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September 1, 2021

Fostering Hope, Healing, and Well-Being

Six ways to meet students’ social-emotional needs as they transition back to in-person schooling—and beyond.

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Social-emotional learning
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September 2021 Fagell Header Image 1: A person pulling together a giant bouquet of flowers.
Credit: ALICE MOLLON / IKON IMAGES

My students had been back in our building for just a few weeks last spring when the collective mood plummeted. The kids were thrilled to be together, but they also were exhausted, sensitive, insecure, and wiggly. Some felt constricted by the tedium of the social distancing rules, others were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of social interactions, and some resisted coming to school at all.

To get a better read on the situation, Jessica Donovan, the head of Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., (where I work as a counselor), and I visited several classrooms. “We know you’re having a hard time,” we told our K–8 students. “We’ve never been through a pandemic, and we worry we’re not doing enough. We want to know how we can help you.”

We used the metaphor of an iceberg to get them thinking about the difference between what they projected to the world (or what they perceived they projected) and how they actually felt below the water line. In written responses, they used adjectives such as confident, playful, smart, and happy to describe how they thought others saw them, but chose words like unmotivated, anxious, and lonely to describe their internal state.

One student wrote, “I was afraid to come back to school because I had gained so much weight.”

Another said, “I’m desperate for attention.”

And a third student told us that they “carry a massive bucket of stress around that’s always on the verge of tipping over.”

The research confirms that students across the country are—and will be—struggling in different ways. A March 2021 survey of parents of younger elementary school students found that more than 25 percent of the respondents’ children were hiding mistakes, struggling to adapt, and giving up after failing once (Morin, 2021). Another survey of more than 10,000 high school students found that student stress had increased and engagement with learning had decreased during the pandemic (NBC News/Challenge Success, 2021). And finally, according to a national poll conducted by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 46 percent of parents believed their teens were more depressed and anxious (Mostafavi, 2021).

Given these statistics, educators will undoubtedly need to focus on fostering hope and healing as students settle into a new routine this fall—and well into the future. As pediatric psychologist Mona Delahooke, author of Beyond Behaviors (PESI Publishing & Media, 2017), emphasizes, “Relational health is the key to development and learning, and teachers are the most important therapeutic tool.”

I recently had the chance to speak with some of the nation’s top education and mental health experts, including Delahooke, on ways that schools can mindfully approach pandemic recovery. The strategies they described don’t have a shelf life. In fact, as we enter education’s “new era,” safeguarding students’ mental health and well-being will be key to ensuring their future success.

Here are six ways educators can shore up students’ social skills, bolster their confidence and sense of self-efficacy, and improve their overall emotional well-being.

1 . Address any social awkwardness and rebuild trust.

Students’ social skills are likely to be rusty, and they may need help with even basic conversations. Normalize the fact that many kids will feel insecure and awkward, and talk about behaviors that promote healthy conversation, such as making eye contact and asking open-ended questions. Ryan DeLapp, a child psychologist with the Montefiore Health System in New York, suggests that teachers regularly provide conversation starters—such as a question about a favorite food or activity—so everyone can practice “being in the spotlight, asking others ‘who, what, when, where, why’ questions, and providing details when others ask them questions.”

Conflict resolution may be a challenge, too, ­especially if students lost connections they had before the pandemic, says Brad Weinstein, author of Hacking School Discipline (Times 10 Publications, 2019). “When conflict occurs, they’ll have less social capital, and it will be harder to give one another the benefit of the doubt.” To counteract knee-jerk reactions, help students assume positive intent. For example, if a student tells you that a classmate ignored him, validate his hurt feelings and ask him to consider other, more benign explanations for his peer’s behavior. You might ask, “Is it possible your mask muffled your words, and he didn’t hear you?”

Teachers and counselors can also coach students on how to limit social drama in the first place, says Amy Morin, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind and author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do: Think Big, Feel Good, Act Brave (HarperCollins, 2021). “Explain that when you’re really frustrated, it’s not a good time to have a conversation. If you wake up irritable, your fuse isn’t as long and you may need to calm your brain and body” before interacting.

When a student’s fuse does blow, help them work through the situation—and work collaboratively to identify the underlying reason for their behavior. “It’s never been more important to use restorative practices, to seek to understand what’s going on that we can’t see,” notes Weinstein.

As we enter education’s “new era,” safeguarding students’ mental health and well-being will be key to ensuring their future success.

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2. Ask what they need (and make it easy to get help).

Make yourself visible in the building and verbalize that you want to help. When 6th graders returned to Silver Creek Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland, last spring, they had never stepped foot in the building before, recalls Susan Levine, chair of the counseling department. “We didn’t know them and they didn’t know us. [However], we knew the fastest way to get to know them was to be present where they were.”

Silver Creek counselors roamed the halls during transition times, pushing carts loaded with masks, sanitizer, fidget toys, mandala coloring books, tissues, and laptops so they could help students keep track of their assignments, stay organized, and meet deadlines. At lunch, they led mindfulness activities with students. If a child requested a 1:1 appointment, they walked to their classroom to pick them up.

The most expedient way to learn what students need is to ask them. When my head of school and I went into our 5th and 6th grade classrooms, students told us they wanted playtime with puppies, snacks, and more time for socializing, fun, and catching up on work. Most of their requests were doable. Donovan brought her own dog to school, and teachers tried to mix things up, whether they took students outside for an unscheduled break to do word games and eat popsicles or they took an impromptu “field trip” to a neighborhood park. Our team also incorporated post-lunch walks for students and swapped one morning meeting a week for free time. Instead of following the regular advisory curriculum, students used the period to hang out with friends, play outside, or catch up on schoolwork.

On the heels of a traumatic event like the pandemic, children will need structure—to know what they can expect with certainty—but they will also benefit from some novelty. As New York University researchers reported in the journal Nature ­Neuroscience, being exposed to a variety of experiences can increase your happiness (2020). It’s OK to shake things up: For example, our school brought in an inflatable obstacle course for PE one day and Fletcher Elementary in San Diego hosted a memorable competition for charity. When students surpassed a fundraising goal, their principal, Jeff Friedenberg, made good on his promise to take a couple of pies to the face—and a few teachers even got slimed.

To achieve balance, schools must ensure students have a predictable schedule and consistent behavioral expectations, while also finding ways to lighten the mood and vary the routine.

3. Find ways to address issues around identity.

Students will need structural supports, such as affinity groups and advisories, that allow them to share and process feelings related to their identity and experiences. This is especially true for LGBTQ students and students of color. In a 2020 Trevor Project survey, 41 percent of LGBTQ children stated that COVID-19 impacted their ability to express their LGBTQ identity, and LGBTQ children were 1.75 times more likely than their peers to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Similarly, public health researchers found that Hispanic and Black children experienced disproportionately more adverse mental health outcomes during the pandemic than their white peers (White, Liburd, & Coronado, 2021).

This is a good time to reinforce ground rules about what it means to be a compassionate classmate. Establish norms that might include recognizing that everyone has a different back story and is worthy of respect, that it’s never OK to laugh at someone, and that students will be held accountable if they say or do something that’s demeaning. Let students know that they can come to you if bullying or other problems occur.

“People think of fostering resilience in children as doing more good things, but what we know from science is that the first order of business is to reduce unkindness, [including] victimization or rejection by peers,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Teachers College at Columbia University and cofounder of Authentic Connections, an organization that seeks to foster resilience in school communities.

Our collective reservoirs are empty, Luthar emphasizes. “Given the sheer length of time and level of stress, fear, and grief that we’ve all faced, everyone’s exhausted. With this exhaustion, some of us have tended to shut down or withdraw from others, and some have become more ­thin-skinned and irritable.” This is true for both children and adults, who may be less empathetic and more likely to lash out at others.

Social-Emotional Learning Tip

Reinforce ground rules about what it means to be a compassionate classmate. Establish norms that might include recognizing that everyone has a different back story and is worthy of respect, and that it’s never OK to laugh at someone.

4. Take steps to reach defeated and depleted students.

Whether a child is a high achiever who stumbled during virtual learning or is one of the three million students who dropped out of school during the first few months of the pandemic (Korma, O’Keefe, & Repka, 2020) and may be returning with a gap in formal education, many kids are going to be academically insecure. They also may be physically and mentally exhausted, unmotivated, less attentive, and more ­disorganized.

Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018), recommends breaking up lessons to help students re-engage in school. “Instead of reading 30 pages,” he explains, “read four and then have a creative interaction with the text.”

Try giving students choice in how they present evidence of their learning, too. “If they don’t test well,” Wormeli says, “let them create a podcast or a series of TikToks to show what they know.” It’s not worth getting hung up on the method in which students express understanding: Teachers can make a point of asking students questions that give them more agency, such as: “How would you like to demonstrate your learning?”

It may seem counterintuitive, but less is more, especially this year. “Teachers may have this impulse to catch up, but be mindful—you can’t do ‘double time’ in expectations now,” explains Luthar. “We’ve got to recognize that children who are stressed to the max are simply not able to work with a ramped-up workload.”

This will be true even when the pandemic is a distant memory. As I often remind parents, no one performs better because they’re told they’re lacking or that the stakes are high.

5. Help them ground themselves in their bodies.

At first, as in-person schooling resumes, students might be more mellow and exhibit fewer behavioral issues because they have fewer interactions overall, Weinstein predicts. “Students may be spaced out, and there may not be a lot of group work, specials, or gatherings in the cafeteria. It’s [going to be] a sterile, less vibrant environment.”

Once students become more comfortable, however, their frustrations will surface in the classroom. “Some students will be in the red zone, which means their bodies will need to move,” says Delahooke. “These are not ­necessarily intentional behaviors. They’re literally trying to maintain their autonomic state of attention and regulation.” Others will be in the blue zone and will look detached and ­uninterested. Those who aren’t “making eye contact, appear to be sad, or are isolated from teachers and peers may need the most human connection and encouragement,” explains ­Delahooke.

Educators can help students recognize when they’re beginning to feel dysregulated—perhaps their heart starts to beat faster or their hands get clammy. Teach students how to activate the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system and fend off the body’s stress response with simple actions. For instance, students can give themselves a self-hug, splash cold water on their face, tense and release their shoulders, breathe deeply, or apply pressure to the acupoint at the base of their thumb.

Wormeli recommends keeping a basket of fidget toys in the classroom—filled with items such as stress balls or tiny puzzles—that can help students focus. “It’s a kind of intellectual white noise and defuses the excess energy that would have been used to text a friend or poke [a classmate].”

During the pandemic, my students stopped by my counseling office more frequently to borrow fidget toys, such as bubble poppers and expandable mesh tubes. Older middle and high school students can benefit from fidgets as well, but they may prefer more discrete objects, such as metal anti-stress rings or small stretchy bands.

Most of my students expressed relief when I reassured them that others also were struggling to maintain attention. Educators can use these types of exchanges to normalize a child’s discomfort and convey that they want to offer support.

6. Nurture the adults who need to nurture students.

When Luthar surveyed teachers about their mental health in May 2020, roughly 20 percent reported high levels of burnout, but that number jumped to 40 percent this spring. “We’ve been talking so much about the children’s needs and the lost year, but we know from the science of resilience that the well-being of children under adversity rests primarily on the adults who care for them—including parents, caregivers, and teachers—and nearly half of school adults can be emotionally exhausted by their work,” she says.

One way that schools can nurture and care for staff, Luthar advises, is by bringing in trained facilitators to run groups in which educators can process all the stress, fear, grief, anger, and exhaustion they’ve been experiencing. Much like students, teachers will need an emotional outlet, flexibility, attainable expectations, and a reasonable workload. If school leaders want to nurture teachers, they need to model patience and forgiveness and encourage self-compassion.

Teachers aren’t the only adults who will need special attention, however. “One of my greatest concerns is the damage that’s been done to close relationships,” says Luthar. All sorts of relationships have been tested—including ones between parents and school officials, staff members and administrators, and teachers and their colleagues.

“Communities have experienced some unbridled anger around decisions on school closure, use of masks, distance learning, and so on,” explains Luthar. “We have to prioritize healing of frayed networks because it’s these ­relationships that will help us deal effectively with the challenges that still lie ahead.”

Play to Your Strengths

There’s no manual for helping vulnerable children—or adults—to thrive in the aftermath of a pandemic, but we can start by ensuring that everyone feels seen, nurtured, and valued. To accomplish that, double down on whatever you do best, whether you’re adept at earning a child’s trust, marshalling resources to help a family in crisis, or bringing levity to a lesson. Make a point of noticing your colleagues’ and students’ strengths and contributions, too. After such a tumultuous year, the simple act of showing compassion may be the most impactful and enduring gift we can give one another.

Reflect & Discuss

What supports do you have in place for helping students rebuild connections with peers? How will you foster a sense of social belonging this year—and going forward?

What intentional actions can be taken to meet the social-emotional needs of the adults in your building?

References

Korma, H., O’Keefe, B., & Repka, M. (October 21, 2020). Missing in the margins: Estimating the scale of the COVID-19 attendance crisis. Bellwether Education Partners.

Morin, A. (March 19, 2021). A Verywell report: Parents have increasing concerns about kids’ mental health. Verywell Mind.

Mostafavi, B. (March 15, 2021). National poll: Pandemic negatively impacted teens’ mental health. University of Michigan Health.

NBC News/Challenge Success. (February 15, 2021). Student stress is up & engagement with learning is down during the pandemic, according to a new research study by NBC News & Challenge Success.

New York University. (May 18, 2020). New and diverse experiences linked to enhanced happiness. Nature Neuroscience.

The Trevor Project. (August 2020). How COVID-19 is impacting LGBTQ Youth.

White, A., Liburd L. C., & Coronado, F. (June 3, 2021). Addressing racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 among school-aged children: Are we doing enough? Preventing Chronic Disease, 18. CDC.

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