SEL All Year Long

If there was ever a time to focus on the SEL needs of our students, teachers and families, it is now. This pandemic has not only highlighted the racial and economic inequities in the US, but also the need to redesign our classrooms to better support our students and teachers.  

My new favorite hashtag is #SELyearlong. No matter the format in which you start the school year, we cannot think that the first six weeks of school will be enough to create the rich (virtual) classroom environment needed for learning. Our focus should be on reconnecting with students and families, and creating the space where meaningful relationships and learning can take place all year long. 

While many times, I focus on the specific HEART skills that students need to learn and practice, today I want to focus on how we create the social and emotional conditions that make learning possible. There needs to be trust among the members of the group, physical and emotional safety, and a sense of belonging, purpose and connection, if we want students to engage in meaningful learning. This is still true if we are meeting our students over Zoom. 

4 Social and Emotional Conditions for Learning

1. Students feel physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe, and are treated equitably.

Many students have probably lost loved ones during this pandemic, and they will need help processing their feelings of loss and grief. Other students will be fearful or stressed, which are not helpful emotions for learning. Use these resources from the Morning Center for Teaching Responsibility to help your students discuss their emotions and experiences during the pandemic, and check out this video about equitable discussions. 

2. Students experience challenging and engaging instruction.

Even in a distance learning format, we need to incorporate productive instructional strategies that will increase the learning capacity of our students. One key strategy is connecting what you are teaching with your students’ lived experiences. Students’ ability to focus and pay attention has been greatly impacted by this pandemic, and the need to stay home for extended periods of time. When the academic content is connected to students’ lived experiences, students are more likely to engage and be motivated to learn. Bring their knowledge into the Zoom room! Here are some ideas from Zaretta Hammond. 

3. Students feel supported and connected to the world around them.

Given the isolation that many students have experienced during this pandemic, it is important that we prioritize building relationships in our classrooms. Use classroom circles to build community. Even in the online world, we can create a sense of belonging and community with our students by using SEL routines such as classroom circles. Use these circles consistently, so your students know what to expect and can anticipate this time of sharing and connection. Here are some tips from Edutopia. 

4. Students and adults are socially, emotionally, and culturally competent.

When you start the new school year, don’t shy away from engaging in conversations about race and racism. For students to develop a positive identity, we need to discuss racism and racial injustice. Although these are difficult conversations, this is part of our responsibility as educators–to call injustice when we see it and educate ourselves, so we can better serve students. Check out these tools from Teaching Tolerance. In addition, educators need to take care of their own needs. We cannot support students, if we don’t support ourselves. Self-care needs to be part of your SEL plan for the year! Practicing mindfulness, going on regular walks, eating a healthy diet or watching a favorite show can help you maintain the level of energy you need to face the next few months. Use the HEART in Mind model to reflect on how you practice your own social and emotional skills. And put it on your daily to do list: Take care of myself. Everyday. 

Lastly, communicate with families. Since many families will be supporting students’ learning at home, educators would benefit from regularly communicating with parents. Families need to know the school’s expectations, grade level objectives, and classroom routines in order to effectively support their children at home. By engaging them early in the process, they can become partners in surviving this stressful time. Here are some resources to work with families. 

Update on Teaching with the HEART in Mind

In case you were wondering… this pandemic slowed down the publication of Teaching with the HEART in Mind. But I have good news! The manuscript is currently being edited, and the book will be published this winter! I can’t wait to share it with you. 

Equity Centered SEL

Based on popular demand, I will be sharing one resource that can help you center your SEL work in equity in each post. While the 3 bridges to an equity centered SEL can be a starting point to understand the necessary shifts, the work is complex and we will need to pull as many resources as possible to make this work happen. Here’s the first resource:

My Racial Equity: A Guide to Racial Literacy. My Racial Journey is a 10-week, guided curriculum aimed at helping us challenge the ways we participate – often unknowingly – in racism by developing basic knowledge and skills about race. Developed at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development and with the Office’s Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) Program. 

Need help?

I’ll be taking a break in August to rest and get ready for a busy school year (aka, everybody still at home 24/7 party). As you get started with the new school year, let me know what additional content, resources or training you need. Since I will not be traveling to work with schools, I’ll be able to offer more online training. Let me know what you need. I’d love to hear from you!


  1. Carolyn August 13, 2020 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    As always, thanks Lorea! Inspired to create a classroom community in these challenging times. Now more than ever we are asking our students to persevere – life lessons, no doubt. Love your approach!

    • Lorea Martinez, PhD August 21, 2020 at 11:13 am - Reply

      Thank you, Carolyn, for the kind feedback. Yes, students, educators and parents are asked to persevere and stay optimistic despite these uncertain times. Educators, and the sense of belonging they can create in the classroom, are key to a successful learning experience. Best wishes for a great year!

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