Supporting Social-Emotional Learning in the Hybrid Classroom

John McInerney

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has profound and positive impacts on students and schools. Students who learn in an environment with a clear emphasis on emotional intelligence, experience improved social interactions as adults but this encouraging environment also has been shown to have positive impacts on academic performance as well as overall health (Heckman, 2006). Early childhood is when students build foundations for cognitive development, as well as build the trajectory for overall achievement. A warm, nurturing environment is a best practice, but how are we as educators addressing this in the confines of the ongoing pandemic? The new educational paradigm has been affected, so how can we as educators best meet the needs of our students, families, and communities?

Teachers, students, and parents across the nation are preparing themselves for a third year under the pandemic. There is a sense, however, that this year we have the tools and experience to do it more successfully (Inverness Institute 2021). Many schools and districts have once again opted for the hybrid model which allows students and families more flexibility, but this also places an additional burden on classroom teachers. One topic in particular that many teachers are struggling with under this hybrid model is how to best support social and emotional growth in both the physical and virtual classroom. The benefits of SEL are clear, but many teachers and administrators struggle with how to reach students who are learning remotely, as well as how to incorporate them into the classroom experience.

Social and Emotional Learning itself is an immense topic, with countless contributors, multitudes of approaches, and even several choices of packaged curricula. Many experts in the field will vary in their definitions and practices, but most would agree on some basic components. “Broadly speaking, social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, and related skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that help direct their thoughts, feelings, and actions in ways that enable them to succeed in school, work, and life.” (Easel Lab, 2021) It is on the basis of this notion that many educators have implemented routines, strategies, and an overall classroom environment that directly address these strategies. Most of these routines became next to impossible with remote and hybrid learning. Here, we hope to explain and provide strategies for teachers to utilize in the current hybrid paradigm without losing the essence of, and hopefully the impact of, Social Emotional Learning.

Setting expectations for in-person learners and at home learners

Cognitive functioning is essential to SEL, but students need to know what the rules are. This scaffolding must be provided by the teacher/environment for students to feel safe. They need to know the rules so that they may stay within them. You can’t expect someone to understand how to play Yahtzee by handing them dice and a scorecard; they need to comprehend the instructions and gameplay before beginning. Teachers must reflect on and then provide students with explicit instructions on the following:

  • How to properly ask a question or contribute during instruction; what will engagement look like for remote learners? Some teachers set time periods for remote learners to ask questions, while others have employed technology features like Zoom’s chat function or Microsoft Teams raised hand icon.

  • How will students engage with other learners? Teachers have had great success pairing an in-person student with a remote student for pair/group work. Breakout rooms are great for collaboration, but do require oversight.

  • What does proper video conferencing etiquette look like? This will vary greatly depending on your group of students, but making sure that is explicitly expressed is important.

Setting up clear processes, routines, and classroom culture/practices allow classroom students and remote students to feel comfortable and safe within a hybrid classroom environment. Most successful SEL classrooms take the first few weeks to instill and practice these measures. This is a worthy investment of that time.

Sharing thoughts and feelings with a common language

The emotional and social domains are at the heart of SEL. Students, especially young ones, often need to be taught how to recognize and understand their own and others’ feelings. Sharing a set of vocabulary or syntax around thoughts and feelings not only gives individuals the tools to communicate effectively, but also provides a sense of community to all members.

  • Zones of Regulation/Mood Meter is a clear and effective way to provide a common language around feelings.

  • Setting time daily or at least weekly for all members to share tools they have found to be effective. For example, “I was in the red zone after Math class, but I pet my cat and felt better.”

  • Having classroom students “notice” something about their remote classmates, “I like when Hector’s cat walks in front of the screen.”

Providing students language tools and an opportunity to express feelings throughout instruction gives students a sense of self worth, while hearing about others’ experiences instills empathy and encourages engagement. Also cats being included in any way is always awesome.

Reflecting on community values and understanding conflict

Conflict is inevitable within the classroom. However, remote students are often not involved in classroom dynamics directly. They can benefit from discussing and working through these conflicts vicariously. They also can share experiences of conflict that they experience at home. This area may be too complex to go into detail here, but great resources are available from any curriculum being implemented at your school. Training and procedure in this area of conflict resolution are highly encouraged if not necessary.

  • Using a prescribed time to walk through conflict at least weekly so that remote learners can be included. Solutions or strategies to resolve conflicts are helpful to all learners.

  • Making a Charter of Classroom Core Values as a group provides documentation that can be referenced throughout the year. “We all agreed we wanted to feel valued and safe in the class this year. Is telling someone their shirt is ‘weird’ a way to make someone else feel safe and valued?”

Allowing remote learners to be privy to and to contribute to the classroom experience includes conflict and disagreement. It is a part of any social dynamic and is therefore to be included in the daily life of remote learners, however unpleasant. To exclude them from this important social dynamic is a disservice to them and to the classroom culture itself; it excludes.

Perspective and Identity

Diversity and inclusion are what make school such a fantastic place. We all come from different backgrounds, but at Dripping Springs Schools we are all TIGERS! Humans have an inherent need to belong, but we also want to understand and celebrate what makes us unique. Great teachers provide opportunities for both.

  • Students need opportunities to share what makes them unique. Remote learners need to be able to share their identity and experiences and this can look many different ways. Allowing remote learners to choose things like music being played in the classroom, or games that can be played in the hybrid model, or sharing cultural customs can help them to feel included.

  • Giving compliments, sharing accomplishments with the group allows students to strengthen their identity while also building empathy for others. Technology provides countless bridges to manage this expression easily. Within any technology used in the classroom will be a multitude of ways to foster sharing and expression. Making this a priority and a routine falls to the classroom teacher.

  • Giving students choice when it comes to assessment or activities. Identity resides in what one chooses. “In 10 minutes we will be sharing our strategies on math problems 1-5, be prepared to share your thoughts using one of our share strategy cards that you prefer.”

Students are on a journey to find out who they are as people, as well as their place within the social construct. Being able to share and listen to diverse perspectives is inherent to SEL at its very core. A strong identity and an empathy for others are truly the core of social emotional learning.


Heckman, James (2006) Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children, PubMed

Inverness Institute (July 7, 2021) Teachers reflect on how students are doing after returning to school:

Wallace Foundation (July, 2021) Looking Inside and Across 33 Leading SEL Programs: A Practical Resource For Schools and OST: