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October 1, 2020

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Helping Students Cope with the Pandemic

How educators respond to children's fears now will influence the long-term effects.
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Social-emotional learning
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At family gatherings, young adults often tell stories about events from their childhood. If you were an adult during the childhood of a family member now in their 20's, it can be surprising to hear what is memorable for that person and how they perceived events. Your recollection might be very different from what stood out for young adults you know in their earliest years.
We recently talked with friends with young children about how their kids might process the COVID-19 pandemic decades from now. What will their memories be about fear, masks, and the loss of loved ones?

Trauma That's Nearly Universal

Much is known about the deleterious effects of trauma on the learning lives of children and youth. The adverse childhood experience scale is a well-known instrument for assessing students placed at risk because of acute or chronic traumatic events, such as being the victim of abuse, witnessing domestic abuse in the home, and losing a caregiver. These events are specific to an individual. But educators must now speculate about the universal trauma of a pandemic, which has touched the lives of every person on the planet.
The long-term effects of this crisis won't be known for years. However, educators have students in front of us now who may be experiencing pandemic-induced trauma. We believe that to some extent, the stories these young people tell as adults about living through the COVID-19 pandemic will be influenced by how we respond now.
The video portion of this column is divided into two parts and shows two teachers working with their students to proactively address the trauma of the pandemic. The first video portrays a teacher using the approach of acknowledging fear and reframing kids' concerns in honest ways. The second shows a high school teacher modeling how to manage anxiety through calming activities.

Acknowledging and Reframing Fears

Children rely on adults as a barometer to measure their responses to events. A caregiver who is frightened of dogs and reacts with fear upon the sight of them signals to the young child present that she should be afraid of dogs, too. Children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching how others, especially those they trust, behave. Teachers are caregivers, too. Our emotions telegraph to students how they should feel. For example, a teacher who regularly shies away from mathematics ("I'm not a math person") alerts some students to the possibility that they aren't "math people" either.
A fear of dogs or math may be irrational. But there is much to be legitimately fearful of when it comes to a health pandemic. Our students have been exposed to unknown doses of frightening news stories and social media posts; they have been exposed to family discussions about the economic, physical, and psychological toll of the pandemic. Educators have been subjected to such thorny discussions, too, and we don't have the answers to all students' questions, as much as we would like to. But our classrooms, whether face-to-face or at a distance, should be a safe space for children to ask questions and express their fears.
Daily emotional check-ins are essential right now and need to be at the forefront of our teaching practices. When students can count on a time each day when they can talk about their feelings, it allows them to bracket their emotions. It gives them a rest from simmering anxieties. Daily emotional check-ins should include acknowledgement of your feelings, too. Don't unburden yourself on your students—that isn't healthy for you or them. But take these opportunities to reframe their experiences and yours. During a discussion about physical distancing, a teacher of young children might say, "I miss being able to go to a friend's house to visit. Right now, we don't do that because we care for each other, and I want my friend to be safe. I'm glad I get to talk to her on the phone every day."
A teacher of older students might say, "You have many people in your lives, including me, who care about you, your safety, and your feelings. There's a difference between being careful and being afraid. I want you to be careful. But if you're feeling afraid, please talk with me about how you're feeling."
PreK educator Joe Marsella teaches 3- and 4-year-olds (with and without disabilities) at Dingeman Elementary in San Diego. He understands that wearing a face mask can be a fear-inducing prospect for some children, so he wants to acknowledge and normalize the experience. In the first part of the video, Mr. Marsella introduces a puppet who explains why she is wearing a mask. He introduced this mask-wearing puppet, Mrs. Bixby, when he converted to distance learning with his students last spring, and he's planning to continue to use the puppet to reassure his preschoolers this school year.

Model Calming Activities

Students enter virtual and physical classrooms with thoughts about things other than what they'll be learning. Those experiencing anxiety and distress are especially vulnerable to intrusive thoughts. It's safe to assume that most students are currently experiencing anxiety or interfering thoughts; to combat this psychic noise, we can teach techniques that center their attention.
Depending on students' age level, these routines might involve consideration of things to be grateful for (making gratitude lists) or beginning the class with an insightful, positive quote accompanied by a deep breathing exercise. Another technique is to teach students how to do a mental body scan, a visualization technique sometimes used to notice and release any tensions a person feels by focusing attention on each part of the body. In the second part of the accompanying video, Health Sciences High School English teacher Elleisha Elzien guides her students in this technique at the beginning of a virtual class meeting to help them mentally set aside worries—or reduce the size of any worries.
As many others who have led people in a calming technique like this can testify, the benefit goes both ways. Teachers relax at the same time as their students.

Ready for This

There's no way to predict with certainty what our students will recall and retell, 20 years from now, about these months when the pandemic is rearranging our lives. But we're confident that their teachers will figure into some of those stories. Students look to us for guidance about academic content, but also about dealing with life's challenges. This is a big one, to be sure. But we're up to the challenge.
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