Last week a teacher told me that during one of their online lessons, a student shared how happy he was that his grandfather was out of the hospital and recovering from the Coronavirus at home. While the class was expressing happiness for him, the teacher knew that just days before, another student’s grandmother died of COVID19. I recently spoke to an elementary school principal who said nearly one-third of her students are facing eviction from their homes because their parents have lost their jobs. And another high school principal told me she is receiving regular text messages from students asking where they can get food for their families. These educators all feel overwhelmed with the extreme needs of their students, both emotionally and tangibly.
As a teacher or principal, how do you respond to such drastically different needs in your class and school? As many educators will point out, they are not therapists, yet they are expected to know what to do in these kinds of situations.
As we look to re-open schools during these uncertain times, here are a few suggestions to authentically address student emotional needs while strengthening your school community:
1. Acknowledge Extreme Variety of People’s Experiences
As we look at welcoming back students amidst all this trauma and loss, we cannot simply say, “Open your books to page 20, pick up your pencils, let’s go.” Without judgment, we must acknowledge that there are extreme variations in our student’s experiences and emotions. Some kids spent weeks in loneliness and isolation and are jubilant at the thought of being back while other students basked in the comfort of their families and are paralyzed with anxiety at the thought of rejoining the stressful school environment. Some students lost loved ones while others saw them recover. Some parents lost jobs and housing, while others worked from home and enjoyed spending more time with their children. Some students struggled with remote learning and accomplished pretty much nothing, while others thrived academically. By not blanketing the entire experience as “good” or “bad” we can model to students an aspect of resiliency - holding both the positives and the negatives as equally valid to our experience.
2. Create Safety in Routine
Those of us versed in Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) know that setting schoolwide expectations and gaining consistency among adults helps students feel safe. Even in ‘normal’ circumstances, students thrive in environments that are structured, predictable, and calm. When a trauma occurs, either personally or in the community, children benefit greatly from the reassurance that their classroom and their school is a safe stable place. We teach students expected behaviors and routines through structured lessons, not just on the first day of school, but throughout the year. When students return to school they will benefit greatly from learning how the school operates even in the mundane, like how to be safe on the playground, how we show respect by putting our cell phone away, or how to be responsible by coming prepared to class ready to learn. Dust off your PBIS Expectation Matrix and teach it to the kids; it will help everyone calm down and feel more comfortable at school.
3. Try Classroom Circles
Despite the temptation to not, “open a can of worms,” allowing your students to process what is happening around them in a safe, accepting environment is vital to learning. In a Classroom Circle the classroom community shares thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a structured way in order to create connections and increase belonging. Classroom circles can be community-building, full of positive activities designed to connect classmates, but they can also be used to respond to difficult events, and solve classroom problems. A circle creates a container to hold big feelings and tough experiences while offering hope and mutual support. By holding regular classroom circles, the classroom community provides solace and support without the teacher having to shoulder all the weight and worry on their own. Try this free downloadable script to hold your own Classroom Circle: Welcome Back from Quarantine!
4. Know when to Get Help for A Student
You might be wondering, “What do I do if a student says their grandparent died or some other heartbreaking disclosure in a circle?” In the context of the community circle you do this: nothing.
If a child discloses something concerning, such as a significant loss or potential abuse, after the circle you must follow up with the student. In cases of possible abuse, make a report.
However, in the moment we don’t act cold or hard, but neither do we stop the circle and ask probing questions or break down and cry. Gently help move the circle along if the student is sharing too much detail, just like you would any time a student is talking too much and not “sharing the air.” so to speak.
We live in a society where we can talk about feelings, but we don’t like to actually feel them. Modeling the ability to sit with a big emotion in front of your students and not be overcome is in itself teaching. In the context of the circle, the community holds all the happy feelings, sad feelings, and mad feelings of everyone in the circle because this is what communities do. The message to the students is that you are acceptable and belong no matter how you come to us. You are part of our classroom community and if you’re sad, that’s okay.
It is important for teachers to continue to create safe spaces for students to express their feelings, take notice if any students seem to be especially struggling, and refer them to the school counselor, social worker, or psychologist. Some children will be experiencing larger life disruptions than others, many with significant losses. Others will have an especially hard time coping with these events because they are prone to anxious feelings or they have their own trauma history. These students will often benefit from extra support.
5. Practice Self-Care
We are all trying to find our way during these unprecedented times. There is no roadmap for what to do or how to feel because no one has experienced this before. Kids take their cues from adults on how to feel and manage emotions and many of us feel unable to provide the guidance they need. Because of this, it is important for teachers to also have emotional support and practice self-care. When a teacher is healthy emotionally, they can model how to stay calm in hard circumstances, ask for help, and reassure students that they are safe and that the adults are there to help them.
As we face a return to school, teachers want to be prepared to handle tough conversations and bring their classrooms back into a connected community. The free downloadable Classroom Circle: Welcome Back from Quarantine is designed for elementary, middle, or high school so that you can pick and choose questions appropriate for your student’s ages! Wherever you are, distance-learning or returning to school, a Community Circle can ease anxiety, affirm emotions and relationships and help students begin to heal.