This has been a year like no other for everyone. Students have had their school year abruptly end, their summer plans canceled, and are now facing the realities of the fall semester. Most school districts don’t even know if they will open to in-person learning, much less how they will do it. This puts both teachers and students in states of confusion and stress.
As a teacher, you can guide your students through the uncertainty. You can foster healthy reactions through social-emotional learning. Here is what you need to know about the headspace your students are in and how you can help them.
No One Knows How Affected Students Are
The first thing to remember that everyone is starting from scratch. No one has ever been in this situation before, which means there is no way to know how your students will have fared over the past months of lockdown, social distancing and isolation. When childhood development experts have been asked about past studies and research on the matter of isolation, many have thrown up their hands with nothing to reference.
“We can’t do studies of kids getting raised in complete isolation,” says Rachel Busman, Psy.D., senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, in an interview with Slate. “It would never get past research boards!”
As a result, some experts have turned to history to look for instances where children collectively experienced trauma. One is World War II, writes Caroline Preston, senior editor at The Hechinger Report. At the start of the war, millions of children in Britain were sent to foster families outside of the cities. Psychoanalysts have since found that children who remained with their own families “were much less upset.”
While these studies are relevant, they only focus on what happens when children are separated from their parents, not when they are separated from their peers.
Other childhood development professionals have turned to humanitarian work to better understand what today’s students are experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Western children are experiencing loneliness, fear and confusion similar to what I have seen in refugee children both globally and in the United States,” says psychiatrist Suzan Song, an associate professor at George Washington University Medical Center.
Song cites a study by World Vision that one-third of children in the U.K. have told their parents they are lonely and 22 percent are worried about a family member or close friend dying from the coronavirus. Children between the ages of 5 to 12 react by crying, throwing tantrums, experiencing disturbed sleep, while older children become withdrawn.
Some Students Have Fared Worse Than Others
While teachers try to evaluate the social-emotional health of their students, they may realize that some have had a more difficult time this past spring and summer than others.
“New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains,” Dana Goldstein, author of “The Teacher Wars,” reports for the New York Times. “Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”
Additionally, depending on their home lives, some students were in better emotional positions to handle quarantining and social distancing. Lydia Denworth, author of “Friendship,” writes that children have experienced the shutdown differently depending on a variety of factors. Those with social anxiety have found remote learning to be a relief, almost a break from being around their peers. Other students, however, have experienced high levels of stress and loneliness.
“Even kids of the same age have different interests, needs, and personalities, and their responses to quarantine will be different too,” Denworth writes.
This means that the students entering your classroom this fall, remotely or otherwise, will all have different levels of need. Some will be behind academically but ahead socially. Others will need more social-emotional support, regardless of their academic standing.
Teachers Can Normalize The New Learning Environment
Helping your students return to the classroom will take more than a concerted effort by the school board. Teachers will have to take steps throughout the day to normalize school life as altered by the pandemic. These tips can help.
1. Help Students Understand the New Rules
This year will likely be full of new rules, like only using certain hallways and wearing masks. This can be overwhelming for younger students.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools on the web that can help. The Action Learning Network created a PDF to help parents teach their kids about wearing face masks. This is something teachers can use as well. Their tips include serving as a role model by wearing your mask and creating fun, decorative masks that kids want to wear. Teachers can normalize the new guidelines as students return to the classroom.
2. Create Routines for Students
There has been so much upheaval this year that the best thing you can do is provide a sense of normalcy through routine.
“Maintaining and communicating predictable routines is very important,” Valerie Strauss, education writer, explains at The Washington Post. “Doing so helps students to maintain a sense of psychological safety — a sense that they can manage stress or connect with someone who can help them manage stress.”
3. Don’t Force Students to Catch Up
The last thing your students need right now is to feel like they are behind or unequal to their peers.
“If a student didn’t get speech therapy for two months, it’s not like you can start the school year and just cram in two months of speech therapy in a month’s time,” Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director for the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, says.
Look for ways to teach your students without pressuring them to overcome any lesson plans that they missed.
4. Help Students Whose Favorite Teacher is Gone
Look at the roster of your school to see if any teachers left over the summer. Susan Page recently reported on a survey by USA Today on how teachers feel about returning to the classroom in the fall. One in five teachers says they are unlikely to return to school in the fall, leading to speculation that some teachers would resign if they were told they had to come back.
Many students (especially younger learners) form deep connections with their teachers. Losing a beloved teacher can further add stress to their lives and worsen the anxiety they feel.
There are a few ways you can help students overcome the stress of not having a favorite teacher. You can set up a video call with the class to say hello and “pass the torch” from one teacher to the next. You can also try to give more attention to students who miss their old teachers so they feel supported by you. Within a few months, they should be acclimated to the “new normal” of having you as their teacher.
5. Lobby for the Continuation of Support Programs
Speak up in your school and make sure valuable student programs (like after-school tutoring or early-morning meals) are still in place despite the pandemic.
“In the most dire cases, students will have experienced trauma as issues of housing access and food insecurity are compounded by grief, loss, and even abuse,” Heather Hough, executive director at Policy Analysis for California Education, tells the Brookings Institute. “To meet these needs, schools should be prepared to offer a comprehensive set of services that address the needs of children and their families.”
Now is not the time to cut connections with community organizations that provide services like food pantries, counseling and after school programs that give students a safe place to go. Unfortunately, these services are some of the first things to get cut.
6. Show Your Students You Care
The last tip is one of the most important. Take time to understand the social-emotional needs of the kids in your classroom.
“We went into this profession for a love of our students, wanting to be there on their up days and down days,” says elementary teacher Jen Merrifield. “We’re trying to do the best we can with the situation that has been given to us. Anything we can do to lessen the anxiety of our students and help support our parents that’s again why we do this.”
Merrifield recently made the news for her unique videos that she sends out to students. Her content makes students laugh and connects them to the classroom again. This creates positive emotional connections with learning and the classroom environment.
Find Ways for Students to Connect With Friends
Teachers can also help students by allowing them to interact with friends — as safely as possible.
“When I hear about keeping students socially distant, I just kind of laugh at that,” says special education teacher Crysta Weitekamp. “They’re social creatures.”
Friendships are also important, says education writer Kate Barrington. Some benefits children derive from social interaction include improved emotional coping skills, increased sense of belonging, and lower stress levels. Because of social distancing requirements, however, these friendships may be significantly harder to maintain.
The way parents respond to social distancing impacts their children. Some kids may feel left out if they see that their friends continued to hang out together without them. Holly Burns at The New York Times interviewed several parents who were confused and horrified by how other people were reacting to the pandemic. One parent said her daughter was on a FaceTime playdate and watched five or six other friends playing together despite the state’s stay-at-home orders.
If other parents at school (and their kids) aren’t taking the pandemic seriously, then it is easy for students to feel held back or left out because their own parents want them to be safe.
Prioritize the Mental Health of Your Students (and Yours Too!)
The guiding principle for teachers this year should be the social-emotional state of their students. Children who have experienced trauma are in no place to learn and will just fall further behind.
“We have to take into consideration the fact that so many of our students are experiencing trauma at this moment,” says high school teacher Lindsey Jensen. “If we neglect to include SEL [Social Emotional Learning] as a significant part of the conversations that we are currently having, we will not be equipped to meet the nuanced needs of all of our students in the future.”
By caring for the needs of your students and understanding their current headspace, you can create a safe classroom to help learners process the past year and connect with others in the year ahead.
And of course, it is crucial to mind your own emotional wellbeing and mental health. We’ve written a bit about teacher self care here.