforce the idea that teachers are now exquisitely tasked more than ever with helping our students critically connect to others during this time of physical distance. I have seen courageous vulnerability in students reaching out for help, and a care for others through radical empathy and more kindness and encouragement of their peers.
Emphasizing “business as usual” during this time can feel dissonant or impossible. It puts pressure on students and teachers alike to maintain an intense level of work amid routine changes, stress, and/or resource changes. Instead, we must hold gentleness to acknowledge change and loss, and refocus on what we value can be healing work.
Picture of NAIS.Models.AuthorPreviewViewModel.
Emily Schorr Lesnick

Emily Schorr Lesnick (she/her/hers) is the social emotional learning coordinator at University Prep in Seattle, Washington.