Student anxiety and mental health issues were a serious concern before COVID-19 and are even more so now that schools are not physically in session. Distance learning is no substitute for in-person interaction and emotional support, and many educators are struggling to support students and colleagues during this difficult time.
Earlier this month, more than 800 educators attended a webinar hosted by Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Betty Sternberg, Director of Connecticut’s Teacher Leader Fellowship Program, a collaborative program run by CCSU, CEA, and AFT-CT. The webinar, titled, “SEL Best Practices for Supporting Educators and Students During Distance Learning,” featured 23 teachers and administrators from around Connecticut.
Three CEA teachers were featured on the panel. Anthea Groton, a kindergarten teacher at Birch Grove Elementary School in Tolland, shared strategies to help elementary school students deal with anxiety and feelings of isolation and loneliness. She focused on the importance of warm connections between teachers and students and engaging learning activities like Lego Challenges and Living Room Fort Construction. She spoke of the challenges of distance learning and the emotional toll it is taking on teachers, and reminded colleagues, “What you are doing matters. It matters a lot.”
Valerie LaRose, a school psychologist at Shepard Glen Elementary School in Hamden is in charge of implementing Yale’s RULER program at her school, a program developed by Dr. Brackett that the district has utilized for several years. RULER is designed for use in kindergarten through eighth grade and promotes emotional literacy, which includes Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions.
As a school psychologist, LaRose spoke to the high level of anxiety and depression children are experiencing, feelings exacerbated by the current crisis. She said RULER’s emotional regulation and problem solving strategies have proven invaluable. “Because we have been doing RULER,” she said, “even very young children are able to identify how they are feeling, which is so important to supporting them appropriately.”
Kahseim Outlaw, a Health and PE teacher at Lyman High School in Wallingford, also stressed the importance of maintaining a strong emotional connection with students despite the physical distance. He has continued the voluntary “Mindful Monday” activities he implemented for both students and colleagues three years ago that have remained popular despite the social distance. He stressed the most important thing educators can do is tell their students that they are loved.
Administrators on the panel also shared how they are maintaining a positive virtual school climate, and adapting approaches to SEL instruction like RULER to meet current challenges. “One good thing that will come out of this crisis,” Sternberg concluded, “is the recognition that the social-emotional wellbeing of students, as well as their ethical and moral development, are just as important as academic achievement.”