Social Media
Remote Attention to Social-Emotional Needs
BY ERIC SHENINGER/School Administrator, December 2020

DURING THE CLOSURE of his district’s buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Zywicki took a multipronged approach as superintendent of the Mount Olive Township School District in Flanders, N.J. He used social media to build the social-emotional learning competencies of perseverance, teamwork and empathy.

During the pandemic, Zywicki has produced a daily blog to update members of his community on the evolving closure and remote learning. Each blog post concludes with hyperlinks to social media posts by his educators that promote effective practices of remote learning at each school. The northern New Jersey district has 4,600 students.

The blog is shared across the district’s social media accounts, which Zywicki says builds per-severance and a sense of teamwork among educators, students and parents.

Candor Appreciated

The superintendent credits his candid Facebook postings, composed weekly or biweekly, that he calls Parent University for generating empathy among community members.

“Parents really appreciate that I am 100 percent truthful with where we are,” he says. “They really appreciate my honesty about successes, failures and frustrations as well as how they can support their kids through this crisis. I think this has built trust and transparency, which are key for empathy.”

Zywicki adds he cannot imagine navigating a range of emotional and administrative minefields during the pandemic without leveraging social media.

Uncertain Impact

Growing concerns exist everywhere about students’ mental well-being as well as inter- and intra-personal skills. These have been magnified by the forced isolation during COVID-19 and advances in technology. The fact is we don’t know the extent of the impact on kids and might not know with certainty for years.

SEL and mental health issues already were major issues for students before the public health crisis gripped the nation. It is a challenge school district leaders must accept, while using the digital tools in the spaces their learners frequent every day. Venola Mason, senior fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education, pointing to the significant psychological and social trauma students are experiencing because of COVID-19, says school districts can create safe learning environments for students “where they can share their emotions and build meaningful connections with the teacher as well as their peers.”

Coordinating Action

Educators first must understand where issues arise. At the forefront are social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Other mitigating factors stem from digital behavior. The inherent challenge is to build SEL competencies including self-control, personal communication, humility, integrity, compassion, perseverance, courage, empathy, curiosity, teamwork and gratitude.

A few actions school districts can coordinate are:

»Focus on the purposeful use of technology to support learning across the curriculum in both remote and face-to-face settings;

»Train parents and students on SEL competencies, digital citizenship, responsibility and cyberbullying;

»Create anonymous tip lines for students and parents to report concerns;

»Model appropriate use that’s aligned to SEL competencies, especially with the tools kids currently use (TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube);

»Communicate excessively using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other pertinent tools highlighting SEL competencies; and

»Provide professional learning support to teachers and administrators

As social media becomes even more prevalent in the lives of students, district leaders such as Zywicki are embracing the digital world to deliver the necessary supports. He’s not doing this alone. He’s delegating duties when necessary and reaching out to teachers and students for ideas on moving forward together.

ERIC SHENINGER is an associate partner with the International Center for Leadership in Education, based in Houston. Twitter: @E_Sheninger