This fall, many educators across the U.S. will be welcoming students back to brick-and-mortar classrooms for the first time in 18 months. Along with feeling excitement at resuming in-person learning, educators may simultaneously feel enormous pressure to quickly assess learning loss and fill in gaps, all while ensuring grade-level learning for all students. This fall, educators will face an unprecedented challenge. However, this may be even more difficult if educators fail to account for the unique challenges students faced throughout the pandemic. Some have missed friends, familiar routines, or major milestones, while others have experienced significant loss. Schools need to expect and prepare for students experiencing a wide range of emotions as they re-enter school. Now more than ever, educators must invest using social and emotional learning (SEL) to help students re-engage, reconnect, and develop school and classroom communities where all students feel recognized and valued as unique individuals.
Creating community and an authentic sense of belonging can be particularly challenging for educators of multilingual learners (MLLs). Multilingual learners make up a sizeable percentage of schools nationwide and are an incredibly diverse population. Since the start of the pandemic, MLLs have faced unique challenges. Immigrants in the U.S. are overrepresented in frontline industries, putting them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
When schools closed their doors in the spring of 2020, immigrant households were less likely than nonimmigrants to have internet access, making it virtually impossible for students to participate in online classes, and many families of MLLs did not qualify for economic relief due to immigration status. Further, the pandemic continues to rage in countries around the world with limited access to vaccines, and many multilingual learners are concerned for family members who live abroad. MLLs have had to navigate language, cultural, and sociopolitical barriers while confronting the challenges associated with living through a global pandemic. It is incumbent upon educators to acknowledge the struggles MLLs faced throughout the last 18 months, along with the distinctive knowledge and strengths they bring to schools. Therefore, as we welcome back MLLs, it is critical that our SEL strategies are culturally responsive and relevant and align home and school cultures.
BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS
Build Your Own Self-Awareness
Before planning for the first days of school, educators need to take time to reflect and journal firsthand experiences from the last 18 months. Reflect on questions such as “How do I feel about returning to school this year?”, “What beliefs or biases might I hold about my students and their families around their experiences this year?”, “How will my beliefs and emotions affect the classroom environment and my teaching?”, “How will I manage difficult emotions when they arise during the school day?”, and “What does self-care look like for me?” Building self-awareness not only benefits the educator but it can also create more authenticity with students, which leads to a foundation of openness and trust upon which to build deep connection and learning.
Plan and Calendar Self-Care
Caring for oneself is often counterintuitive for educators. Before students arrive, identify potential stress triggers as well as routines and activities that support stress release, respite, and joy. Caring for one’s own mental and physical health allows for better care of others. Calendar activities like exercise, family time, and other acts of self-care and be prepared to say no to invitations that may interfere.
THE FIRST TEN DAYS
Learn and Use Names and Preferred Pronouns
As quickly as possible, students and educators must learn each other’s names, how to pronounce them correctly, and preferred gender pronouns (name tags or desk tents are helpful visual supports). Using names the way they are used in the home affirms identity, honors culture, and demonstrates respect and care for the individual. Use names in a positive context as often as possible. As noted above, when building community, it is not only important for educators to know how to pronounce names correctly but also for the students. Students need to have the opportunity to learn and regularly practice classmates’ and teachers’ names correctly. Additionally, introduce students to administrators and support staff to reinforce that the educational community extends outside of the classroom.
Throughout the year: When students engage in a partner or group activity, invite them to begin by introducing themselves and/or to thank each other by name when concluding.
Greet and Go
In many Latin American cultures and others throughout the world, individual greetings and goodbyes are common and expected and demonstrate acknowledgement and respect for others. Bring this to the classroom by greeting each student at the door by name as they enter and leave. This high-leverage, culturally responsive strategy is quick and easy to implement and has been shown to produce significant improvements in engaged academic time as well as reductions in disruptive behavior (Cook et al., 2018).
Teachers should start the year by greeting students at the door; however, after the first ten days, randomly select a student to greet classmates by name as they enter and leave the classroom. Assign students for one day or week as “greeter,” making sure all students get a turn. If a student is reluctant, assign a partner to greet with them. Greeting at the door is a small act that will help students learn each other’s names, build a sense of leadership, and continue to foster community. As the year goes on, encourage pairing using names with a gesture such as a high-five or fist-bump or a quick question such as favorite singer, color, season, food, etc.
Establish Shared Class Agreements
A classroom is a community space that is shared by all who enter. Using schoolwide positive behavioral expectations or agreements as a guideline, work with students to build agreements that not only set clear expectations for classroom behavior but are culturally relevant and purposeful. “Building agreements” with students provide opportunities for students to express what abstract concepts like “respect” and “appropriate” look and sound like to them. It also gives an opportunity to intentionally model and teach agreements or expectations. Consider asking students, “How do you show respect in your family?”, “What might respectful behavior look like in the classroom?”, or “How can I, as the teacher, make sure you feel respected?” This is an opportunity to learn about students’ families and cultures, align home and school cultures, and create community where all feel honored and respected.
“Study” Your Students
Make a concerted effort to get to know students and invest in building authentic relationships as the year begins. Use writing prompts to learn about your students’ interests and past schooling experiences. Even simple questions can offer insight about your students. Try “Where have you lived?”, “Where would you like to live in the future?”, “What makes you smile?”, or “What activities do you enjoy with your family or friends?”
Another option is to use Kyle Schwartz’s activity “I wish my teacher knew” to allow students to reflect on what they’d like to share about themselves.
Use the information shared by students throughout the year. To build authentic and trusting communities, students need to know educators value responses and who they are as humans, not just as students. Further, use the information to connect students to clubs, teams, or other extracurricular activities that may be of interest. For MLLs, it is important not just to mention opportunities but to introduce the students to the advisors and/or other students who participate.
Establish Predictable Routines
As students return to school buildings this fall, the need for consistent, predictable routines has never been greater. Routines lower anxiety, as they help students know what to expect throughout the day. Create routines that allow not only for community building but also for individual processing and mindfulness. It is important to acknowledge that the cognitive load students will experience this fall may be much higher than in the past 18 months or pre-pandemic. Students may initially be exhausted adjusting to a more rigid schedule, COVID-related rules (masks, social distancing, single entry/exit, etc.), more people, and navigating complex social situations. In addition, MLLs may be more drained from spending a day speaking and learning in their nonnative language. Whenever possible, offer students choice in how learning tasks may be accomplished. Remember to think of learning and communication styles.
Along with choice, allowing students to participate in a group or complete a task in their native language is honoring of culture and offers relief from the strain of speaking and learning in a nonnative language all day. Create a quiet space in the classroom where students can go to sit quietly. This may include different seating (bean bags, unique chairs, pillows, etc.) and be a place where headphones are permitted.
Use self-awareness communication cards. Introduce small cards (3 x 5) that are green, yellow, and red. The cards communicate how an individual is feeling or willingness to interact while focused on a task with a visual cue.
Green—“I am upbeat and happy to talk one on one or in a group” or “please feel free to interrupt me if you need something.”
Yellow—“I am in more of a quiet mode, but glad to interact in small numbers” or “I am focused, but you may interrupt me if it’s important.”
Red—“I am in a quiet mood and prefer not to talk” or “I am focused. Please only interrupt me if its urgent.”
Students can pick up a card on their way into class or retrieve one during work time. To use, students place the cards on their desks to communicate current mood or availability. This system should be taught prior to use, and educators are encouraged to participate as well. This is an effective strategy to develop agency and self-awareness and a great visual support for MLLs.
THROUGHOUT THE YEAR
SEL 3 Signature Practices
The SEL 3 Signature Practices provide a practical way to promote connection, community, and student voice. The practices consist of welcoming or inclusion activities, engaging strategies or brain breaks, and optimistic or reflective closures. This set of practices from the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is designed to intentionally incorporate SEL into daily routines. The welcoming/inclusion activity should bring every voice into the space at the beginning of the day or period. Engaging strategies are anchors of learning and should find an equilibrium between interaction and reflection. Engaging strategies may also include the use of brain breaks or transitions to support strategically regulating (up or down) the energy in the room. Optimistic or reflective closures reinforce learning and provide opportunity to connect with peers and reaffirm community. When carefully chosen, effectively facilitated, and thoughtfully debriefed, these practices help create an inclusive, language-rich, and equity-centered learning spaces.
2 x 10 Strategy
This relationship-building strategy adapted from the book Connecting with Students (Mendler, 2001) can be used to deepen relationships with students throughout the year. To implement the 2 x 10 strategy, spend two minutes per day for ten days connecting with a student on something other than academics. Chat with them about sports, the weather, or anything that interests them.
Take an Asset-Based View
Consider what will make this year unique and take an asset-based view of students and families. It is important to acknowledge that many MLLs did not have consistent exposure to academic English over the last 18 months. However, time spent in the home with family offered opportunities for students to broaden their vocabulary and expand literacy in their first language, which supports academic development in English. When focused on deficits and wondering how to help students “catch up,” reframe by intentionally seeking out and capitalizing on students’ strengths.
Welcoming students back to brick-and-mortar learning this fall will be exciting and challenging for students and educators. Intentional planning to help our students reconnect and re-engage will foster the best outcomes for all school communities.
BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS
Back-to-School Toolkit from Facing History
Cook, C. R., et al. (2018). “Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20 (3), pp. 149–159, doi:10.1177/1098300717753831.
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (3rd. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Mendler, A. N. (2001). Connecting with Students. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
“Immigrant Essential Workers: Crucial to COVID-19 Recovery.” FWD.us, Dec. 22, 2020, www.fwd.us/news/immigrant-essential-workers.
Janna Moyer is a social–emotional learning (SEL) specialist for the Washoe County School District supporting districtwide SEL implementation. In addition to coaching teachers, she designs and facilitates professional learning for staff, presents at family and community workshops in both English and Spanish, and serves on district and statewide committees. Prior to her current role, Janna spent a decade teaching Spanish, English language development, speech and debate, and an SEL-based freshman seminar course at the high school level. She has lived and taught in Colombia, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Trish Shaffer is a passionate educational leader who believes all children and adults are capable, relational, and worthy—a guiding philosophy for her career. With a background in special and general education, ranging from pre-k to university learning, Trish brings a passion for helping students and adults not only succeed but thrive. Currently, she oversees a multitiered system of supports (MTSS), social–emotional learning (SEL), restorative practices, and behavioral health and management for Washoe County School District, a large district in northern Nevada. In addition to her “boots on the ground” experience, Trish has consulted and provided technical assistance for multiple schools and districts and has been a fierce advocate for policy enacting SEL in schools. Trish has been an invited TED Talk speaker, she has given multiple conference and event addresses, and she joyfully co-hosts a regular podcast discussing current research and practice regarding SEL, behavior, and restorative practices. Additionally, Trish was the 2013 recipient of the Mary Utne O’Brien Award for Excellence in Expanding the Evidence-Based Practice of Social and Emotional Learning.