Mid-Pacific teachers actively support social-emotional learning during pandemic

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“Through SEL activities and building relationships with our students, we cultivate a caring learning environment that actively includes students in their social, emotional, and academic growth.” – Mid-Pacific Sixth Grade Dean Lisa Mah

This article was published by Mid-Pacific Institute on September 11, 2020 by Julie Funasaki Yuen.

For the first time in history, Mid-Pacific began the school year in August with a majority of students in virtual classrooms. While the school’s littlest preschool and kindergarten Owls started the year on campus while following enhanced safety precautions, the COVID-19 pandemic and the community spread of the disease necessitated beginning the fall semester via virtual instruction for most Mid-Pacific students.

As Hawaiʻi and the nation learned in March 2020, one of the challenges of the virtual classroom is the ability to connect personally and engage in meaningful ways with fellow students. The rise of virtual learning presented challenges for educators across the country who were looking for ways to support the social-emotional needs of students as students navigated online learning, while at the same time mourning the loss of close interactions with friends and family as a result of social distancing and other necessary safety measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

What sets Mid-Pacific apart is the active and purposeful way social-emotional learning is built into the virtual learning environment.

“It is important to remember that students develop socially and emotionally at the same time they are developing academically,” says Mid-Pacific Sixth Grade Dean Lisa Mah. “Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an evidence-based approach that teaches children how to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

At Mid-Pacific, social-emotional learning is woven into the virtual learning environment and prioritized side-by-side with academic learning that is characterized by a robust myPueo learning platform, educational technology and information technology support; secured Zoom classrooms for virtual learning instruction; and one-to-one iPad integration for students, with instructional class time delivered by Mid-Pacific teachers that mirrors on-campus learning.

“Through SEL activities and building relationships with our students, we cultivate a caring learning environment that actively includes students in their social, emotional, and academic growth,” shares Mah.

The Mid-Pacific middle school kicked off the year with a purposeful emphasis on activities designed to foster social-emotional learning to provide a solid foundation for academic success.

“The seventh grade team spent the first week of school connecting and building community through fun activities and games,” says Mid-Pacific Seventh Grade Dean Jessica Rose. “The students had fun getting to know each other through scavenger hunts, Kahoot teacher trivia, Zoom polling, true/false games, and Pictionary. They also came up with their own homeroom names and banners to build classroom spirit going into this year’s homeroom competition, and took some time to reflect on their goals and hopes for this school year.”

The eighth grade team assembled a host of community workshops designed to build and enhance a supportive learning community.

“The students started each session with chair yoga and breathing exercises, and were introduced to the Growth Mindset concept that promotes the idea that intelligence can be developed, the brain is malleable, and that doing challenging work is the best way to build brain muscle,” says Mid-Pacific Eighth Grade Dean Val Espania. “We had a workshop based on the concept of grit, learned about different styles of communication, and discussed responsible digital citizenship.”

Mid-Pacific elementary school teachers are actively including opportunities for students to engage with one another socially as they would typically do when learning on campus. Multiage first and second graders in Kelly Tokuhama’s class spend time on Thursday afternoons participating in “Funday” activities where students pair up in virtual Zoom breakout sessions to play screen-free games with another student, with sessions monitored by a parent learning coach.

“Maintaining social interactions and relationships during distance learning has been one of my highest priorities as a teacher,” shares Tokuhama. “Synchronous learning with a class of young students can make it challenging to build in time for more interaction and social-emotional support. Allowing the students to have this block of time in our week has been very enjoyable for them. They have appreciated the time to play, share, interact, and bond with their peers in a non-academic way.”

Tokuhama also made sure that the students were involved in deciding how this block of time would be used. They brainstormed “Funday” activities and discussed what they could share together on the screen. The sessions are designed to mimic the opportunities for play the students normally have when on campus and allow the students to engage and support one another socially while learning from home.

“Together the class came up with the name ‘Thursday Funday,'” says Tokuhama. “I am grateful for the support of our parents in helping us monitor this socialization time for our students and making it possible for us to have it every week.”

Mid-Pacific preschool and elementary school Counselor Maria Corpuz-George continues to meet with students virtually to offer social-emotional support and discuss ways for students to manage their emotions and organize online learning as she would do during the school year. She coordinates “Lunch Bunch” sessions with student groups to encourage interaction with fellow students outside of the classroom to provide opportunities for the school’s littlest Owls with much needed peer-to-peer social-emotional support while they are physically separated from classmates and teachers.

“Unlike our middle and high school counterparts, our young students have a greater social-emotional disconnect during virtual learning because most don’t have access to Facetime, social media, etc.,” says Corpuz-George. “The younger the child, the more reliant they are on adults to set up the necessary structure for appropriate socialization. Virtual counseling, recess, and lunch get-togethers allow students to connect on a social level. Social interaction plays a vital role in learning.”

As part of Mid-Pacific’s school wide approach to social-emotional learning, the school will soon be rolling out the CharacterStrong program from preschool through high school that combines social-emotional learning and character development into one curriculum. The character program involves eight essential elements focused on fostering patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment. The social-emotional learning curriculum focuses on the five components of SEL that include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

“School-wide, elementary through high school, we are continuing our social-emotional learning efforts that will help further develop and grow a deeper sense of belonging and community,” shares Mid-Pacific High School Assistant Principal for Student Life Jennifer Grems. “There is an intentional approach and common language that reinforces students’ and teachers’ positive, growth mindset. The CharacterStrong program lessons and activities such as ‘To Be’ (rather than To Do), ‘What’s Empathy,’ and ‘Triangle of Trust’ reinforce the good work we’ve been doing as well as aligns with our values of community, caring, empathy, respect, and resilience.”