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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive.

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How Teachers Can Buffer Student Stress From COVID-19: Ordinary Magic

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — August 26, 2020 2 min read

Today’s guest blogger is Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. She also serves as the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.

What can teachers do to help students deal with the chronic stress of the pandemic?

As a counselor, I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and parents who are concerned that this generation of children will be permanently damaged by the stress of living through a global pandemic. But studies of childhood resilience routinely find that even in conditions of intense, ongoing adversity, children can thrive. The young people who manage to flourish against all odds are not exceptional or extraordinary. Rather, they are beneficiaries of what psychologist Ann Masten refers to as “ordinary magic”—protective processes that promote competence and healthy adaptation and that happen almost anywhere.

For a child under stress, what makes this magic happen? Connection to loving and capable adults, engagement in meaningful work, and a sense of control. To bring this growth-giving, resilience-building magic to your classroom this year, you’ll want to do these three things:

Find ways to connect. Children learn best in the context of warm, authentic connections with their teachers. Powerful student-teacher relationships can be built in a pandemic, but it will take extra effort in online environments or in classrooms where safety protocols weigh heavily. Prioritize using time in class to check in with students about how they are feeling and to point them toward positive coping strategies—such as finding happy distractions or spending time with people they enjoy—for managing pandemic stress. Helping students understand that they are seen and cared for will put them at ease and open the door to learning.

Give students a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose—pursuing personally meaningful activities that have positive consequences for others—buffers the negative effects of chronic stress in children. Cultivate purpose to your classroom by helping students see the connections between the skills they are developing and their own immediate and long-term goals. Show students how they can apply what they are learning to improve their everyday worlds.

Offer predictability and control. Resilience grows when young people have ways to feel that not everything is beyond their control. An academic day with predictable patterns puts students at ease because they know what to expect. School also comes with opportunities for students to feel a sense of agency. By maintaining reliable classroom routines and giving students choices that let them steer their own learning—even online—you can provide them with stress-buffering structure and sense of control, even as the disruptions associated with COVID-19 persist.

Be sure to do for yourself what you are doing for your students: Connect with your fellow educators, embrace your own sense of purpose, and develop reliable routines that let you control what you can. Even ordinary magic can have extraordinary effects.


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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