Preparing our classrooms: Four simple things to keep in mind as we return
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Disclosure: this is NOT a post about safety protocols, COVID-19 risk mitigation, or viewpoints on whether or not to return to school. I am a firm believer that all families have to make a decision that is best for them, and that we are all in this together and should support each decision made, while we make our own. I am not in any capacity here to decide if teachers should or should not go back in the building. I am not in any capacity an expert on infectious diseases. However, I do have a background that lends itself to expertise in the human experience, especially that of children and adolescents. This blog post is not exhaustive in suggestions or thoughts, and it does not claim to encompass everyone's experience of COVID or school. It is meant to provide teachers and parents with things to think about regarding how to make this transition best for the students and yourselves.
It's been almost an entire year.
In March 2020 schools in Illinois closed their doors and we embarked on a new challenge. E-learning, remote learning, home learning, or whatever you want to call it (most teachers and parents want to call it quits) threw our teachers, students, and families for a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences.
Some kids have absolutely thrived. Their social or school anxiety has decreased immensely; their ability to focus has increased without social distraction; and their love of learning has grown through experiences at home. Other students have struggled to even survive. For those families with two working parents, juggling the student's needs with the need of a career took on a stress like never before. For families without the means for childcare, students have been tasked with being more independent than their brains are ready to handle. Students who thrive on social, face to face interaction, have struggled to grow their identities without validation and feedback from their peers. This is not an exhaustive list of things that have occurred for each child and family in this COVID pandemic time.
As ready as some are to return to school buildings, and in-person learning, many struggles lie ahead for both teachers and parents as we reacclimate the students. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we move into the classrooms
1. THE STUDENTS' EXPERIENCE OF STUCTURE HAS CHANGED
We have no idea what anyone's household looks like from day to day. Some children are at the whim of their parents' work/school schedules. They are managing their time as they see fit. They bounce between synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction, screen breaks, lunch, free periods, etc, and for some of them, the time is free to be completely theirs. They can decide when they focus; when they don't; what assignments to do; how to spend their free time; and even when to eat. So coming back into a structured classroom setting, without being able to change rooms or departments over the course of the day, will be a transition for them.
Teachers may want to share their classroom schedules and classroom expectations with the parents ahead of time so that these can be pre-taught at home as well as in the classroom. In fact, teachers may want to loop the in-person students into an exercise of setting "group rules" for the classroom. Letting the students have a little control over what they are expected to do and how they expect others to behave may increase their feelings of power and also give them a sense of belonging.
Parents should expect their children to come home TIRED! But, as we parents know, fatigue in kids doesn't always look like sleepy, cuddly zombies who want to be tucked in. Sometime exhaustion (especially mental exhaustion) can take the form of impulsivity and hyperactivity in the home. Or some children may come home and isolate in order to recharge after the school day. It will be important for parents to note these things before reacting negatively or punitively to extra expelling of energy, or even isolation and alone time. Planning for "what will happen when you come home" with your child might benefit them as well so there is some predictability for home life, since the two settings of home and school have become one over the course of the past 11 months.
2. REMEMBER TO CHECK INTO BASIC NEEDS
The first thing that comes to mind with this reminder is FOOD. We know that kids learn, focus, and attend better when their basic needs are met, and food is a huge part of this. Referencing the point above about structure, some kids have had access to food in their homes whenever they are hungry or bored. Their eating and nourishing rhythms may be off and therefore they can get hungry more often in the school setting. Now that there will be parameters around food availability, it will be important for teachers to pay attention to the hunger level of students and ask themselves if this is why students may struggle to focus or become irritable.
It's also important to recognize that although some students have had food at their disposal, for other students it has been the opposite. Some students' families have experienced incredible hardship as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. If caretakers in a home have been struggling to feed family members, these students' energy levels may be lower than typical and you can greatly boost this by providing extra snack breaks, or special treats (COVID friendly of course), or helping with brain breaks throughout the day. This hardship may also have extended to other basic needs including housing insecurities and safety fears. It would benefit teachers to have a mindset of being patient to figure out if a basic need is at play that might be complicating the situations in the classroom.
Having conversations with the whole class regarding basic needs can actually help students get in touch with their experiences. Providing some psycho-education to students about how meeting these needs can promote better functioning allows for students to develop a mind-body connection and identify their own needs. This gives kids the feeling of great agency over themselves and teaches them how to advocate for their needs.
PS - Trauma is a whole other topic in itself and there isn't enough time to dive into that here. But keep in mind that some students were contained in homes that did not feel safe. Domestic abuse, violent neighborhoods, food insecurity, substance abuse, homelessness, sexual abuse, gang involvement, death of a loved one - the list can go on and on. If you notice a child who seems to be exhibiting any signs that trauma has occurred, reach out to someone who can help navigate this, or seek help from the school counselor. Safety is a basic need, and if school WAS their safe space, they lost that safety when schools closed. It will take a while to get re-acclimated to feeling safe at school. Keep this in mind as you attempt to recreate that environment in your classrooms.
3. ISOLATION MAY RESULT IN MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
I say "may result" because some kids are thriving at home with e-learning - which is so fortunate! But for those students who thrive on social interaction, this has been torture. There are quite a few sub-components to this so bear with me.
Many students are experiencing or will experience some anxiety and/or depression resulting from a lack of social interaction. Think of it this way. As humans, much of our identities are formed through feedback from others and our environment. As we develop friendships, lose relationships, have conflict with people, experience intimacy, etc, our sense of self develops from the things we learn as we navigate these things. For example, when a child makes a joke or does something silly, and friends giggle in support, this communicates to the child that he/she/they are "funny." When a friend is sad, and we are able to help him/her/them cope and feel better, this communicates to us that we are supportive. When we don't see others, we don't get this feedback or communication. Without this validation of who we are, children (and adults) may experience confusion over their identities, which is very unsettling and can result in anxiety and depression.
In addition, our kids are just plain out of practice and confidence levels are low. Although many kids are still socializing, in pods, playing sports, engaging in outdoor play, or even Face Timing each other - the smaller groups and shorter time periods are not the same as spending all day at school in a classroom of 20+ and in a school of 500+. The smaller groups and pods have possibly provided students with more intimate connections, but they are completely out of practice for how to: decide which group to associate with; defend against bullying; ask for help from an adult in a difficult situation; manage conflict appropriately; not take things personally; etc.
Teachers should try to be aware of this anxiety and skill deficit when working with the kids in the classroom. A student may use sarcasm as a communication tool, but another student may be out of practice with how to process sarcasm without taking it personally. Smaller group work may be more comfortable to students at the beginning, or students may need some extra SEL teaching on the topic of friendships. In addition, the tip above about helping the class create their own group rules can include social expectations for how the group treats each other.
A great way to help a student build a more solid sense of identity is through SEL activities in the classroom during break time where they can identify personal characteristics and also open the space to get positive feedback from other students. Additionally, giving students a way to find purpose and meaning is essential to their growth in general, but especially during COVID isolation and resocialization. This can be a very simple task ranging from basic "classroom jobs" to simply pointing out character traits as you see them. For example, a student tells a joke and the teacher reflects that this student is "funny." Or a student helps another student with a question and the teacher reflects that the student is "helpful." These are great things to put on the board as they come up in order to make a visual list of identity attributes. Parents! This is a great activity for home as well! This can result in greatly reducing anxiety about social situations and the self.
I also want to highlight for a moment that this may have been a very scary time of confusion for the students as well (more on how it has affected teachers and parents below). There is a thing out there that they can't see and it has killed people, or made their mom sick, or has resulted in them not being able to leave their home. Mourning and loss is NOT just for the loss of a loved one - although this may have occurred for some students in your classroom. Grieving can be for routines, community, normalcy, belonging, friendships, change of relationships with parents, etc. Loss has many names and wears many hats and can result in irritability, withdrawal, confusion, sadness, anger, and lack of motivation. It can be very helpful to kids when an adult highlights these changes in the environment and outlines what has happened. Normalizing that "things are not normal" can result in so much anxiety relief for kids who might not understand why they are feeling so different inside. Sharing your own experience of confusion and loss (within limits and age appropriately!) can also relieve some of the symptoms of depression and remind students that they are not alone.
4. CHECK YOUR OWN NEEDS
Teachers and parents - we haven't forgotten about you! You're human too, in case you forgot. Students are not the only ones who have experienced stress and overwhelming emotional rollercoasters since March 2020. Teachers and parents have struggled with sudden changes, new expectations, big technology learning curves, as well as fear and anxiety regarding COVID-19.
Some of you have experienced COVID yourselves or have even lost a loved one to the virus. Suffering loss at the hands of something sudden that is out of our control can produce overwhelming anxiety. The mourning and loss process in itself can be wrought with anxiety and sometimes we don't even notice it. We can respond to people, things, and even ourselves with criticism, frustration, irritability, or apathy. It's important to recognize what your needs are and be sure they are also being met. Put your oxygen mask on first before helping those who need assistance putting theirs on. If you're finding things are more dysfunctional in your life than is manageable, please seek professional help. It can literally be a life saver! (PS - this stands for the kids too. Refer to the section above.)
Additionally, most teachers and parents become teachers and parents out of love. Love of teaching, love of children, love of family, love of community, etc. COVID isolation and e-learning has shifted our relationships greatly. As a parent, your job raising kids became the job of teacher, IT director, cook, servant, nag, neglecter, constant worrier, or in my case "worst parent ever." (I'm not talking about all parents - some families are thriving in this time and I want to recognize that some people have completely found their calling.) Teachers have experienced feelings of failure as well in that their job to educate became a job of engagement. Instead of "teaching", you might be consistently just checking to be sure that the kids are still on screen, or awake!
Remember that it's ok to redefine success and goals in this time. For example, maybe getting all A's is just not going to happen this year. Maybe your goal is just that your kiddo "doesn't hate school" or "feels successful at something." Maybe a student's goal has shifted from "100% focus on the computer screen" to "identify your needs and advocate for them." There are some amazing skills being learned right now! Most of them are not academic. We needs to highlight these as we go. This will promote the feeling of success in your parent or teacher role, as well as promote self-esteem in the child.
Above all, take care of yourself! You must attend to your needs and notice your new patterns as you re-enter! Do whatever works for you: journal, meditate, do some Tae-Bo (remember that?!), yell into your pillow, cry, read a motivating book, write poetry, try a new product, binge watch Netflix, tidy up your space....whatever gets you through! Self-care is personal - but it doesn't happen if you don't make it happen. And for goodness sakes, forgive yourself. Cut yourself some slack! This has been a challenge that we never anticipated. We are purely surviving and that's ok. Great job! You're winning! You're still here and still trying. Well done.
There are so many other factors not discussed here are important to consider for when students return (learning loss, medication management, behavioral issues, etc), but hopefully this has provided a small bit of info to prepare us for another "new normal."
Teachers, I know your job and your passion is to teach, and not to be a therapist or parent (except to your own kids). But teachable moments arise from a student being ready for it: physically, mentally, and emotionally. So if we are laddering on our learning process, we have to start on the right wrung of the ladder. We may need to back way up for some students so we don't lose them and leave them behind.
You're all doing great! Stay positive and find gratitude. Laugh at yourself when you can't pay attention to those on the screen and those in the classroom at the same time. Give yourself some slack and this will also create a calmer environment for your students. I think you'll find that going back into the classroom will feel scary at first and then will be a big relief. We often get stuck in our new ways, and we become fearful of change. This change comes with smiling faces who look at you like you know everything, keep them safe, and you care. Once you settle, again, into the identity that you were meant to have - just take that deep breath you've been needing (with your mask on of course...and maybe a breath mint).