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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fostering Social-Emotional Health in Elementary Music (pandemic edition)

We all know how critical it is to care for our students' social emotional well-being right now. The question, of course, is how! This is already a tall order for elementary music teachers with our short class times and hundreds of students to contend with, but the difficulty is magnified this year with, depending on our situation, even less class time, the loss of our classroom spaces, the difficulty of connecting with virtual learners, heavy restrictions on singing, dancing, and other activities that would normally be at the top of music teachers' lists for class activities that promote social-emotional health, and so much more. Nonetheless, the importance of tending to our students' needs remains. Here is what I have found success with so far this year.

1. Restorative Mindset

This is not so much a practical strategy but, I think, centrally important to making those practical strategies actually work: we as teachers need to approach our students and their families with a restorative mindset. I have written extensively about applying principals of restorative practice/ restorative justice in the music classroom, and of course there is a lot of wonderful literature out there by many others as well. In practical terms, I see this mindset playing out this year in how I approach common stressors and difficult situations. If a student always has their camera off, I (privately) ask them why. If a student is in a bad mood or refusing to participate, I ask them what happened. If a student is not showing up to class online, I ask the family how I can help and find out what their situation may be. These may all sound like common sense, but in my observation there are a lot of teachers who, in all of those examples, are jumping straight to making demands (you must have your camera on during class) and giving ultimatums (if your child doesn't show up on time for class they will fail/ get a zero/ be marked absent and put you on track to be reported for educational neglect). I understand why many teachers are doing this- we are under a lot of pressure to prove that we can still provide students with a worthwhile education remotely, and this form of teaching is so new and foreign for most of us- but that does not change the harmful effects these responses have. If you're new to the concept of restorative practices, start here:

 2. Routines

With so much upheaval in every aspect of our lives, predictability is critical to our emotional well-being right now. As hard as it may be with our teaching modalities changing constantly and so many new things to adapt to, class routines are an important and effective way to promote emotional health. This can be as simple as a hello and goodbye song to start and end each lesson, or using the same format for posted lessons so students know how to complete their work! I have found a few key routines very helpful both for in-person and virtual teaching this year, which you can read more about in this post.

3. Individual Connections

I can't say enough about the importance of making individual connections whenever we can! I make it a point to greet every single student by name at the beginning of class. I'm also leaning hard into any sorts of inside jokes/ nicknames I have with students (being careful, of course, to avoid anything that would offend or embarrass students)- some love to change their name on zoom and have me call them by that name the entire lesson, some have told me a funny story, even in previous years, that I'll try to reference randomly in class, etc. I also encourage and praise any aspect of students' personal lives that they share with me, whether that's siblings joining in with the lesson, their bedroom decor, or pets in their laps. Of course I am mindful of any students who don't want to be publicly pointed out (for those students I will send them a private chat or speak with them privately if we're in person), or things I see in their homes that students didn't intend to share, but anything that helps students feel seen and gives us a way to connect on a personal level, and encourages them to connect with each other (which is where pointing out students in front of the class helps the others notice each other), is a good thing. 

4. Talk Time

Since we started teaching fully remotely, I have quickly learned that I need to give kids the time to just chat with me- especially the younger ones! Not since my first year of teaching have I felt the need to give students time to just tell me whatever they want, but my younger students are so much more motivated to come to class, and are so much happier and engaged, when they have time to tell me that their uncle's birthday is tomorrow, or show me the toy their baby brother is playing with, or explain their theory on why snails have shells. I've realized that, without the usual ways I connect with them in person, they need that time to just say whatever they're thinking about, and I am a fresh audience for them! I let them unmute for the first few minutes while students are joining, and I try to end the lesson a few minutes before the end of class and let those who want to stay and chat unmute then as well. Of course, there is almost always someone who doesn't get to say everything they wanted to- I always tell them before I end the zoom that they should send me a message in Google Classroom if they didn't get to share something verbally!

I have been intentionally giving more time to chat with my in-person students as well. I use the time when I am coming in and setting up my cart, and then packing up to leave, to let students share and chat with them about life. They aren't as desperate for conversation because they have each other and can make those social connections, but we are all desperate for more human connections these days, right?

Of course these points barely scratch the surface of this enormous and important topic, but it is a start. What strategies have you found most helpful for fostering social-emotional well-being as a music teacher in pandemic times? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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