Don’t Wait to Build an Inclusive, Supportive Learning Environment

This school year will most likely not be “business as usual.” So much is in flux, and there are many unknowns. Will students learn in-person, remotely, or a through a hybrid of both? How will school practices change? What will our new routines look like? 

It is difficult to plan for the unknown. But as we adjust to this “new normal,” we can ensure that students are learning in inclusive, supportive learning environments. We can help students make a smooth transition into the new school year, and we can lay a foundation early on that teaches students how to cope with change. And all of this can be done through social and emotional learning (SEL).  

The following four tips can help students build the skills needed to succeed all year long. Use SEL strategies to build strong relationships, create an inclusive community, and foster a learning environment that meets the varying needs of your students – especially in these unprecedented times. 

Build strong relationships.

Strong student-teacher relationships can greatly impact students’ academic, social, and emotional development. Many studies show that student success dramatically improves when students have strong and meaningful relationships with educators and other caring adults.  

During remote learning, strong student-teacher relationships matter even more. 

Students may feel disconnected and isolated during school closures. Keep them connected and engaged in learning by fostering strong relationships with them from day one. Here are a couple activities to get started. 

  • Learn your students’ names: Learning students’ names, (and, most importantly, how to pronounce them), is the first step in building meaningful relationships. It is such a simple action, but it shows students you value them. For many students, their names convey their very identity. Make it a priority to learn students’ names quickly. Quick Tip: Take a picture of your class and label the picture with each student’s name. Review the picture often during the first few weeks to help you learn your students’ names faster. 
  • Share a personal experience: One of the best ways to break the ice and start getting to know your students is by sharing a personal experience. Tell students about an obstacle you overcame or a time when you were  nervous. Students will appreciate you opening up to them. And when students realize that teachers also struggle, it helps them realize that they, too, can overcome challenges.  

Download and print our free Educator Social-Emotional Reflection and Training (EdSERT) activity. This activity will help you improve the cultural sensitivity of your classroom or program by correctly pronouncing every student’s name. 

Teach students how to cope with abnormal routines and change.

The evolving changes in daily life caused by COVID-19 can be difficult for children to adjust to. As students head back to school, they will face different disruptions to their normal school routines, schedules, and school practices.  

Most students will experience some anxiety and stress, but many will manage well with the help of school staff and their family. Some students will have more extreme feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression and may need more intensive supports. All students can benefit from learning ways to cope with change by increasing their self-awareness and optimistic thinking skills 

 Here are a few things you can do to build these important skills in students:

  • Create a routine and stick to it as much as possible. If things change, make sure to explicitly communicate with your students about that change.  
  • Encourage students to talk about their feelings and make sure they understand that your classroom (whether in-person or not) is a safe place for them to share. 
  • Help students see what they are in control of and what choices are available to them. Help them develop coping mechanisms for things that may be outside their control. 
  • Remind students to recognize and appreciate the elements of stability in their lives. This could be as simple as having them keep a gratitude journal. 
  • Work with students to set goals and create an action plan to achieve them.  
  • Stay connected — check in with your students regularly. Ask student support staff to help you identify signs of stress or anxiety, especially internalizing behaviors. 

Here are a couple additional resources to help students cope with COVID-19-related change:  

8 Tips for Managing Children’s Anxiety About COVID-19 

Coping with Stress and Anxiety During COVID-19 Concerns 

Establish a sense of community.

Students’ learning improves when they feel included and empowered. An inclusive community can make students feel valued and can strengthen their connections with peers and educators. An environment where students feel respected and appreciated can improve their confidence, encourage them to take more personal responsibility, and make them more willing to follow class rules and procedures. 

 Try these ideas for building a sense of community: 

  • Give students a voice. Students feel empowered when they are able to exercise control over certain classroom decisions. This, in turn, can improve their learning. Try giving students a say in the physical layout of the classroom or, if you are distance learning, certain aspects of their daily schedule. You can also implement a classroom reward system based on the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) framework 

Remote learning tip: Morning meetings can make students feel empowered during times when they feel powerless. Set aside time each week to have students share about themselves and talk through problems they may be having. 

  • Establish classroom rules as a group. Involving students in the process of establishing classroom rules and procedures at the start of the school year can be a great opportunity for students to take ownership of their learning and feel like they have a voice. Empowering students and validating their opinions will strengthen your relationships with them.  

Remote learning tip: Be sure to revisit and adjust the classroom rules if you transition to remote learning 

  • “Decorate” your classroom with students’ work: Have students complete an assignment that you can post in your classroom. Putting their work on display will show them that what they are doing matters, and it can create a space where all feel included and valued.  

Remote learning tip: In a virtual learning environment, you can share students’ work in a class chatroom and/or have students present their work during a video call. You could even display student work as your background during a virtual meeting. 

Teach to a range of learning styles.

Students learn in different ways, and there is no proven one-size-fits-all teaching method. Presenting content in a variety of ways creates a more effective learning environment where all students can achieve. This is especially important during remote learning, since many students will struggle with virtual learning environments.  

Keep these tips in mind to ensure instruction meets the needs of many learning styles: 

  • Whenever possible, incorporate sensory elements into instruction that engage students’ sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.  
  • Use a dyslexia-friendly font on handouts and assignments. 
  • Make a free e-reader app available to students who have poor eyesight or learn better with audio. 
  • Make fidget toys available to students who need extra help focusing and staying on task. 
  • Create flashcards for visual learners and use color to highlight important points.  
  • For kinesthetic learners, incorporate role-play into instruction or encourage students to visualize the subject matter being acted out (i.e. the student could imagine she is a character in a story).   

Building SEL into your daily practice from the first day of school will establish a culture that promotes strong student/educator relationships, inclusion, and positive attitudes about learning. Incorporate these SEL strategies into your daily routine to set a course for a smooth and productive school year — even amidst the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.  

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