The return to the classroom, Part III
Providing new opportunities for returning students to socialize and interact
After a long break, re-acclimating returning kids always presents challenges, but this year may require more effort in three critical areas: connecting with students to build a productive relationship, reteaching classroom behaviors, and providing children opportunities to socialize and interact with one another. Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges facing our students is that last one: re-entering a complex and often unpredictable social environment.
This year is particularly challenging for our students. Many have spent the last year or more in near-isolation, and some in the limited social confines of distance learning and the company of a few close friends. If there ever were a time to substantially intervene in helping students build social connections, this is the year. It may require, however, changing much of what goes on in the classroom.
To address the greater difficulties children may be facing this year, some schools are ramping up or installing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs to help students rebuild social connections. In those schools, teachers can expect to incorporate more SEL lessons into their school day. Even in classes or schools without formal SEL assignments, there are positive changes teachers can make in the classroom to help children re-establish social connections.
Collaboration is now “traditional” in most schools, but students this year could benefit by upping the ante. Teachers can review and retool assignments and lessons to incorporate and emphasize group work, collaboration, and group discussion.
Set aside unstructured time in class for children to talk or discuss topics of interest. Groups can be assigned or allowed to form in an organic way. Some teachers have social time where everyone can sit and talk with the teacher, some prefer a social version of self-formed or assigned breakout groups. Some schools form advisory or mentor groups, allowing small groups of students to meet with older students to talk about school or other problems. The goal is not to let informal socialization “just happen” at lunch or recess, but to make it a priority during class.
A core principle of SEL is to embed social and emotional learning into every aspect of the academic curriculum. Asking for help, providing advice, answering questions: these are all activities that not only contribute to academic success, but social success as well. Some teachers set specific social interaction goals for academic assignments, such as asking or answering questions in class. Some teachers allow students to set their own social interaction goals throughout the year and help them to achieve those goals in classwork and assignments. No matter how social interaction goals are set, the important thing is for students to know that mastering aspects of social interactions can be approached as a goal, can be practiced, and can eventually be mastered.
Starting the new year
Unfortunately, the surge of the delta variant of COVID serves as a reminder that we are not out of the woods yet. The good news is that teachers are already considerably well-prepared and skilled in helping children make the transition back to in-person learning. With these existing skills strengthened by extra work, classroom tools, and a few new ideas, teachers will bring students back to familiar and much-missed classrooms.
Connections and relationships are key components of mental wellness, which is another challenge teachers are facing this year. Read about what you can do in our recent article, “Preparing for student’s mental health in the upcoming year.”
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