Voices from the Field: Build social-emotional support and maintain community

In this Voices from the Field, Matt Hajdun, language development coordinator at The Columbus School (Colombia), and Esther Bettney, WIDA international program project assistant, write about the importance of supporting students’ socio-emotional well-being and creating strong classroom communities during online learning.

by Language Development Coordinator Matt Hajdun, The Columbus School

Physical distance, use of screens, and lag time are just some of the barriers virtual learning has added to how we build our communities of multilingual learners. These barriers can potentially disrupt how we effectively use language for connection.

At the same time, some digital tools, platforms, and rapid mindset shifts have transformed virtual learning into spaces where we can build on multilingual learners’ assets like never before. We can now literally bring our identity at home into our classrooms, including constant access to home languages. We can intentionally build the social-emotional supports and learning communities that our students need and deserve by making subtle shifts to the powerful actions we already took in face-to-face schools.


When students experience a sense of trust and belonging, their affective filters are lowered, which enhances their willingness to communicate, allowing language learners to take risks as they develop their additional languages. Relationships are the ceiling of our impact.


By intentionally planning scaffolded social-emotional learning (SEL) work into our daily routines, we provide students with the language, skills, and autonomy they need to do this work independently.


Below is a set of strategies and structures that support frequent and systematic check-ins at the micro and macro level that center on SEL and community building with scaffolding for all learners.

Building capacity by reflecting on what works

Teachers and students are master community builders and connectors. This hasn’t changed, in fact, for most, the desire to connect and feel part of a community has only increased. Yet, what has changed is the environment in which these connections take place. We aren’t starting from square one - we’re adapting. Using a simple T-chart can support our reflection as individuals or teams. On one side, consider what has already worked for building community with language learners in your context. On the other side, consider the modifications and/or scaffolds that might be needed in order to make that activity/structure successful in distance learning.

Starting with Community Builders

The demands of content are real but so are the needs for connection. Building in 3-5 minutes for a short game or an intentional sharing structure allows students the opportunity to build social language and develop their learning community. In most schools, the amount of time students have together in distance learning is significantly less than the time they had on campus.

images of four types of desserts with fill-in-the-blank sentences that demonstrate different ways of saying what your dessert preference is

Photos of dawn or dusk with fill-in-the-blank sentences that describe why you prefer one over the other

Morning Meetings and Advisory

In the world of education, time is always a factor. And we also know, if it isn’t on the schedule, it doesn’t exist! No matter how much we say that building community and social-emotional learning is essential, curricular demands, especially in distance learning, quickly take the wheel and step on the gas. To ensure that our population of language learners has time to connect, build in either a 20-minute Morning Meeting or a 15-minute daily Advisory session.

Sample morning message with colorful text and words from many languages mixed with English.

Develop Language Norms and Routines

One aspect of participating in a community is developing and adhering to norms. This is no different in our virtual classrooms nor in our multilingual ones. Reminding and redirecting students lets them know what to do and that they’re being held accountable. You might say things like:

  • “When we head into breakout rooms, let’s make sure we use our language frames and respond in English.”
  • “Since we are making a connection right now, feel free to use the language in which you’re most comfortable. Then be prepared to share in English afterward.”
  • “Brainstorm and outline your ‘All About Me’ piece in the language of your choice.  When you’re ready to start writing, please draft in English.”

Taking Advantage of Synchronous and Asynchronous Time

To build our virtual communities, we don’t always have to be virtual together. Consider ways we can build our communities both synchronously and asynchronously. And consider ways in which students can celebrate their language AND identity in these opportunities.

Resource Ideas chart comparing synchronous and asynchronous learning tools

Using Breakout Rooms and/or Small Group/Individual Structures

Now more than ever, efficiency is key. When making connections and building community, often five minutes of one-on-one time can allow for a deeper connection than sixty minutes in a whole group setting. By setting up individual meetings with students and families and using features like Breakout Rooms, we can maximize connection. In a whole group session of twenty, only one person can share at a time (5% participation). However, compared to Breakout Rooms with partner talk (50% participation), that same amount of time is leveraged much more effectively for connecting and building oral language.

To view more examples of the ways you can support multilingual students' social and emotional well-being and healthy online learning communities, visit this Google Slides presentation.

three students at a table working together

WIDA in Global Contexts

Learn how WIDA serves multilingual students, and how educators around the world use WIDA to improve teaching and learning.