Social and Emotional Competencies in Digital Spaces

Nick Yoder, PhD, Sr. Director, Whole Child & Adult Center at Harmony SEL at National University.

Nick Yoder, PhD, Sr. Director, Whole Child & Adult Center at Harmony SEL at National University.

When we think of good teaching and learning, we often think of the brick-and-mortar building, with educators and students working together, and at times, using technology as means to expand student learning experiences. Although the pandemic and virtual instruction taught us a lot of things, four central learnings occurred for us at Harmony SEL and Inspire, a relationship-driven social and emotional learning (SEL) organization. The four learnings include:

(1) students need meaningful relationships with their peers, with their educators, and with their community to mitigate effects of trauma and stressful events;

(2) student learning occurs in multiple places and spaces that require diverse set of social and emotional competencies (e.g., collaboration, communication, and problem-solving) needed for in-person and digital learning;

(3) relationships in-person and digitally as well as nurturing social and emotional competencies are two critical ingredients in supporting student mental health and wellness; and

(4) educator social and emotional competencies and well-being require our attention and support as they are our first responders to our student social, emotional and academic well-being.

In 2020, when educators and students moved to teaching and learning remotely, we quickly recognized that educators who focused on relationships as a core piece to their academic instruction were able to pivot more quickly with their students as they built a trusting relationship that helped navigate the disruption to learning. To continue to build relationships and support students, thousands of educators turned to SEL programs, like Harmony, to identify strategies to maintain their relationships in a virtual space. Educators had to figure out how to continue to support individual students, get to know who their students were, and find opportunities to have those quick, meaningful relationships that they develop with students—and that students develop with each other—during instruction. Educators found that to build relationships with their students, they also had to increase their engagement with their families to understand their unique lived experiences. In other words, to first support student social and emotional development in a digital space, continuing to find relationship-driven activities were central to keep students engaged and support their social, emotional and academic development.

Research demonstrates the social and emotional competencies are culturally and contextually mediated; however, we have not paid sufficient attention to the social and emotional competencies needed in the digital context. In fact, the generational digital divide between how educators grew up with technology and how students today grow up with technology become apparent. Adults, at times, think of the “real world” versus the “digital world” however, as we increasingly know, the digital space is a space where students have to navigate themselves, their peers, and their broader community. In other words, it is a space that requires students to consider their social and emotional competencies and overall well-being. For example:

• How do students regulate or direct their behavior to ensure they are making helpful choices and actions?

• How are they connecting and building their relationships?

• How are they standing up for themselves and for others?

• How are they ensuring that they are retrieving valid and reliable information?

Each of these are core social and emotional competencies that students not only use in-person but they also use digitally as they navigate their online social worlds. Given the increased multi-dimensionality of students’ lived experiences, it is critical for SEL programs, like Harmony, to begin to nurture’s social and emotional competencies within their digital spaces so students can make useful decisions as they navigate their in-person and digital lives.

"It is critical for SEL programs, educators, and digital providers to strengthen their collaborative efforts to ensure that students and educators receive the resources and supports they need to be successful socially, emotionally, and academically"

As students spent more time in their digital spaces without sufficient development of the social and emotional competencies or relationships specific to the digital space students encountered a myriad of issues that as adults we never had to experience, from trying to form and maintain digital friendships to attempting to self-regulate during virtual instruction to cyberbullying, among countless other issues. Because of those social dynamics without deepening their skill sets, student mental health and suicidal ideations are on the rise. While we cannot say that SEL is the panacea to support mental health, we do recognize that students need to have opportunities in safe spaces to process their digital experiences, build the SEL muscles within the digital space, and identify strategies to develop healthy relationships within those spaces. In fact, many districts and schools are using a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to identify student academic, behavioral, and SEL needs, and using universal approaches with SEL to promote welcoming environments. For instance, it is a time that educators stop and pause and co-learn with students about how they navigate their digital lives and what skills, experiences, and strategies they use to build healthy digital lives. For example, in Harmony’s Meet Up, students receive opportunities in-person or virtually to share and respond about important happenings in their lives or solve interpersonal conflicts that may arise during learning.

Finally, the importance of educator SEL and well-being has been elevated within the past two years, as the demands being placed on them continue to increase. In fact, students will not be able to obtain the supports that they need if we do not concurrently focus on the educators and the other adults that students interact with. However, we have to be careful to not make educator SEL and self-care another thing that educators have to do, but actually provide them the time, resources, and support that they need to effectively recharge and model SEL for their students. We have to provide them time to engage in collaborative learning, inclusive of digital spaces of learning for educators. For example, at Harmony and Inspire, we developed a series of asynchronous learning opportunities for educators to think about and reflect on how they navigate their own social and emotional competencies and well-being at work. We further provided multiple learning opportunities that allowed educators to take time to authentically learn with and from their peers about what is working for them, how to support one another, and action plan based on that learning.

SEL providers, including Harmony, have a huge responsibility to support students and educators as they continue to engage with each other digitally, develop relationships via digital spaces, and the social and emotional competencies students and educators need to be successful in their digital lives. It is critical for SEL programs, educators, and digital providers to strengthen their collaborative efforts to ensure that students and educators receive the resources and supports they need to be successful socially, emotionally, and academically.

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