Use these SEL tools for a safe, welcoming classroom

During a year in which keeping kids’ attention—even keeping them in class—was harder than ever, teachers needed to focus more than ever on cultivating positive relationships with their students. Today’s workshop on creating safe and welcoming classrooms brought together many of the social and emotional learning strategies AFT members used this past year to reach their students.

Teens in classroom

Well over 100 TEACH participants, including AFT President Randi Weingarten, joined the workshop led by Stacy Vocasek, a high school teacher at Arts at the Capitol Theater in Willimantic, Conn., and a member of AFT Connecticut. 

In May, Vocasek braved not only the pandemic but brain surgery to keep teaching. 

“We don’t share everything with our students, but this surgery was something I had to share because they saw me leaving school a lot,” Vocasek said, adding that she feels lucky in her profession because “they love us as much as we love them. We all needed a support system this year.” 

Providing a safe and supportive environment is essential, she said, so that students and educators can learn, build trust and understanding, practice empathy, reduce negative behaviors and dissipate stress. She provided a wealth of quick, practical tools to use in gauging the mood of each student and the class. 

Vocasek takes up to10 minutes every day to check in with students and recommends that if you have the opportunity to do so, spend the first two to three weeks of the school year building community. Social awareness and empathy are key, she said: “When kids are struggling, it’s not about us. We have to remain calm and not just tell them to relax.” 

One everyday strategy for checking in virtually, called waterfall, has students type their reactions into a chat box in response to a prompt from the teacher. 

Other strategies include drawing up a code of collaboration, in which students plan to cooperate with their peers. She asks them: What should our classroom look and sound like?

Another idea for establishing a classroom code of conduct is a four-part chart that describes in words or short phrases what good classmates ARE (helpful), SAY (nice things), DO (respect people’s pronouns) and DON’T (bully).

Vocasek suggests taking regular short breaks for breathing exercises or for a brief dance party. These help kids make transitions and show that teachers care about how they are feeling. 

One of the best tools Vocasek uses is a gratitude practice with a “happy thoughts” jar: Students jot down what they’re grateful for on a slip of paper to drop in the jar. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. In fact, kids start to appreciate the little things in life, like having a pen in your backpack when you need it. For remote learning, you can collect happy thoughts with a Google form or Jamboard. 

Another strategy, called setting intentions, asks students to clarify how they want to act or feel, using “I am” or “I can” statements. 

Yet another strategy is to use icebreakers throughout the year to develop students’ social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. These can include scavenger hunts, movement or mobility breaks, meme challenges and more. An especially fun one is having a song of the day. Whenever students hear the song, they stop for a 30-second dance break. Song of the day can be adapted to help review key content; students can create a three-song playlist offering clues about historical figures, periodic elements in chemistry, or characters from literature. 

The power of questions

Questions about instruction make excellent tools for getting to the nut of students’ emotions. Vocasek uses these: How clear were my directions? How included did you feel? What was your favorite part? What could I do to help you? What do you want me to know about you today? What’s something you could do tomorrow to be successful?

Vocasek once struggled with asking questions, but now uses prompts to learn what students are thinking and how they’re feeling. Instead of asking them what they want to be when they grow up, she asks what kind of work they’d like to do or what legacy they want to leave. “Kids will come up with great ideas we never thought about,” she said. 

She also asks “Would you rather” questions (skydiving or mountain climbing?), “this or that” questions (dogs or cats? pie or cake?), or “your favorite” questions (Who is your favorite superhero?). 

Finally, Vocasek shared a practice called one word that can guide students for the entire school year. Her word this year was “intentional.” Students choose their own word, then create an object to use as a touchstone. They can design a poster, paint a rock or use letter beads to make a bracelet and then return to that word whenever they like. 

So why go to these lengths to calm students and be in tune with their needs? Because if they know that you care about them, they will respect you, Vocasek said, and they will be ready to learn. She described an instance in which one of her students demanded of another: “Why would she lie to us? She has never lied to us.” As an educator, you can’t ask for more than that.

[Annette Licitra]