The beginning of the school year is difficult for students. Younger children are leaving home for the very first time, and older students are returning to worries about friendships, tests, and extracurriculars. Stress and anxiety are running high — far higher than excitement in many circumstances.
How can we help our students through this transition? Back-to-school SEL is a great place to start.
Why use Back to School SEL?
To fully understand the importance of social and emotional learning at the beginning of the year, let’s look into some science and data. Without the right tools, kids are often anxious, stressed, and even sad at this time of year. And these feelings can have detrimental effects on learning outcomes in all age groups.
Stress and school anxiety have been shown to lead to:
- Tardiness and absenteeism
- Incomplete work and est failure
- Lower overall academic performance
- Lower productivity in class and at home
When kids understand their emotions and have coping techniques in place, these downfalls can be avoided. SEL helps children focus on learning and social growth, instead of the emotional burdens that they carry at the beginning of the year.
Back to School SEL by Age
Below, we’ll break down specific SEL tips for back-to-school for every age group.
Pre-school and Kindergarten: School is brand new at this age! Do your best to provide a calming, reassuring presence at all times. It’s also extremely important to label simple emotions that these kids may not have felt in the past — they’re anxious, worried, and maybe lonely for their parents and siblings at home. They’re also excited to make new friends and eager to learn. Be sure to label positive emotions as well as the negative ones — it’ll give the children something happy to focus on during an otherwise tough transition.
Some concrete tips to take away for preschool and kindergarten back-to-school SEL:
- Label positive and negative emotions
- Read books about other children experiencing the same feelings and events
- Offer solutions — we can draw a picture for our parents when we’re feeling sad about being away from them, we can ask a teacher for help when we’re anxious about choosing an activity or joining play at recess, etc.
Younger Elementary: These kids have a few years of school under their belt, but they’re still very young. They still need time and opportunities to practice recognizing and labeling their emotions. They likely feel all the same feelings as younger kids — anxious, worried, lonely, excited, hopeful, and eager.
Tips to help support younger elementary kids in back-to-school SEL:
- Continue to label positive and negative emotions, but go a bit deeper. Offer activities to understand these better — think art projects, games, short journal prompts, etc.
- Continue to read books! Sharing in a fictional child’s social-emotional journeys will add to their own SEL toolbelt. Teachers can also stop to point out feelings in books, and mention how the character overcomes them throughout the pages even if it’s not an SEL-themed story.
- Offer calming rocks for kids to hold when they miss their families.
- Provide a “Worry Jar” and teach kids to write their fears on paper and drop them inside. Once they’re there, their teachers and friends can help them carry the burden.
Older Elementary: Once children reach this age group, they can really start to dive deep into emotions and the actions that they can take to change them for the better. Continue to talk about emotions, but try to use prompts that encourage kids to bring them up themselves. How are you feeling today as we return to school? Is there anything that’s making this transition feel tricky? What can you/I do to help during this time?
Simple back-to-school SEL lessons to support older elementary students:
- Offer daily emotion check-ins and journal opportunities. Consider allowing kids to share these with teachers if they would like to.
- Continue to teach emotions on deeper levels. Help children recognize what these emotions look like on others, how they feel in themselves, and how they can help in both scenarios.
- Provide social games to help kids build friendships at the beginning of the year.
- Teach grounding techniques, such as finding five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste or want to taste.
Middle School: Middle school is tough, and kids know that long before they show up for their first day. It’s important to be two things for this age group: a calming presence that teaches them about their emotions and how to handle them appropriately, and a connector who helps them form friendships.
For middle-schoolers and back-to-school SEL, try to:
- Offer daily emotional check-ins with the option to share how they feel with their teacher.
- Provide projects, journal prompts, or worksheets that dive deep into feelings, whether that’s about their own or those that belong to others.
- Provide social games and partner projects to build friendships and social skills.
- Practice self-compassion. Middle school is hard, and the students need to feel validated. Plus, empathy can be learned from watching others exhibit it.
High School: Most high schoolers have a handle on their emotions, but that doesn’t mean they know how to express and deal with them in healthy ways. And don’t forget that this age group is still made up of kids! They need your support and guidance just as much as younger students, even if they don’t make it known.
High school back-to-school SEL could include:
- Daily emotional check-ins that are shared with teachers.
- Projects that help students manage their time, feelings, and social interactions in healthy ways.
- Games and activities that help build friendships and a healthy social classroom environment.
- Lessons on things like time management, personal care, how much food and rest our bodies need, and more to help students handle the amount of academic and social stress they are under.
All in all, back-to-school SEL is essential in all age groups. Helping kids check in with their emotions and understand them better will take some of their stress and anxiety away, allowing them to learn and grow more easily than they otherwise could. And thankfully, social and emotional lessons are fairly easy to implement with a bit of planning and prep beforehand.
What questions or concerns do you have about back-to-school SEL this year? We’d love for you to let us know, so we can continue to be a resource until your last day at the desk.