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August 1, 2020

Preparing Educators for the Challenge Ahead

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Social-emotional learning

Educators made it through one tumultuous academic year is over, but the educational challenge is just beginning. Research from previous disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, indicates that we should be hopeful that most children will exhibit resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In families that have been directly affected by the virus or the economic recession, however, as many as one in three children may exhibit serious mental health challenges.

At the Trauma Responsive Educational Practices (TREP) Project, an initiative that works to build educators' capacity to mitigate the negative effects of chronic toxic stress on children, we received a flood of questions from educators soon after it became clear that COVID-19 was going to completely destabilize many children's lives. Those educators have been thrust into a role for which most have received little training: supporting the psychological and emotional well-being of children in distress.

In response, we created an open-access, online course on trauma-responsive educational practices, in which over 1,500 classroom teachers, counseling staff, and leaders enrolled. In sharing their worries, many participants made clear that they don't feel prepared for what is to come. Drawing from our work, I've compiled some situations to expect and how to respond to them.

Give In Loco Parentis New Meaning

In COVID-19's aftermath, no educator's job will be to just teach academic content. The unfortunate truth is that the sudden and devastating loss of caregivers and jobs and the overall increase in household stress has compromised parenting for millions of families.

Children will need a trusted adult with whom to share their troubles. Research on previous disasters shows that a teacher is most likely that trusted adult, but whether that teacher's response is supportive determines whether students' well-being improves.

Therefore, educators need to develop the skills to give a "good enough" response in the moment to ensure that students don't feel shamed or silenced for taking the risk of sharing their personal troubles. Research by Jennifer Dods (2013) on school-based relationships for students with trauma shows that students in distress don't want their teachers to become their counselors. They simply want to know that they are seen and that when they don't meet expectations, they will have a chance to tell their side of the story.

A baseline "good enough" response lets students know that you empathize with their challenges, will make individualized adjustments while maintaining high expectations, and will follow up and connect them to the supports that you cannot provide. Psychological First Aid's Listen, Protect, Connect five-step crisis response strategy outlines how to make a response even better:

  • Listen: Pay attention to what students say to you and others (and how they behave) to get a sense of what they have experienced and what may be distressing them.

  • Protect: Talk with students and do activities that help them feel better and show that you care.

  • Connect: Check in which your students regularly, talk with other people in their lives, and activate school clubs and after-school activities to ensure students have a community of supportive peers and adults.

  • Model: Use verbal and nonverbal cues that model calm and mutual care.

  • Teach: Help your students learn positive coping skills, engage them in problem solving life's challenges, and ensure that they have small successes at school.

Prioritize De-Escalation

De-escalation was the training that educators asked us for the most before COVID-19, and we anticipate that it will be one of the most-needed skills when schools reopen. Most educators already anticipate helping students cope with grief, worry, and anxiety, but they also need to be prepared for anger and reactive aggression. For too many students, school was their safe place, and many will feel betrayed that it was suddenly taken away. Rebuilding trust will be a slow and deliberate process.

A 2008 research study on previous disasters by Monica Marsee found that reactive aggression—stress-induced, poorly regulated, emotional-distress behaviors—increased among children affected by disasters. Unless properly prepared, most educators will interpret these behaviors as defiance and respond with traditional discipline.

If the underlying cause of acting-out and escalating behavior is trauma, what looks like intentional disruption of the learning environment may actually stem from a lack of emotional, psychological, or physical safety. Punitive discipline will only make the student feel more unsafe and intensify the behavior.

One trauma-responsive de-escalation strategy is to focus solely on providing co-regulation, which asks that you manage your own emotions rather than express any counter-aggression and focus on modeling the behavior you want from the student.

  • Don't force them to have a logical discussion about the situation, try to get them to see how their behaviors may be making things worse, give them complex instructions, or discuss what the consequences will be.

  • Do give brief incremental behavioral requests and acknowledge each incremental step of compliance, actively empathize by letting them know that you understand that they feel upset, and offer them a meaningful choice between two options that are a win for the student and acceptable for you.

Focusing on de-escalation does not give away your power. It is because you retain the power as the leader in the classroom that you can set a later time to discuss consequences when both you and the student are calm.

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Photo by Donald Ely

Differentiate Instruction

Estimates show that students may be an entire year behind academically from where they would have been at the start of the coming year. The problem is that there is no average learning loss. Children in higher-income, higher-educated families will continue to gain and many children will neither lose nor gain, while children in lower-income, lower-educated families will lose a substantial amount of academic knowledge.

Educators in all classrooms will need to prepare for differentiated instruction coupled with practices that minimize the cognitive load required for learning tasks. Many traditional instructional practices demand that students hold a considerable amount of information in working memory. Students already cognitively strained from coping with distress at home will struggle to retain and recall academic content, will become frustrated, and will fall further behind or become disruptive.

Here are two examples of how to minimize extraneous cognitive load:

  • Don't ask students to process written and verbal information at the same time. Provide verbal instructions before giving students a handout or wait until after they have reviewed the handout before adding verbal instructions.

  • Don't ask students to hold newly learned information in working memory while learning the next instructional content. If students need to remember something just learned to understand current instructional content, provide a graphic handout of the previously learned information while teaching.

Keep the Educators in Mind, Too

Educators are not personally immune to the effects of this pandemic, yet they have somehow risen to the task of providing their students with a sense of stability. While leaders talk about potentially opening schools early, they need to keep in mind that educators need time to rest and prepare for the task ahead. Most relied on adrenaline and other stress hormones to push through to the end of the last academic year, but many will leave the profession if we do not find ways to meet their needs for professional and personal support.

Maybe the most important lesson to learn from previous disasters is that the best outcomes occur when administrators understand and openly acknowledge that educators are often just as traumatized and need just as much support as students.

The TREP Project offered a virtual conference in June on "Evidence-Based Guidance for How Schools Can Respond to A National Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19." Topics included frameworks for prioritizing social and emotional learning and mental health for academic gains, traumatic stress screening, and grief and loss processing. Access the recordings online.

Resources for Student & Teacher Well-Being

Micere Keels author thumbnail

Micere Keels is the director of the Trauma Responsive Educational Practices Project and an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago.

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