When my school resumed in-person classes this winter, I watched as a 5th grade boy splayed on his stomach across the chair in class, his arms extended like Superman. He wasn’t trying to be funny; he was simply trying to ground himself. After months of toxic stress, his ability to pay attention and self-regulate had been compromised, and as much as he detested remote learning, the return to school hadn’t been a panacea. He was happy to see friends but also tired easily, bristled at perceived slights, and struggled to produce work.
When I reached out to several fellow psychologists and educators by phone to hear about their own experiences returning to school, I found out that the student I observed is not unique. “The first thing educators need to understand is the toll that this year has taken on each person’s nervous system,” Mona Delahooke, the author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, told me. “Nobody was immune from the stress of having to leave a familiar environment overnight, and our bodies and brains adapt differently to the new situation.”
While some students will look disengaged or detached, others will slouch, fidget, or move more. The one constant is that every child needs compassion and patience. Here are six ways educators can prioritize kids’ emotional well-being during the transition back to school buildings:
1. Strike a balance between predictability and novelty. Students crave consistency after a trauma, but many have come to dread the choreographed sameness of their days and need more fun, such as an impromptu nature walk where possible or a paper-airplane-making contest. Play and connection activate the social-engagement system and are healing.
Episcopal Academy, a P-12 school in Newtown Square, Pa., is replacing an advisory or class meeting with recess so students can play “in a space that’s not micromanaged by adults,” school psychologist Jessica Anderson told me.
Teachers also need to be willing to shelve a lesson, added Morgan Penn, an 8th grade science teacher at Argyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Md. “I had a student with a family member in El Salvador who passed away from COVID, and when he told the class that his father had COVID, too, everyone stopped to support him.”
2. Be understanding when addressing misbehavior. After remote learning, “kids are used to using the bathroom any time they want and turning off their cameras and muting themselves so they can have a side conversation,” said James Allrich, Argyle’s principal. “Now, kids will have arrows everywhere, dots telling them where to stand, and I can see a kid being nervous: ‘Am I standing on the right dot? Do I have to put my face mask on between bites when I eat?’”
That anxiety can manifest as noncompliance; students need reassurance that they’re not in trouble when they make a mistake.
Penn added, “These are children, not robots. Is there a fire? Is anyone falling out the window? I’ll say, ‘If you want to lie on the floor, or if you’re frustrated and want to scream but can’t do it now, let’s talk about a time when you can do it.’”
3. Rebuild students’ sense of competency. Many students had a hard time with online learning, and their academic self-concept has taken a hit. Others feel awkward and have lost their social footing. To address insecurity, be flexible and help students learn to manage their time wisely.
Trust that kids want to do well and that you may not know their back story. Penn shared that one student lost their home and had to move into another family’s apartment with their young toddlers, another suffers from insomnia, and a third was too anxious to bring herself to do assignments.
40% of hybrid, 38% fully remote, and 29% fully in-person students reported their state of mind during class is more negative than it was before the pandemic.
4. Crank up the connection. Kids disclose more to teachers who take emotional risks themselves. “My students know I’m in therapy; they even know my therapist’s name is Manuela,” Penn said. “It should be normal—everyone needs help. I say, ‘I’m pushing through every day just like you are and I’m really fighting for you.’”
Remote instruction has also underscored for many of us the value of face-to-face interactions. “I’ve missed the dynamic of looking in someone’s eyes and knowing, without them saying a word, that something isn’t right,” Allrich told me. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s talk,’ and they just start crying.”
5. Don’t forget that different students have different needs. One parent told me that her middle schooler moved midpandemic and had yet to meet a single classmate at her local public school. New students will need supports, such as welcome buddies and groups for new students.
Kids who remain virtual when buildings reopen also have unique needs. One remote learner told me she feels intense FOMO (fear of missing out) every time she sees her classmates engaging in person. Schools can mitigate that by scheduling time for online and offline learners to have a virtual recess.
My middle schoolers also tell me they feel self-conscious when teachers project the faces of remote learners onto a whiteboard at the front of the room. By turning the desks around so the screen is behind the kids, teachers can see every student without spotlighting anyone.
6. Work together to create a safety net. Compare notes with your colleagues to ensure no student falls through the cracks. An English teacher might realize a child is struggling when they write a poem about depression. A school nurse might tie a student’s headaches to anxiety. An art teacher might draw attention to a child’s dark self-portraits. A paraeducator might see that a kid always sits alone at recess.
Educators need to keep an eye on one another, too. Allrich reminds his staff that everyone is anxious, then reassures them that they’re used to operating from a place of empathy. “We’re on shifting grounds, but our unchangeable core doesn’t change—and that’s kindness, care, relationships, and communication.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as Don’t Assume a Return to School Is a Panacea