Supporting ELs’ Social-Emotional Learning in a Virtual Classroom

As teachers and students from all over the world have been fast-tracked into virtual classrooms, educators need to take a closer look at our response to the anxiety and stress that learners are experiencing during this process. As teachers of English learners (ELs), we need to examine what we can do to support our students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) in the virtual classroom. Here are six SEL practices for teachers who are teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Set up your teaching space to help students feel connected.

Technology use for remote learning can whittle away at the human connection that exists in brick-and-mortar classrooms. It is especially important with your ELs, who feel they have a connection to you. If possible, decorate your teaching space with familiar objects from your classroom. One of the problems I’ve been hearing from teachers since schools closed is that many of their students do not have access to WiFi. It is crucial for teachers to make contact with their students if at all possible, even if their students don’t have Internet access. Larry Ferlazzo, a high school teacher in California, says that he reached some of these students by contacting their friends. Some school districts have purchased mobile hotspots so that all of their students can become connected.

2. Build a (new) connection to your students.

Treat the online classroom as if it were the first day of your school year so that your ELs can feel secure in the virtual learning environment. Address your students at the beginning of each session about how they are feeling. Give them time to meet your pet or introduce you to a sibling. Flexibility in scheduling is crucial. My daughter, Jen Clark, is a special education teacher in Connecticut. She’s currently teaching her students live on a video conferencing platform. Her grouping of students is flexible. Some have direct instruction twice a week and others five times. Some students are taught in groups and others have 1:1 instruction, depending on their needs. Jen plans to hold social lunches where students can check in with her as needed. All of these strategies would work well with ELs.

Teachers also need to pay attention to the language they use in their virtual classrooms. Using asset-based language fosters your ELs’ feeling of safety, where “trustworthiness, collaboration, empowerment, and acknowledgment of students’ personal, social, cultural, and life experiences are present.” For example, you may want to tell a student you feel proud of the good work she has been doing with her math homework (Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz & Haynes, 2020).

3. Link SEL to academic topics.

Introduce flexible tasks, such as journaling, that allow ELs to work at their own English language development level. Entries can be written accounts, photos, or drawings. Journaling is a great way to have students keep a record of their lives during this momentous time in history. Teachers can also develop activities that help students detach themselves from their anxieties. Ask them what they would do to help someone who is really anxious about COVID-19. This gives the students an opportunity to distance themselves from their own anxiety and talk about emotions. Teachers could brainstorm ideas with a small group of ELs.

4. Develop positive self-talk.

I’m a big believer in helping students learn positive self-talk. Model your own self-talk and show how you flip negative thoughts by looking at the positives. An example would be to tell students, “I am nervous about teaching online. I haven’t done this before, and I know I will make mistakes.” Let students know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that you’ll all learn how to do this together. Express how excited your are to learn a new skill. Help ELs write their own positive script. Their narratives can be developed in English or in their first language.

5. Give your ELs brain breaks during your online sessions.

There are different types of brain breaks. They can be whole body movement, a group activity or game, or a mental challenge. Play music and have students get up and stretch or do jumping jacks. Be forewarned that you will need a strategy to get your virtual students back on task. I would suggest that ending the music can be their signal to stop. An elementary ESL teacher I know employs deep breathing to help students relax using a Hoberman sphere. Mental puzzles can also give your students a brain break.

6. Practice teacher self-care.

Five thousand teachers responded to a survey given by The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at the beginning of March 2020. According to Marc Brackett in his recent blog, the top five emotions that teachers reported when they answered the survey are that they were feeling anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad. The reasons given for this response were two-fold. Many were worried about the COVID-19 virus and whether their friends or family would be affected. Others were anxious about the double stress of teaching online and taking care of their families. Many teachers have children who are learning remotely, and their time is stretched thin. Research shows that anxiety affects attention, memory, and learning. It affects relationship building and health. If a teacher feels anxious in the classroom, virtual or face-to-face, ELs may not feel safe enough to learn. Teachers need to take time every day for themselves to safeguard their own social-emotional health.


I realize that this is a huge task for teachers who are struggling to teach the curriculum to students who are also learning English and dealing with a new learning environment. Our ELs need us at this time, and investment into their social-emotional health is well worth our time.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to
Supporting ELs’ Social-Emotional Learning in a Virtual Classroom

  1. Yo puedo comentar usando el idioma Español porque en estos momentos lo relevante es entender y luego concientizarse de toda esta educación en línea y la actual pandemia. Se que lo mejor es sincerarse con los estudiantes.Así como expresan aquí que lo mejor es expresarle a los y las participantes que esta nervioso al respecto , así mismo, en los 90 s hubo un educador en la Revista English Teaching Forum que expresó que esta bien decirle a los y las participantes no lo se.En ese tiempo recién empezaba el Internet y la revista solo se distribuía en papel en el mundo. Hoy, desde hace 14 años por estos docentes yo expresar sus conocimientos yo lo pude saber y siempre le digo a mis estudiantes vamos hacerlo juntos y solo si a ustedes les gusta y me dicen lo que disfrutan de esto. Siempre me hacen un comentario en el que me dicen si están bien.Igualmente, yo si se los digo de una vez o les refuerzo en el cuaderno con una palabra en inglés que ellos escojan de una lista de mi dispositivo.Las palabras son MARAVILLOSO, ASTUTO, INTELIGENTE, BUEN TRABAJO y mas.

  2. Dawn McNiven says:

    Thank you for this sage advice. These are trying times but your tips help us focus on what is important. We always have to remember to care for ourselves or we really aren’t helping ourselves or the students.
    REMEMBER put your mask on before aiding another with theirs!!

  3. Such a dramatic shift being made but so necessary. There’s much we can all learn and be inspired to do. Thanks for sharing all these great ideas!

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