In this One Thing You Might Try . . . blog post, Alexis Shepard writes about the practice of using wellness checks as a social emotional learning tool.
“You have to Maslow before you can Bloom,” the saying goes. If you’re an educator, especially in the K12 setting, then you likely understand and believe in the significance of social emotional learning (SEL). Social emotional learning informs students’ self-esteem, their interactions with their peers, and relationships with their teachers. Students come to school from diverse backgrounds with their own individual traumas. It’s important to ensure that they feel safe and valued within the classroom.
Educators understand that the work of teaching is an inside out job that extends beyond textbooks and tests. We want our students to feel deeply cared for. So, we stand at classroom doors each morning, cheerfully greeting students by name. We place handwritten notes on student desks or send them home in folders and backpacks. We make phone calls home, initiate conversations with counselors, and perform countless Google searches for SEL activities that might help one more student feel seen.
One of the most important things teachers can do to support students’ social emotional health is cultivate a climate of wellness within the classroom. A climate of wellness is an environment in which students feel that their presence, voices, and opinions matter. They feel a sense of belonging and are empowered to show up as their most authentic selves. Classrooms that prioritize and promote wellness are inclusive spaces that center the heart work of social emotional learning. This work means that we, as teachers, must model healthy social emotional practices. For me, this meant being vulnerable with students by sharing my feelings on the good days and the challenging ones.
A climate of wellness is an environment
in which students feel that
their presence, voices, and opinions matter.
Modeling Social Emotional Learning
In the classroom I talked through the difficulties of managing my own strong emotions when I was frustrated or overwhelmed. I gave my students a front row seat to my own social emotional process and made it okay for them to grow through their own personal joys and successes in our classroom. Most importantly, I introduced students to wellness practices like deep breathing, journaling, and listening to calming sounds. Then, I set aside time at least once each week to allow students to intentionally practice mindfulness. This work included the implementation of a weekly (or biweekly) wellness check. The wellness check is a short form that provides students with opportunities to check in with the teacher by responding to five simple prompts.
- How are you feeling today?
- What’s taking up your headspace?
- What is something you’re looking forward to this week?
- What’s one thing you’re grateful for?
- How can I support you this week?
Supporting Student Wellbeing
Wellness checks add a layer of intentionality to social emotional learning. They are a safe space for students to engage in open expression as they reflect on and evaluate how they are doing. It also allows students to practice gratitude and prompts them to openly express their feelings to their teacher. Most importantly, wellness checks give students the chance to communicate how you might facilitate their success in your classroom.
When I taught middle school students, I used wellness checks on a weekly basis. Students knew that every Wednesday, they could look forward to sharing their hearts with me through the wellness routine. After each wellness check, I would select a small number of students for individual follow up conversations based on their responses. I used students’ responses to inform my instruction and my interactions with them. I noticed that many students were vulnerable and honest in their responses.
- I’m sad and worried because my uncle is being deported.
- I’m nervous about spending time with my dad because I don’t live with him, so I don’t get to see him that much.
- I’m thinking a lot about my family. We’re really having a hard time right now.
The wellness check functioned as a baseline for the kinds of support I could offer and deepened my connections with the students. I scheduled one-on-one conferences with students to probe more deeply into their concerns. Sometimes, these individual conferences evolved into parent phone calls in which we set new goals for students and compared our observations of behaviors. Often, student responses provided insights for their behaviors. For example, a student wearing a hood in class or laying their head down was rarely a punishable offense because I knew specific information about my students’ traumas and anxieties. I knew that even if students seemed less engaged or distraught, that there were other circumstances impacting the way they showed up in the classroom. Rather than discipline students for those choices, the wellness check supplied context for them. In turn, I could address students with empathy and compassion instead of judgement.
The Impact of Weekly Wellness Checks
The weekly wellness check gave students voice and choice in the classroom. Students were not subordinates, but co-creators in the culture of our classroom. They suggested ways I could be more emotionally present with responses like: Keep the classroom a positive space. Be patient with me when I ask questions.
Over the years, I have found that this practice strengthened students’ investment in the classroom and in their own success. Students were more engaged more often because they knew they had space to have bad days without fear of punishment. Students felt that my classroom centered their experiences and their voices.
Students were more engaged more often
because they knew they had space to have
bad days without fear of punishment.
Students felt that my classroom centered
their experiences and their voices.
Our wellness practices weren’t always perfect. Some weeks students chose not to communicate their feelings. Other weeks, I struggled to keep up with the demands of teaching while trying to create space for students to process their feelings with me. Although we struggled at times, the wellness routine allowed all of us to show up imperfectly. We learned and grew together.
About the Author
Alexis Shepard is a former teacher with ten years’ experience in South Carolina public schools. Her career began as an elementary teacher where she taught second and fourth grades before transitioning to the middle school setting where she taught sixth grade ELA. Alexis believes in a human-centered approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes critical thinking and empathy. In 2018 she created her brand, The AfroEducator, where she uses her voice and expertise to empower educators to live more authentically. She believes in change for teachers and is dedicated to creating cultures of wellness in K12 educational settings. You can connect with Alexis on Twitter and Instagram @theafroeducator.
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