HEART Skills in the Virtual Classroom

US schools are back in session. Teachers have been tasked not only to transition their classrooms to a virtual or hybrid environment, but also to do it in a way that effectively supports the mental health of students who have been impacted by the pandemic—isolation, economic hardship, racial inequities, and stress create a heightened risk for children and adults to experience trauma.1  

Most teachers are trying to figure out how to proactively address this trauma, while effectively teaching academic content, and maintaining their own sanity. This is a lot to navigate. 

Transitioning to a virtual learning environment is not easy. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate the things that are working, big and small.

The HEART in Mind model–a five-competency framework to effectively teach and integrate social and emotional skills into the classroom–is a powerful tool in creating a positive learning environment that supports students to connect, share and learn in a virtual community. In my forthcoming book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I explore how SEL can be effectively integrated into your remote instruction. Here’s a snippet. 

As you have probably experienced, teaching in an online environment doesn’t feel the same than being in a physical space with your students. Are you worried about students feeling disconnected and disengaged? I know many teachers are. The screen can become a barrier to connecting with your students, and an obstacle to support their learning, unless you intentionally plan to “humanize the relationship with distant learners.”2

Based on my experience teaching a virtual emotional intelligence course for aspiring principals at Teachers College, Columbia University, it is possible to create joyful and supportive distance learning environments. These are some tips from my experience with virtual teaching:

1. Focus on building connections with your students. In a virtual environment, we cannot walk the playground or stop by the cafeteria during lunch. However, we can still find ways to build relationships with students by communicating more regularly with our students and by using different methods. In addition to your morning meeting, you can create videos for your students, to watch on their own time, showing your pet or sharing a favorite hobby. You can write individual emails, give students a call or invite them to join you during office hours for a 1:1 conversation. The goal is for students to know that you personally care for their wellbeing.  

2. Offer students a variety of strategies to participate and learn during remote instruction. It is important that you monitor students’ engagement during their synchronous time—when you are all together—and their asynchronous time—when student are doing work on their own. The goal is to make sure students have an opportunity to participate and learn in equal terms, adding their voices and perspectives to the conversation. For some students, this might mean using the chat feature instead of answering a question in front of the whole class; for others it may mean using music and art to communicate their learning, instead of writing an essay. In addition, consider what this may mean for students who don’t have the technology resources to fully participate in your classroom. Are there other ways in which you can bring their voice into the classroom? For additional strategies, you can read the article “8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Your Virtual Classroom” written by Edutopia’s assistant editor, Emmelina Minero.  

3. Be intentional and apply your empathy. In a distance learning environment, it is important to consider students’ needs when you plan your teaching—ask yourself “why am I giving students this reading or writing assignment?” “how is it going to support their engagement in my classroom?” Many teachers would agree that teaching during and after a pandemic is all about putting “Maslow before Bloom”. That is to say, focusing on students’ basic needs, such as the need to feel safe and having a sense of belonging in your classroom—before you dive into academics. Think about your teaching—from the ways in which you engage students during videoconferences, and the kinds of assignments you create, to the way your Google Classroom is structured—from your students’ perspectives. How would it feel going through a day in the life of one of your students? By applying your empathy, you may find ways to connect more deeply with your students and work towards becoming a more effective online teacher.  

4. Ask for feedback. Although you may be already checking in with your students on a regular basis, it may be helpful to gather information about how things are going in a more formal way. Use one of the many survey tools available—SurveyMonkey, Google forms, Brightspace—to ask students for feedback about specific assignments or projects, and the virtual classroom in general. Asking for feedback can feel vulnerable and scary—I understand, I have been there. However, it is a worthy exercise. Students often have great ideas for how things could be improved—they are also very tech savvy! Asking for feedback is also a way to develop students’ meta-cognition skills, as you will be asking them to think about how they learn best. 

5. Celebrate and share what is working. Transitioning to a virtual learning environment is not easy. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate the things that are working, big and small. Share these small wins with your colleagues, so you can continue to learn from each other, as you navigate the challenges of teaching during a pandemic.

Until next time, keep up the work and let me know how you are integrating SEL into your remote instruction. And get in touch if you need any additional support!

I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!


1 Bartlett, J.D., & Vivrette, R. (2020). Ways to promote children’s resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic. Child Trends

2 Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (2011). Distance education: A systems view of online learning. Cengage Learning.


Leave a Comment

Articles by Date

Subscribe to the HEART in Mind Newsletter

Research-Based Strategies for your SEL Toolbox

Subscribe Basic

We don’t share your email with anybody. Unsubscribe anytime.