10 Ways to Teach Social Emotional Learning Virtually

These ideas for teaching social emotional learning virtually can help you reach your students during remote learning. I’ve geared this post to preschool and kindergarten, but elementary teachers may also find some useful SEL resources too.

Title "10 Ways to Teach Social Emotional Learning Virtually" and photo of a young boy wearing headphones working on a laptop computer.

Last spring I sent out a little survey to my newsletter subscribers asking about how things were going with distance learning. I wanted to find out how I could help.

This group of preschool and kindergarten teachers told me that they need support teaching social emotional learning (SEL) to their remote learning students.

How on earth do you teach SEL virtually? Honestly, I was stumped too.

Nothing beats face to face interaction. My teacher heart tells me that young children need hugs, thoughtful modeling, and someone to read and respond to their body language.

But I did some research…. It turns out there are some amazing online social emotional learning resources out there! These won’t replace the in-person learning that we all hope to return to, but they can help your students grow.

RELATED: 12 Ways to Teach Sight Words Virtually

What is Social Emotional Learning?

First, let’s break down what social emotional learning is.

Social emotional skills do more than just teach children how to interact with others. SEL also teaches them to identify and handle their own feelings.

Little girl wearing headphones looking frustrated at a computer

SEL Skills include:

  • Communication
  • Sharing
  • Naming feelings
  • Managing emotions
  • Empathy

We can teach these skills explicitly through lessons, and also in teachable moments throughout the day. Yes, even the virtual day.

Ideas for Teaching SEL via Live Video

When you’re teaching synchronously via Zoom or Teams you have an opportunity to connect with your students. Using their names helps them feel included. So does making eye contact by looking directly at the camera.

Plus, seeing their reactions helps you micro-adjust your lesson.

Here are a few ideas and resources I found that you can use for teaching social-emotional skills via live video:

1. Feelings Role Playing

You can adapt this Feelings Lesson for live video. Prep by learning the feelings song (or cueing up the video) and printing out the free cards. During your lesson, first teach the children the song. Then, choose a card and ask students to act out that emotion.

2. Calm Down Techniques

Try live-teaching some calm-down techniques:

  • Guided meditation – if you want to model closing your eyes you may want to arrange to have another adult on the Zoom call with you to monitor students.
  • Breathing Exercises – pretend to blow bubbles, or try one of these fun breathing exercises for kids.
Little girl sitting in a yoga pose
  • Try kids’ yoga! Take a little time in your meeting to demonstrate some kids’ yoga poses. I found this useful tool for finding yoga poses that match your students’ ages and your teaching theme.
  • Additional techniques – Jointly practice some of these calming strategies so that children have a variety of techniques in their little toolboxes.

3. Use Puppets to Teach Social Emotional Skills

Puppets are a great way to act out emotions and social situations – and they translate well to video.

You can act out situations that children may be experiencing now at home as well as ones that might happen when they return to school in person.

Even better, you can make your puppet play extra-engaging by using your students’ names for the positive role models.

Frog puppet making a sort of sad face

As a follow-up, if you can, provide a way for children to have their own puppets to re-enact some scenarios too. I really like these funny finger leg puppets that families could make at home.

(Disclosure: Books and Giggles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.)

4. Read Aloud About Social Distancing

You can help children process our current situation by reading and talking about social distancing.

When We Stayed Home by Tara Fass and Judith Proffer is an excellent choice for children who can identify with the character’s suburban experience.

I also really liked If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug by Katie Sedmak. You can use it to start a conversation about expressing positive emotions and social distancing.

Update: If you want a whole lesson centered around a book, check out these social emotional activities for preschoolers featuring the story A Little Spot of Happiness by Diane Alber. I think all of them can be adapted to distance learning.

5. Teachable Moments

You won’t find as many teachable moments teaching remotely, but you’ll still find some. Here are a few things to look for:

  • When children have trouble taking turns talking in a Zoom meeting, talk about sharing.
  • When children interrupt a speaker, talk about feelings and self-control.
  • If a classmate shares something sad, teach children how they can show empathy through body language.

Resources for Teaching SEL Asynchronously

If you’re putting together activities that your students can do offline, here are some options to consider:

6. Books

Books are always going to be my top pick. They’re one of the most effective tools teachers and parents can use. Plus, they help develop early literacy skills and developing a lifelong love of reading.

If you’re sending home weekly packets, you might like to include a personalized copy of my Feelings Emergent Reader in it. Kids LOVE seeing their own names in these little printable booklets.

(You’re also welcome to share these electronically to your class via email or a password-protected class page.)

Next, many wonderful books about friendship, feelings, and social skills are available as read-alouds on YouTube. I especially love this one:

7. Videos for Social Emotional Learning

I know, I just recommended book videos, but you’ll also find lots of great non-book videos to help you teach distance learning SEL.

  • PBS/ Sesame Street has an extensive collection of free videos helping children learn about emotions, including real-life situations appropriate for preschool and 1st grade. Even better, there’s a button to share them all to your Google Classroom.
  • Next, you don’t have to teach live to give your students some practice with the breathing, self regulation and stress reduction of yoga. Katie from Preschool Inspirations has a huge roundup of yoga videos you could share with your class.
  • Also, don’t overlook the value of recording a video of yourself. I know that can feel scary! It can be sweet and simple though – sing a song, call out children by name, give a quick SEL-related tip, and say goodbye.

Complete Online SEL Programs

I found a couple of amazing complete programs that teach social emotional learning. Both of these have online components.

8. Centervention

This one is my favorite. Centervention offers a personalized online SEL program for K-1 students, as well as separate tracks for older students.

It gives teachers specific feedback on how each student is progressing and also includes supplementary lessons you can use.

Illustrated screenshot of the centervention SEL program with a cartoon boy and speech bubble saying "Let's make some new friends at the garden!"
Image credit: Centervention

The best part is the interactive element. Children create an avatar and then use it to virtually act out animated scenes such as making friends, respecting other people’s space, and more.

9. Emotional ABCs

I liked Emotional ABCs too. They have a complete curriculum for grades K-3 that’s free for teachers during the pandemic. You still do the teaching over live video, and they supply PDF file handouts that you can share for asynchronous followup.

Ways to Support Families with SEL during Distance Learning

If you had students in your classroom you might be taking advantage of lots of little teachable moments throughout the day, and then noticing patterns to address in planned lessons.

Since that’s not possible right now, you’re going to need to partner with your students’ families on teaching social emotional skills.

10. Talk to Families

If you can find the time, picking up the phone or writing a quick personal message can make a strong positive impact.

teacher holding smartphone up to her ear, with desktop computer in background
  • Ask parents and guardians about the small challenges their children have had recently. That way you can use relevant examples in your teaching.
  • You may also want to chat with families about their life and concerns right now. Sometimes just being an empathetic listener can reduce their stress – which will in turn help them to better support your student.

10b. Share Quick SEL Tips with Parents

Recognize that most parents don’t have the experience and training that you as a teacher have, and that they’re looking to you as the expert. (Even if you don’t feel like one!)

If you send out a regular newsletter, include a section with one quick tip and a link to a resource for more reading on the subject. (Keeping this short probably makes it more likely that they’ll read it.)

Here are a couple helpful places for you to find tips:

Title "10 Ways to Teach Social Emotional Learning Virtually" and picture of an upset girl wearing headphones looking at a computer offscreen.

I know that at first it seems impossible to work on social emotional skills remotely. I hope this post has helped you to see that it is still possible to make a difference in your students’ lives during this challenging time.


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