Back to Distance Learning? Tools for activating creative approaches to SEL when teaching online.

It seems as if many schools around the world will continue in or return to distance learning this New Year. For educators, remote teaching and learning is perhaps beginning to feel a little familiar, but the start of the New Year can be a time to refresh and reconsider some of our go-to online teaching tools.

So, we asked some of our colleagues at current and former IFSEL schools for their recommendations of platforms and tools to keep SEL alive during distance learning

(Inclusion on this list is not a formal endorsement of any product and IFSEL is not sponsored by any provider – we’re just here to share some good ideas. Most of the suggestions below have free versions, usually with some restrictions in features.)

Tools for keeping SEL experiences and lessons engaging

  • Check-In
    We have heard that lots of educators have found the practice of ‘Check-In’ to be essential when teaching remotely. From rating scales to ‘themed’ check-ins, there are many tools that can help. Teachers tell us that Pear Deck’s templates and simple integration with Google Slides is really helpful. Similarly, Google’s Jamboard or even the Annotate function in Zoom offer quick and easy ways for students to share their check-in, and for educators to notice patterns over time.
  • Creative Experiences
    Many IFSEL lessons engage students in creative experiences, including drawing. There are a number of tools with a drawing function, but for collaborative drawing (with pairs or multiple students contributing to the same drawing at the same time), Google’s Jamboard seems to be the easiest to use. For paired drawing activities, you can set up and copy and paste Jamboards ahead of time and then students can scroll through to find theirs (by name/number) during the experience. At the end, students can also then scroll back through to look at each other’s. This works well for IFSEL’s lessons: The Venn Diagram Experience and The Silent Draw.
  • Perspective Taking
    Rich conversations happen through lessons focused on perspective taking. In person, we sometimes invite students to get up and move around a stand on a ‘spectrum of agree to disagree’ for these lessons, but tools such as Pear Deck’s “Draggable Slide” or Jamboard both offer slick ways to do this online. These work well for IFSEL’s lessons: Unfolding Perspectives, Where do you Stand?, and The Introvert-Extravert Spectrum.
  • Inclusion
    Focusing on inclusion, particularly for English Language Learners, when teaching online can require extra thought and planning. Mentimeter has a great tool that allows you to automatically translate your presentations and questions into other languages.  
  • Pair or Group Discussions
    We know students (and adults!) have some mixed views about Breakout Rooms. While they can be essential tools for fostering pair/small group discussions we also hear students say they can be an awkward or uncomfortable experience. One factor that determines success is the quality of the discussion prompt or activity, and the thinking-time given in advance of the breakout moment. So, after this winter break, try giving your students some fun, accessible prompts or activities to do in their breakouts, with the primary goal of fostering connection and inclusion. Consider also assigning meaningful and interdependent roles can also lessen the awkward moments when students arrive in their rooms (eg. questioner, summarizer, etc).

Tools for nurturing the practice of reflective questioning

  • Varied Approaches to Reflection
    Tools that offer students the option to record and post video responses can really build engagement for the reflective element of all good social and emotional learning. We hear that students really engage with the intra-, inter-, and enviro-personal questions when they can choose the medium for response. Flipgrid offers a very simple way to post questions (written, video, audio) and have students record video responses(that can be shared with whole class, or just kept for the teacher). Seesaw is similar, geared more towards younger grades.
  • SEL-focused Reflection in Subject Classes
    When considering how to buildSEL-focused reflective questioning into your subject content classes, many ofIFSEL’s prompts can bring depth and quality insights for students to consider and share. For more tech-based approaches, consider ReflEQ and their rich bank of reflective questions that teachers can curate to meet lesson learning goals*.

Tools for focusing on mindfulness and gratitude

  • Gratitude and Appreciation
    Amidst all the challenges of these times, a focus on gratitude builds community, and improves student and educator emotional health. Consider using Jamboard for appreciation ‘sticky notes’ at the end of a class or unit, or Nearpod for an alternative with a moderation function.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation
    For elementary Grades, GoNoodle also has a lot of short, easy-to share videos focusing on SEL themes such as gratitude, stress reduction, and breathing. For older students, Nearpod also has a partnership with and there are a good range of guided relaxations available to share with students.

What’s missing from our list here? How are you bringing SEL alive during distance learning? Email to share your insights.

With thanks to the following colleagues for their input on this blog.


Weezie Parry –Counselor, The Potomac School

Max Duncan –Science Teacher, The American School in Japan

Joseph Tchen – Technology and Language Arts Teacher, Seattle Country Day School

Mike Nelson – Dean of Student Life, The American School in Japan

Anu Mathur –Counselor, The Hamlin School

Looking for more ideas:

  1. IFSEL’s Blog – “A New REALM: IFSEL’sTips for Distance Learning”
  2. California Department of Education - “Social and Emotional Support in Distance Learning"
  3. IFSEL’s Resource List for Distance Learning


*ReflEQ has only paid versions and is also an IFSEL partner organisation

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