How to boost wellness for high school students during distance learning

Student in school at home online

Spring 2020 school closures left teachers and district officials scrambling to restructure their classrooms with as few disruptions as possible. High school teachers faced the difficult task of trying to preserve their students’ motivation to finish strong and stay on track to graduate, despite the looming anxiety and uncertainty that students had about their futures. Teachers experienced similar anxiety while adjusting to the uncharted territory of remote learning. Ambiguous guidelines and low student attendance further challenged teachers as they navigated the transition. These challenges also revealed the important role that teachers play as supporters of their students’ emotional wellbeing during an isolating and uncertain time.

Researchers from SRI Education and the University of Missouri are collaborating on a study to evaluate the efficacy of a classroom management program applied in dozens of classrooms in the Midwest and West Coast. The program, called Discipline in the Secondary Classroom (DSC), provides high school teachers with strategies they can use to enhance engagement, foster positive and productive learning environments, and prevent student behavior problems.
Learn more about the DSC classroom management curriculum.

In April 2020, approximately a month after the transition to distance learning, researchers surveyed and interviewed some of the high school teachers participating in our study. We asked them about what the online transition looked like in their classrooms and the support they received from their district, principals, and colleagues. Our conversations quickly shifted from teachers’ challenges to how their students were coping. In addition to concern about students’ decreased access to learning, teachers needed strategies to help their students manage their fears, frustrations, and trauma related to the pandemic.

As several school districts continue with distance learning in fall 2020 and potentially beyond, we offer consistent themes and strategies that these teachers reported using to boost productivity, positivity, and overall wellness for their students.

Make Student Wellness a Priority

Teachers can frequently check in with their students and provide them safe spaces for expression of academic and non-academic concerns. Teachers can also refer students to school counselors and mental health specialists when further assistance or intervention is needed. Here are a few suggestions from teachers about how to prioritize student wellness in the classroom:

  • Teachers can administer simple check-in surveys (through online platforms like Google Forms) to help gauge students’ wellbeing and determine the level of academic and social-emotional support they need in a private and recurring way.
  • Teachers can facilitate open conversations with the entire class about wellness before daily lessons can normalize attention to emotional and mental health.
  • Teachers can use verbal and written reminders that the virtual door of communication is always open creates an environment of support for all students needing additional help.
Provide Opportunities for Peer Interaction

Students depend on their peers for academic, social, and emotional support. In virtual learning environments, students have limited opportunities to interact with their peers, which can result in low classroom engagement and compromise mental health. Here are a few ideas from teachers about how to enhance peer interactions in their classrooms:

  • Teachers can create virtual breakout room clusters of students so that the same group meets together each week to work together on assignments and deepen their interpersonal relationships. To facilitate additional relationships, teachers can reassign the clusters every few weeks.
    • Check out these 10 ideas (from the “We are Teachers” website) for how teachers are setting up and using breakout rooms in their classrooms to increase learning and interaction.
  • Teachers can start the first lesson of the day or class period with a large group activity, like a scavenger hunt for household items to find and share, that is fun and promotes student interaction. Teachers’ use of cooperative learning strategies, such as the ones demonstrated below, can also increase student engagement, collaboration, and learning in online environments.
Set Clear and Consistent Expectations

No matter the grade level, students typically respond well to consistency and structure within their classrooms. Establishing routines is especially important in a virtual environment, but it can be trickier to do with less face-to-face time. Here are a few tips from teachers about how to set clear expectations and reinforce positive behavior with students:

  • Teachers can create a weekly schedule given to students each Monday, which provides details about the upcoming topics and assignments of the class, to set a tone of predictability and help students thoughtfully plan their workload. Teachers can also provide this weekly schedule to parents/caregivers to increase home-school connections and communication about class expectations.
  • Accompany the weekly schedule with a “live” overview or recording of yourself talking through the schedule of assignments. Teachers’ use of recordings or live explanations will help maximize virtual face time with students, allow for a more personalized learning environment and increase student engagement in the work.
  • Teachers can find ways to incorporate Safe & Civil Schools’ CHAMPS model in virtual classrooms by addressing guiding questions when they plan instruction that will help to proactively lessen technological challenges while increasing student engagement. The worksheet (available here) walks teachers through planning for productive Conversations, making sure students know how best to ask for Help, designing and monitoring valuable learning Activities, setting guidelines for necessary Movement during instruction, setting expectations for successful student Participation, and demonstrating Success on specific learning objectives.
Create and Maintain Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

A student’s desire to engage in tasks, work hard, and perform well is often associated with a student-teacher relationship characterized by trust and mutual respect. Here are a few strategies that teachers suggested to build positive relationships with students:

  • Teachers can greet students individually by name at the start of class and allow time for non-academic conversations periodically during class time to learn about their avocations and interests outside of class.
  • Teachers can engage in outreach by contacting students and family members through email, text, or phone calls, with the offer to provide guidance about a curricular activity or technological issue to support their virtual learning.
  • Teachers can hold regular office hours (daily or weekly) so students can sign up if they want to have a 1:1 check in, ask questions, and get support for academic or non-academic issues.

The study presented here is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A180013 to SRI International. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Topics: High school Mental health Social-emotional learning Social–emotional and behavioral challenges

Tags: COVID-19