By Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab

Remote learning and counseling: the term sounds contradictory. Counseling and learning should be up close and personal, not distant. Some say effective remote counseling and learning is impossible.

Well, not so fast. Counseling and learning must be able to touch the mind, heart, and soul even if the educator cannot. Learning should be face to face, even if those faces are distant. While it may not be ideal, remote counseling—counseling via the internet through a platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts—can indeed be effective. And educators in New Jersey are meeting the challenge with caring and creativity.

One strategy used by most educators in New Jersey involves building up students’ social-emotional learning competencies (SEL) and character. The five SEL skills identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL.org)—self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, working effectively in groups, and responsible, ethical problem solving—are at the core of most of their interventions, as you will see in the examples to follow.

The counselors are in

Step into Grace Rivetti’s virtual office. Rivetti is a counselor in Cranford. She shares her “office” with teachers, students and parents so they know that she is available and so students will feel her concern for them. Among some of her activities are reaching out to parents/guardians via emails and phone calls, practicing breathing exercises as grounding with groups of students using videos on YouTube, placing Mindful Minute Mondays one-minute videos on the school’s Instagram account every week and prerecord minilessons on the CASEL 5 skills for teachers to show to their students.

For those not inclined to create their own materials, videos exist and can be provided to teachers, along with support in putting them to use. There is a great selection at Edutopia’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/c/edutopia/videos. There is even a video on how to make effective instructional videos found at youtube.com/watch?v=8Swzhq9Pnr0.

Among many concerns of Andrea Sadow, a school counselor in Summit, is the need to manage transitions with care, support, and forethought. The transition to remote learning demands focus and creativity. Andrea and her counselor colleagues begin with outreach to the teachers, arranging to be present in their Google Classroom online meetings with students so students (and parents) become familiar with them. They then reach out to teachers to ask if there are students for whom they have concerns and would appreciate follow up. All this sets the stage for proactive teaching of SEL to help build students’ skills at emotion recognition, perspective taking, and problem solving.

Recognizing that the transition is no less challenging for parents, Sadow and the Summit elementary counselors created a remote presentation for parents of first graders, to help orient them to their children’s school, introduce them to the counselors, and provide reassurance about what their children would be experiencing. The presentation serves as a model that other schools can adapt.

Cranford counselor Grace Rivetti shares her “office” with teachers, students and parents so they know that she is available and so students will feel her concern for them.

Set expectations at the outset

Barry Saide, principal of Roosevelt School in Manville, believes that schools must take “an active approach to guiding students in expectations for how they carry themselves at all times.” This means inviting students to create the online etiquette and rules for how they will work as pairs, teams and classmates while online.

Set norms about how to respond to one another, how to prepare for the school day—most experts, for example, feel that having kids wear pajamas will lead to sleepy learners—and how to communicate confusion and difficulty. Setting clear, shared norms that are mutually agreed upon and revisited daily during the early portion of the school year will be important in establishing and sustaining the learning culture we’re looking to create in our classrooms.

Vicki Poedubicky is a former school counselor and the current program administrator and lead instructor for the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (SELinSchools.org).  She has long advocated the use of feelings check-ins, and these are no less important in the remote environment. This conveys to students that their feelings matter and that the class or counseling session will start with a check-in and end with a check-out.

The check-in starts with showing students a picture of feelings faces at the beginning of class or a counseling session and asking them to indicate which one or two feelings they are having at the moment. The picture can be presented as a screen-share or sent to the students individually as a worksheet they can download and view.

Follow up by asking students to share their words for those feelings. This gives educators a chance to build up students’ feelings vocabulary. For individual or small group sessions with students, you can ask, “What happened that led you to have those feelings?” This is not something that many students initially can answer, but you are seeding the idea that their feelings occur in relationship to experiences they have. Thank students for sharing and then proceed with your activity.

At the end of the meeting, reintroduce the feelings picture and ask students to once again select one or two feelings they are experiencing now. Ask them what happened to help them feel differently or, if their feelings have not changed, what might have happened to help them feel more positively.

“The feelings check-in and check-out allow the educator to see growth in the student’s ability to identify, express, and then ultimately regulate various emotions in given situations,” Poedubicky notes.

Students learn that putting feelings first is a priority for their teachers and counselors.

Reach out to the home

Highland Park Superintendent of Schools Scott Taylor recognized that a successful weekly parent program based in Highland Park Middle School designed to promote students’ SEL skills needed to be adapted for COVID-19. Dean of Restorative Practices Julianna Luksa and math teacher Jenn Andren decided to bring a modified program to some of the families by placing “SEL at your Doorstep.”

Luksa and Andren delivered a pizza, two-liter bottle of iced tea, an SEL choice board of activities, and an SEL Kit—a reusable bag full of mindfulness items, games and other SEL gear. SEL is developed by having all family members use the tools in the SEL kit to complete the SEL choice board. and by reducing adult stress by having one less meal to prepare for. For more details email the superintendent at taylor@hpschools.net.

Addressing special needs

There is perhaps no greater challenge in remote education than accommodating to students with special needs. Much falls on the shoulders of the parents. It is essential to take a supportive stance with parents.

Try to take their perspective and imagine yourself in their home. Phone calls are essential in establishing or deepening relationships and communicating caring. Take a problem-solving perspective and assume parents/guardians are trying their best. Ask the parents:

  1. What are the routines set up around being ready for school and doing assignments?
  2. What obstacles are parents/guardians facing?
  3. What can they use help with, including technology, food, other     basic needs?
  4. Who might support their child as a learning coach? Older sibling? Cousin? Aunt or Uncle? Other relative or friend?

Sometimes parents believe that they have to be the sole helpers, but that’s not true. They just have to do their best to help children get help. And schools have to be proactive in helping families do that. A useful resource for parents is schoolvirtually.org/parentsfamilies.

The not-so-secret secret is to recognize that all learning and counseling—remote or not—builds on and builds up caring relationships and social-emotional and character competencies. New Jersey educators have a lot to share in that regard, and a lot to be proud of.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, where he is the director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (secdlab.org)and co-director of both The Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) and the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (SELinSchools.org). He is the co-author of The Joys and Oys of Parenting, Boost Emotional Intelligence in Students: 30 Flexible, Research-Based Activities to Build EQ Skills, and the just-published Nurturing Students’ Character. He can be reached at melias@psych.rutgers.edu.

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