SEL Leadership in a Virtual World

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SEL Leadership in a Virtual World

The AASA Leadership Network invites you to share your ideas about how you and your district are addressing the needs of students, families, and staff during this challenging time in our country and our world. This is the first in a series of AASA BLOG entries from outstanding educational leaders engaged in implementing social and emotional learning (SEL) in their districts and schools to support their students, staff, and families during this period of national transition.

We are very pleased that this first entry is from Dr. Sheldon Berman, currently Superintendent of Andover Public Schools (Massachusetts) and a national leader in the field of social and emotional learning.

Section One: The SEL Challenges Confronting Educational Leaders Leading in a Virtual World

This is an unprecedented time in our history as a country and as a profession. Our response to the Covid-19 crisis powerfully reinforces the necessity of education to bring consistency and support to the lives of our students. As educational leaders, we must make certain that both our students and our staff members regain some semblance of normalcy in order to maintain engagement and connection—and to sustain meaningful education during this time of upheaval.

At the heart of social and emotional learning (SEL) is the goal of reinforcing positive relationships and connections among members of a learning community. These goals are especially important for helping learners to feel safe and engaged in this new virtual world.  As we search for ways to use distance learning as an educational delivery system, we must continue to acknowledge the importance of students’ relationships with their peers and their teachers. What is perhaps most important in leading virtual learning is the need to help our students and staff overcome isolation.

In spite of the distance we must maintain and the disruption to all our normal patterns of interaction, we still can sustain relationships with our students, bring smiles to their faces, and reinforce the connections that may seem broken in the face of isolation.  What makes this even more critical, is that in the midst of this national crisis, people around our students are getting ill and experiencing unprecedented economic and personal challenges. Connections with teachers and peers can be a welcome relief and healing force in students’ lives.

As educators, we can continue to provide support, stability, and normalcy to our students—in spite of working at home and disruptions from economic upheaval. We have to focus our leadership on our SEL work and let our children know that we miss them—and that we are there to support them. Before I give some practical suggestions about the importance of SEL in effective distance learning, I’d like to share a quote from Mother Theresa that seems particularly relevant now:“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together, we can do something wonderful…”

Section Two:  Promoting Connectivity and Engagement in a Virtual Learning Environment

So what can educational leaders do to promote connectivity and engagement during this time of isolation and transition? There are a number of strategies for reaching out to our students to make personal contact with students and staff on a consistent basis and ensure that distance learning is as engaging, interactive, and experiential as possible. Here are few of the strategies —and we invite you to share your own success stories with us about education in this new virtual world:

  1. The Equity Priority: The first step towards equity in communication is providing, as best we can, the technology and connectivity to our students and families through distributions of Chromebooks and hotspots to those who need it with simple directions and access to technology workshops for students and parents. Once we achieve some level of equity, we can ensure that every student has a support network and personal contact with teachers—regardless of their access to technology. For example, we make weekly or more frequent contact with every learner via phone contacts, emails, letters, and either individual, small group or even whole-class video conferencing meetings. 
  1. Setting Reasonable Expectations: Given the disruption in students’ and staff members’ lives, the expectations for learning and connection have to be reasonable. We can’t expect teachers to replicate the classroom or expect students to complete all the work that would have been accomplished if they were in school. Remote teaching, particularly online learning, takes much more time for teachers to prepare for and facilitate than teaching in the regular classroom. It is vitally important that educators understand the limits of what students might be able to accomplish in a more limited amount of time and set reasonable learning targets to reduce student anxiety and apprehension. Giving students time and support in this new environment is essential for them to function in a meaningful and productive way so that they can be proud of what they are able to do.
  1. Reinforcing Connectivity and Support: It is essential that students experience a sense of routine aligned with their in-school experiences. Providing a schedule for when teachers will be available or when online learning will occur brings a sense of order to a student’s and their family’s day. For example, elementary teachers whose students have access to technology and connectivity can host daily virtual morning meetings for students. At the secondary level, teachers can use technology to host virtual advisories for middle and high school students either in small groups or in their regular advisory groups. Teachers can also be available online for office hours to provide parents and students an opportunity for individual support.
  1. Engagement and Interactivity as a Key Focus Area: We can ensure that students’ social interaction and emotional engagement are priorities during distance learning activities by enhancing remote learning activities that are project based or require students to work together remotely. Providing video lessons that students can access and assignments or work sheets isn’t sufficient. Lessons have to include discussion and sharing of ideas or experiences in order to personalize and engage student learning. Video conferencing 1-3 times a week can also be highly effective, moving from whole-group meetings to conferences involving smaller groups.
  1. Varied Pedagogy: The virtual world requires sensitivity to students’ varying attention spans and the inevitable distractions of their home environment. Teachers must strive to make distance learning as interactive as possible with less focus on didactic presentation and much more focus on discussion, feedback, coaching, and counseling, as needed.
  1. Encouraging Student-to-Student Interaction: Students’ relationships with peers are essential in a virtual world. We can strive to integrate a range of strategies to enhance this interaction, including a major focus on small group project-based learning. For example, a project team can interact (via collaborative research, discussion, presentation, etc.) using such platforms as Zoom and Google Classroom.
  1. Building a Sense of Community in Spite of the Distance: Key to successful SEL implementation is building a sense of community in the classroom and the school so that students know they are included, valued and known. Remote learning can still accomplish that. Teachers and administrators in a school can create individual and collective messages in which each teacher expresses caring and support for students and lets them know they are missed. The faculty can create fun videos such as a dance video with each teacher participating for a couple of seconds each to brighten students’ day. The school can also host virtual talent shows with submissions of videos from students edited together and shared online or via cable TV. All of these strategies help to sustain students’ sense of connection to the school community.
  1. Meaningful Progress Monitoring: We can allow for a great deal of flexibility in this area, but we need to ensure that students and parents are receiving ongoing feedback on learner progress. Our teachers must make certain that students are clear about learning targets for a lesson or unit. They must also provide regular individual feedback on student work to support learners in achieving identified lesson and unit outcomes.
  1. SEL Support Services and Programs: Our commitment to sustaining meaningful and productive relationships and connectivity extends to the work of counselors, psychologists, and social service workers. Each of them can reach out to students and families through phone, email and video conferencing. They can continue providing individual and small group therapy using teletherapy tools. And they can reach out to teachers so that students who are not participating are identified and contacted. In this way they can stay connected with students and their families, ensuring that they receive the services and resources they need.

I wish each of you the very best during this challenging and unprecedented time. We invite you to consider submitting your own reflections via this AASA Leadership Network SEL Blog platform. This is a wonderful place to share ideas that can enhance our efforts to promote health, safe, and engaging learning environments.


For more information about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative visit







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