Beyond Academics: Supporting our Students’ Social-Emotional Wellbeing

In our blog post last week, we shared a number of resources for supporting English learners’ continued learning during school closures for COVID-19. Not only are there challenges with the logistics of learning, but the research about the brain also tells us that students won’t learn if they don’t feel emotionally safe. This may be even more true if learners are refugees and immigrants. In order to help address these important needs, we have three recommendations to support English learner students and families with non-academic needs during this time, and we’re hoping we can help you think through ways that your school or district can provide ongoing resources.

Recommendation 1: Check In Regularly With Students and Families

Schools can leverage the time of teachers, aides, and other school staff who are working from home to check-in with students and families via phone, video chat, messaging, or school communication platforms. Staff can set up Google phone numbers so they protect their own privacy when using cell phones from home. Ask if bilingual staff would be willing to utilize their talents to check-in with families who may not speak English at home to ensure all families are supported.

Establishing a set of questions to check-in on key items (food and supplies, social-emotional wellbeing, and academic learning) can ensure consistent, high-quality support from schools for vulnerable families. Schools can make sure staff are equipped with lists of local resources to provide if a family is in need. Those resources can be shared over the phone, emailed, or sent by snail mail. Check school district, city, county, and even state websites and social media for complete lists of resources available in your area.

Schools can utilize a document-sharing platform (such as Google docs) so that teachers, aides, and other staff who are making calls can share information about the status and needs of families and can work together to follow-up on any issues. Staff can also see trends across the school to know what additional resources might be shared, what academic supports might be needed, and what community resources the school might want to tap into. We’ve also heard of schools sending out surveys, such as Google Forms, to solicit information from students (especially older students) about what is needed, such as food, academic support, or other resources.

Many schools are currently utilizing social media to connect with the broader community. This is a great way to publicize ongoing food service, community-provided supplies, academic support, or social-emotional resources.

Recommendation 2: Communicate Appropriately With Students About COVID-19

This is an unprecedented public health situation for our nation and our world. While many of us recall the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic nearly ten years ago, we have not experienced anything quite like our current situation, and it may be challenging to know how to explain what’s going on to students.This information is helpful for school staff communicating with students, and also may be helpful to be shared with parents. 

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that students listen with all senses. They will notice body language, tone, and the emotions and anxiety that you may be exuding. As much as possible, try to remain calm when communicating with children. The National Association of School Psychologists notes that, “In the absence of factual information, children often imagine situations far worse than reality” (Talking to Children about COVID-19), so share age-appropriate information in a calm way. However, be certain to balance factual information with reassurance that many adults are addressing the situation. 

In addition, be mindful that there is a great deal of false information circulating on social media. Encourage parents to limit social media intake, and also to be mindful of the amount of news/information coming in. It’s probably not the best idea to keep a news channel on in the home for long hours during the day.

We highly recommend reading the linked article above for more details about communication (and consider sharing the article with families).

Last, in order to ensure parents have the appropriate information to share with their children, you may want to consider designating a person within your school, district, or organization to send bite-sized, fact-based updates to stakeholders via your communication pathways. This can provide information about state and government recommendations and help disseminate any school updates, ensuring families are armed with factual, updated information to then appropriately share with children.

Recommendation 3: Stay Connected While Social Distancing

In this time of “social distancing” it can feel nearly impossible to come together as a community to address social-emotional needs of students. Normally, we would build culture through face-to-face conversations, circles, or other community-building activities. Consider how your school can leverage technology to bring groups of students together online. In this article by Joe Provisor of Circle Ways, he provides many ideas for hosting a virtual circle and includes prompts or ideas for circle topics during this time that are age appropriate for various groups of students.

Many schools do not have the technology for all students to connect to a video chat at home. In this case, consider assigning classroom buddies and giving weekly prompts for a buddy phone call. As an assignment, ask students to report on their conversations. This will keep students socially connected, and provide them with a platform to share what they are experiencing with a friend. This is both a great activity to address social-emotional needs, but also a wonderful way to have students practice their speaking,  listening, and writing skills. In addition, by pairing English learners with an English-proficient classmate, they will have the opportunity to hear language modeled and practice their developing English in a lower-stakes environment. 


Especially during this unprecedented time, it’s important to remember that kids are kids, and it is necessary to focus on their overall wellness in the same way we think about teaching and learning. For further reading about supporting students’ social-emotional wellbeing, we recommend Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt.


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