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Character education and development during the pandemic

Practical SEL strategies and character development for younger elementary students in school and during school closures.

8 min read


Character education and development during the pandemic


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Nearly half of Americans believe the coronavirus pandemic is harming their mental health, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation . The Centers for Disease Control notes that children may be particularly susceptible to this type of stress. 

When schools and communities across the country closed in March, the impact on students went far beyond the potential academic loss.  Students found themselves suddenly isolated from friends and extended family members and upended from the routines that help them thrive. In addition, many children experienced parents losing their jobs, or friends or relatives becoming sick. It is no surprise that one of the most important things schools can do right now is to provide social-emotional support to their students. 

I’m a counselor at Bloomfield Elementary School in Bloomfield, Kentucky — in a small, rural school district. In my role, I regularly work with students who are dealing with social-emotional issues. When schools closed and we switched to distance learning, I had to find a way to support students remotely as they worked through some of these big emotions. I found the following strategies to be particularly effective:

Turn on the camera

It’s important to check in with students and let them know that you are thinking about them and are there if they need you. A great way to do this is through video chats. In times like these it can be incredibly reassuring for students to actually “see” their classmates, teachers and other staff members, even if it’s only through a webcam. At Bloomfield Elementary in conjunction with Bloomfield Middle School, we also hosted an Instagram chat as well as a Facebook Live with students to discuss what they miss most about school. This was a great way to help them connect with classmates and also helped them to process their emotions. We also held weekly Google Meets remote gatherings with students. We partnered with our family resource and youth services centers and had virtual dance parties on Friday afternoons to bring some fun into the mix.  

Provide SEL resources for distance learning

When students are in school, we use strategies such as small group sessions or role playing to support their social-emotional skills. When students are distance learning, teachers, counselors and support staff need to find SEL resources that can be used online. A great one that we use is The Character Tree from Apperson which provides video lessons, teachers’ guides and printable activities that can be used in the classroom or at home to help teach positive character traits. Character development is incredibly important in helping students cope with the pandemic. We had used The Character Tree in class, so being able to share this type of character education resource online once schools closed was a big help. 

Support the adults, too

The stress of the pandemic affects staff members too. When our school closed, I tried to have a conversation with every staff member weekly to help them talk through any worries and concerns they were having and to check on them. For families, we hosted a Facebook Live event on COVID-19 where they could ask questions and get information about the virus. I also sent home discussion starters weekly for parents/guardians to use with their students.  Children will often mirror the emotions of family members or other adults. So reaching out to parents and school staff members can go a long way in helping everyone cope.

SEL examples to incorporate

At Bloomfield Elementary, the issues that we focus on vary year to year. Currently, we focus on character education and emotional regulation. For example, if students have difficulty recognizing emotions in others and in themselves we teach empathy and social skills to help them recognize those emotions. This year there was a big push to incorporate restorative practices.  This school year, I expect the biggest needs will be around anxiety and depression. Counselors will really need to spend time talking to students about what they are feeling. We will need to teach them resiliency – this will be my big focus in 2020/2021.

Here are some examples of lessons I’ve done to boost emotional resilience. These are great options for early elementary school teachers and counselors:

Character emotion charts.

  • These charts use emoticons to depict various emotions (happy, sad, angry, etc.) I have to work with students to help them understand how to describe their emotions in different ways and also what the emotion looks like on others – for example, how to tell if a classmate is mad. Are they irritated? Or furious? There’s a big range. Helping students identify emotions in themselves and others can help them deal with those emotions. 

Character development lessons.

  • Teachers or counselors can teach character development by sharing examples of people exemplifying positive character traits and discussing those with the class. I use The Character Tree’s lessons which address character development while also helping students learn about prominent figures. For example, one lesson plan focused on the character trait of kindness and highlighted how Jane Goodall exemplified this trait. It was a great way to help students understand how to recognize and understand this positive character trait.

Mood meter. 

  • This is a colored chart that has shades and degrees to help students describe different emotions. In the past, I pulled up the chart and have had them show me which emotions they or others are experiencing. For example, red = angry, which may vary from light red = peeved to dark red = enraged. When learning remotely, we can even use a digital chart to discuss moods. 

The RULER program.

  • This stands for “recognize,” “understand,” “label,” “express” and “regulate” emotion. It helps students learn how to understand and describe their emotions. For example, sometimes a student is able to tell you they are mad, but you don’t know how bad it is. By having them recognize and understand the degree of their anger and express it to you, you can help them deal with it. Teachers or counselors can also conduct an SEL survey with students asking them if they can regulate their emotions, or if they can interpret how another student is feeling.

Character charts.

  • I use this with my second graders and have adapted it for older students, as well. The students fold paper into eight sections and have to write down other words and emoticons for the four core feelings. For example, instead of happy, they can describe the emotion as joyful, or excited. They then share their chart with classmates and they discuss what emotion is being represented. It’s important to understand there are levels to emotions and how to regulate those emotions. 

Restorative practices.

  • Last school year we used restorative circles with students. The assistant principal and myself brought the kids in and discussed problems and came up with solutions such as working together on projects while learning how to deal with negative emotions. We have also changed the way we apply consequences. For example, if a student throws food on the cafeteria floor, we had the student complete a restorative project — in this instance, they would clean up the mess they made or help the janitor clean it up. Additionally, we’d have the janitor say how he feels and the lunch lady say how she feels about the action. It teaches young people to recognize others’ feelings and prompts them to change their behavior. Last year was our first year using this approach and it has been really successful and our suspension rates have decreased.

Finding the right resources to help children develop positive character traits and teaching them the skills to understand and process the emotions they are feeling will help them when schools resume – even if school is online. These resources will help schools support students’ overall wellbeing, and also help students re-focus on academics.

Mikki Rogers is a school counselor at Bloomfield Elementary School in Bloomfield, Kentucky.


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