By Kristina Hulvershorn
I had originally planned to create an optimistic beginning-of-the-school year blog this month, but with so much uncertainty surrounding our children’s education due to the continuing presence of COVID-19 in our communities, I decided to go in a different direction. Like a lot of people, I keep reminding myself to be the kind of tree who will sway in the storm, rather than break. So, instead, I’d like to focus on some tangible strategies to help teachers and parents support their kids in this tough moment, centered around their social and emotional well-being.
The Antidote to Despair is Action
Times are hard in so many respects. Finding ways to make the planet a better place, no matter how minor they may be, benefits everyone involved. In my family, we’ve started picking up trash on our daily neighborhood walks. It’s a small act, but it really helps us feel better and make our community a little cleaner for the humans and the animals we share it with. We also built a small food giveaway box outside, and not only are neighbors who need food using it, but other neighbors are keeping it full! It’s been heartening to set up a simple but needed support in our neighborhood and watch so many jump in to help. I’ve seen kids make cooking videos promoting low-carbon (plant-based) meals, kids delivering food from their gardens to neighbors, beautiful and inspiring chalk art, and all kinds of other things people are doing to help make our world a better place. What can you and your students start doing to make a difference in the community?
Double Down on Relationships and Connections
Kids need to be connected to other people, and even more so when they have been so isolated. Build in plenty of time for fun, non-stressful connection through games and other interactive activities. You can do a question of the day, a challenge in which each class or small group tries to solve a riddle as a group, etc. You can also ask a question and form random pairs or small groups — it’s much easier to talk virtually with small groups. A useful tool for this kind of activity is the Transformative Learning Alliance’s Everyday Circles cards, a few of which are available for free download. This is not time wasted…it is important for the mental health of your community, and also helps all of your academics and interventions function more smoothly!
State Your Expectations from the Beginning and Have the Community Create Norms
There are certain non-negotiables — “I expect you to do your best,” or “In this school, we talk through our issues with one another and find solutions to problems” — but other pieces are best suited for the group to figure out on its own. How do we handle group chat? Private chat? Do we have to share our video? How do we limit distractions at home? Talking that through and making decisions WITH students is a powerful way to make sure that our expectations are going to work for our community and are equitable. Further, rules or boundaries created within the community are more likely to be honored and upheld!
Tackle Tough Topics
Start with fun, connecting questions, but there is also a need to tackle tough topics. Here are a list of suggestions from LSSND, who recommends: “Always use one or more positive questions after you have allowed opportunity for participants to talk about fears, concerns or pain. It is very important to end with a sense of positive possibility and hope, even in very difficult situations. Toward the end, you want a strong sense of connection and support for one another.”
Possible questions for support circles online:
- In this new reality, what are you grateful for?
- How is anxiety manifesting for you – in your body, mind/spirit, or heart?
- What is your greatest fear? Where does the fear lodge in your body?
- What personal practices are feeding your fears?
- What are you doing to support someone else at this time?
- Who can you talk to about your anxieties and concerns?
- What gives you hope?
- Do you have intentional practices to interrupt thoughts of hopelessness or anxiety?
- What is the gift of this moment?
- What is bringing comfort at this time?
- What is a source of strength for you at this time?
- What forms of connection are you discovering or recovering?
- How would you like to use this time? What is a growth opportunity for you?
- Who is a role model for you in this situation?
- What would you like to release into the center of our circle?
- What helps you to remember that you are never alone?
- What is your favorite music for lifting the spirit?
- What tickles your funny bone – something you can laugh at even in tough times (e.g., movie, TV show, etc.)?
- How is this impacting your relationships in the family?
- What is the hardest part of this situation for you?
- What is one positive thing you can do for yourself in the next week?
- How can we support each other through this difficult time?
- What are you proud of in your response to this difficult time?
Modeling self-care is one of the important roles adults can tackle. Seeing a parent or teacher participate in deep breathing, mindfulness activities, meditation, or even learning about something new is a great way to normalize and legitimize these kinds of activities. Connecting with community (even virtually), exercising, seeking out mental health supports when needed, and journaling are all examples of the important kinds of things we can do to help care for ourselves. Try to check in with kids regularly to understand how they are coping with everything that is happening, and work with them on ways to handle their stress, fear, excess energy, boredom, and confusion.
We hope some of these tips are helpful in these difficult days. We’d love to know what you tried out and what the result was. Some of the best learning we can do is from each other!