Focus on the Social & Emotional Needs

Focus on Meeting the Social & Emotional Needs of Virtual Learning Students
Posted on 10/06/2020
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Collage of meeting social emotional needs of virtual learning students

ddressing the social/emotional needs of students is always important, but especially so for virtual learners during the COVID pandemic.

Students in virtual learning environments such as Lakota’s VLO might feel particularly isolated or lonely by missing out on valuable social interaction and relationship building in the school setting. It is also more difficult to establish the feeling of belonging and the feeling of being psychologically and mentally safe when students aren’t physically in the classroom.

“Nothing replaces seeing the students face to face all day, every day,” said Lori Brown, Lakota’s Director of Student Service. “But the good news is that everything we have wanted to do to meet the social/emotional needs of our VLO students, we have found a way to do it.”

There are online peer groups, specific check-in times or lunches with counselors, virtual tools for mindfulness, support sessions for parents, a new junior high mental health and suicide prevention program – and these are just a few of ways that Lakota is addressing this important topic.

Teachers and educators have been inundated with resources since the start of the pandemic, and often find it difficult to sort through them and find those that would work best for their students. That’s why Brown held a professional development session this past summer to help teachers manage this new learning environment. She emphasized the need to model good self-care and that structure and routine were more important than ever. She encouraged VLO teachers to keep their online sessions consistent, to offer students opportunities to interact via Zoom or Flipgrid, and helped teachers learn how to identify VLO students that might need more social/emotional support.

“We are fortunate to have many partners offering to help us meet the social/emotional needs of our students,” said Brown.

Lakota’s partnership with MindPeace (where a licensed therapist has an office at the school building) continues and now allows for teletherapy. MindPeace has helped in-person classrooms develop tools like calming corners, and has adapted them to the virtual environment as well (Virtual Calming Rooms featuring movement, breathing, calming, coloring, music). Their State of Mind Speaker Series is a robust offering on topics for students, educators and parents.

Other partner organizations include Companions on a Journey (offering online grief and bereavement groups) and Envision Partnerships (a certified prevention provider serving Butler County schools and the surrounding community). Envision has even assigned a full staff member to Lakota. Envision developed a VLO parent series at Lakota’s request, and sign-ups are going on now for peer groups to help provide the valuable social interaction and relationship building students are missing in the VLO setting.  With an average of 8-10 students per group, these small group settings will provide students with a safe place to share their thoughts and feelings without judgment while learning and using essential skills for social and academic success.

This year, Lakota will also roll out new mental health programs for junior high students. These initiatives are a companion to the Hope Squads found at Lakota East and West high schools. Lakota has partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness so that every seventh grader can take part in the “Ending the Silence” program about wellness, mental health, and suicide prevention. Eighth graders will participate in a program called “Adapting for Life” in conjunction with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. It covers goal setting, resilience and wellness. Both junior high programs will be offered to in-person and VLO students.

Teachers and counselors also need to be able to check in regularly with students to increase that sense of belonging and socialization. Many school counselors are a regular part of morning announcements, hold face to face social/emotional lessons, offer help sessions for parents, or have put together videos that VLO teachers can embed in their classrooms.     

Creekside ECS counselor Jennifer Russell has prerecorded stories that teachers can use – a recent story called ‘Puppy Mind’ talked about mindfulness breathing and taking a pause. The school’s therapy dog, Bendi, demonstrated the tools in the video. Russell also recently held a virtual lesson about feelings and had students participate in a feelings scavenger hunt. “It was great to see the students, and I could see just how much they need to feel their school’s presence.” She has visited all of the school’s VLO classes and plans to do it at least twice a month.

“All of us are trying to think outside the box to help students. For example, I am currently piloting a virtual sand tray that is a COVID-safe game changer,” said Russell. Sand tray therapy is a combination of play therapy and art therapy where she uses a tray filled with sand as well as a variety of miniature toys to create a play world. It’s a non-threatening way for students to express what they are feeling.

“We are continually looking at new ways to meet the social and emotional needs of ALL our students, wherever they might be doing their learning,” said Brown.