Turning Inward: Student Self-Care Management Online


Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a framework for teaching that holds that developing social and emotional competencies is an essential part of human development. SEL adopts five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2020). Traditionally, SEL is used in K–12 settings; we see the need for its expansion to the higher education curriculum. With an influx of online and hybrid learning, maintaining a SEL instructional framework is essential in higher education. To address this need, we incorporate SEL into our online learning management system (LMS) courses. Instructors can develop engaging modules and activities within the LMS that promote self-reflection and interpersonal relationships both among students and between students and professors. Our SEL framework, like supplemental modules in our hybrid and online courses, focuses on the whole student beyond the content of a course.


Internships, practicums, and student teaching experiences help college students put course content into real-life contexts. Yet it is rare to guide students to establish sustainable self-care practices that give them the endurance they will need to avoid burnout in their professions. Students can benefit from developing deliberate self-care practices, and instructors can begin to support these practices by embedding an optional self-care module in their LMS.

While many people treat self-care as escapism, a way of tuning out, we believe self-care is about turning inward. It is common for students to turn to gaming, stream binging, getting a manicure, surfing Instagram, and other surface-level self-care practices. By contrast, our self-care module encourages students to notice the difference between doing nice things for themselves and intentional self-care practices that support continual personal growth. The self-care module is not mandatory; within it, students will find suggestions and reminders to pause during their day and assess their self-care practices.

Self-care café

The self-care café biweekly module is built using accessible language and content for students on several subtopics emphasizing the value of self-care. A new module is released every other Monday. It includes links to reliable sources, professional articles, and videos that delve into the topic and give students ideas for how to apply self-care to their daily practices. Each module ends with parting thoughts from the professor that encourage students with reflection prompts. Topics that we have incorporated into this module include the following:

  • Information on the campus counseling center. Some students will need experts to support them. Our first subtopic identifies professionals who can support students in crisis. We provide phone numbers, websites, and contact information for on- and off-campus crisis centers.
  • Self-care myths. Self-care is health care. In this module, we debunk the myth that self-care is an indulgent, time-consuming task and reframe how to look at self-care by connecting students with reliable professional sources that teach about sustainable practices.
  • Establishing routines. We find that many learners are inexperienced with navigating the rigorous responsibilities of academia and struggle with managing assignments, work, social life, family responsibilities, and extracurricular activities. By sharing different formats for setting up functional calendars, we support our students’ time-management practices.
  • Sleep hygiene. It is common knowledge that college students are often sleep deprived. Most students accept it as a part of the adult experience, but it affects students’ academic performance and overall well-being. We include a sleep hygiene module to emphasize the value of establishing sleep routines.
  • Movement and meditation. This module is an opportunity to remind students of the value of turning off mental distractions and tuning in to their bodies. Within this section, we provide links to breathing, mindful walking, yoga, and meditation exercises.

While tuning in is the primary focus of the self-care module, it is equally important to connect, decompress, and socialize with others. Consider including announcements of campus events and workshops available to students and an open discussion forum where students can connect with each other socially.

Topics in the module are as follows:
—The Student Personal Counseling Center (SPCC)
—What is self-care?
—Part 1: Self-care myths
—Part 2: Establishing routines
—Part 3: What do you call a sleepy egg?
—Part 4: Heavily meditated
—Part 5: Stress and the body
A screenshot of a self-care café module in the Canvas LMS
Text for Part 3: What do you call a sleep egg?

Answer: Eggs-austed!

Part 3- Sleep Hygiene

This week's topic is about including healthy sleeping habits in our routine. We know that college students are not getting enough sleep. Why is sleep important? Take a look at these two charts for some insight. [embedded link]

How can you improve your sleep hygiene? Let's hear what the smartypants at Harvard University have to say: article [embedded link]

You may want to consider this Headspace wind-down exercise [embedded link]. It's under 90 seconds.

Part 3—Parting thoughts. This week take a close look at your sleeping habits. What does your sleeping routine look like? Does it vary from night to night? If so, consider establishing an evening routine. What does that need to look like for you? Do you need to consider shutting down the tv or tech devices earlier? Maybe you need to set a consistent bedtime and wake time. Always talk with your doctor if you believe your lack of or disrupted sleep affects your health.

Remember, establishing a routine takes time. The important thing is to recognize what is in your best interest and commit yourself to following through...you're worth it!
A screenshot of a self-care café module topic in Canvas

Decompression and socialization

Learning is sometimes difficult, especially in fully online asynchronous courses. Research indicates that learning is a social endeavor (Vygotsky, 1978), but online students are most often working alone on a screen and may feel isolated. They may grow tired of the screen time and the mundane look of the LMS modules week by week. To change things up in our courses, we look for activities outside of the course content that give opportunities for students to relax, breathe, and socialize with one another. Within our LMS, another module we created to allow students to decompress and interact with peers involves watching fun videos and participating in a nonacademic activity. These interactive modules help bridge the gap that often exists in online courses that focus heavily on assignment submissions that can make students feel like tuning out.

Breather break module

The breather break modules are a creative way to provide a rest period between content modules. They are optional modules but provide a sometimes-needed course content repose. These modules are strategically spread throughout the 14-week course not to overwhelm the students but instead to provide a place, three or four times during the semester, where students can watch a funny, loosely content-related video and write a short response on the page. The page is set up as a wiki page, so students have permission to edit the page and write a short blurb relaying their feelings about the video. Students’ messages and emojis remain on the page and are copied over from semester to semester using only first names, allowing students to see what former students wrote about the video.

In addition to the video clip, these breather break modules give students the opportunity to create a picture together using Stick Together. This site provides both physical and virtual sticker boards, allowing students to create images together, one pixel or sticker at a time. In our LMS, we provide a link to a virtual sticker board where students click various squares assigned by a color code to slowly build an image on the screen. Faculty can limit the number of squares per visit to the sticker board or leave it open to students to click as many squares as they wish. Students can see whether another student is on the sticker board at the same time. Students also have an option to write a message that remains on the board so any students can read them and feel less alone in their class community.

Module heading: "Breather Break #1"

First item below the heading: "Be a superhero!"

Second item below the heading: "Let's create together! Click to create a picture." [embedded link]
A screenshot of a breather break module in the Canvas LMS
The "Be a Superhero" page, showing a video. Below it are instructions for how to comment as well as a list of student comments: "Love it!—Haley," "Such a beautiful inspiring video! :) —Leslie," "'Without teachers who is going to save the day.' This was inspiring!—Kaitlin," "I can't wait to be someone's superhero !! - Lenee," and "I eagerly await to put my cape on with great joy! -Tanisha"
A wiki page in a breather break module in the Canvas LMS
Virtual stickerboard showing what looks like a bunch of raised hands, each a different color.
A StickTogether virtual sticker board in progress in a class focused on diverse learners

Complete image of the raised, multicolored hands. A pop-up message reads, "Congrats! Congratulations! We completed our diversity image as an online class!"
A completed virtual Stick Together board

Finding creative ways to incorporate SEL within LMS courses has balanced benefits. While we observe student interaction within our nonacademic modules, we find ourselves reflecting on our own self-care practices as professors. Do we practice what we preach?


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2020, October 1). CASEL’s SEL framework: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted? https://casel.org/casel-sel-framework-11-2020

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Katherine M. Patterson, PhD, is an assistant professor of education and Madeline Craig, EdD, is an associate professor of education at Molloy College.

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