#JoyFromAfar: Building Social Skills and Providing Normalcy Through Virtual Hangouts

In the picture above, students play games together and catch up on life during Jonathan Li's Wednesday office hours.

#JoyfromAfar: Building Social Skills and Providing Normalcy Through Virtual Hangouts

By Laura Gray, Dean of Students and Family Support and Jonathan Li, Middle School Learning Specialist

At The Joy School, it is important we support our students' academic goals, but we know it is important to help students build their social and emotional skills too. We focus on serving the whole student, and this is best illustrated through our Keys to Success, part of how we gauge whether a student is ready to mainstream, or move on, from TJS. During our school closure due to COVID-19, it is vital TJS continues to provide opportunities for students to work on the skills found in our Keys to Success and provide opportunities for students to socialize and maintain relationships.

In this #JoyfromAfar blog post, Laura Gray, Dean of Students and Family Support, and Jonathan Li, Middle School Learning Specialist, describe the ways they have helped facilitate this process for TJS students through virtual hangout meetings.

Before The Joy School's closure, Laura Gray was working with middle school girls in a small group once a month at lunch focusing on social dynamics. Once the school closure happened, Laura decided to set up a weekly virtual check-in with students via Zoom. "It's really an emotional check in," Laura said of the meeting. "It's a safe space where students can talk about what's going on and hear from each other and from me too."

The topics are organic, explained Laura, and the meeting is very casual, truly a time when students can just hang out with each other and Laura. They talk about anything from their pets, to how online school is going and their feelings about the pandemic. "I let them guide the conversations," Laura said. But she added she is always in the meetings to facilitate conversations as needed.

In her role as Dean of Students and Family Support, Laura serves the whole family and the whole student, often helping students work through conflicts. She notes that it is very important for students to trust her to allow her to help them in conflict situations, so these weekly meetings are a chance to continue to build rapport with students. "I want them to know that I care," Laura said. "If I can continue the relationship now, it will make it easier when we return."

Through his office hours, Jonathan Li has also created a space for middle school students to virtually hang out. Initially, Jonathan set up his office hours so students could join him to ask academic questions, but the meeting morphed into a time where students can also casually get together and socialize virtually. "So far we have watched YouTube videos together, worked out together with each kid sharing their own drill or workout, we've played video games together, introduced each other to our pets and I met with Student Leaders one Wednesday to film for Joy News," Jonathan said. "I've also had kids pop in to ask for help with different things I've assigned them in class, but we've mostly used it as a way for kids to feel less isolated and feel more connected to each other, their teacher and the school."

While these office hours are a time for students to connect with each other, Jonathan also explains it's a time when students can work on important social skills. "I haven't forced any of them to come, so it allows them to practice self-advocacy skills when they need to ask for help and a little bit of social maneuvering as well, as they are the ones setting up what we do on Wednesdays," Jonathan said. "They take on a bit of leadership as they rally all their classmates and friends to come hang out and plan an event."

At TJS, we support the whole student, both academically and socially. Virtual hangouts like the ones that Laura and Jonathan have set up, provide opportunities for students to work on valuable social and emotional skills. Not only that, but these virtual spaces allow students to connect with one another and their teachers during the pandemic, create a sense of normalcy and just have fun together.

If you love what you've just read, be sure to share the JOY, and share this with a friend, family member or on social media!


About the Authors

Laura Gray attended the University of Houston Downtown where she earned a degree in Early Childhood Education. Before joining The Joy School, she taught students in Alief and has worked with children from 1st to 8th grade. Laura is passionate about helping students find success at school and within themselves. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends.




Jonathan Li is a native Houstonian and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2008, Jonathan left Dell to pursue his passion, education. He taught at an alternative high school in Pearland for five years, specializing in special education, math and science. Jonathan enjoys continuing his lifelong passion of teaching at The Joy School.

Degree Held
Bachelor of Science in Advertising from The University of Texas at Austin

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