As I work with families, educators, and students during this pandemic time, we’re trying to figure out how to do school in a way that feels safe, comprehensive, and doable with limited technology and internet accessibility. The traumatic conditions of isolation, chronic unpredictability, and physical and emotional constraint are affecting all of us at some level. How do children express their feelings of abandonment, loss, grief, and confusion? How do adults express these feelings? Often, our behaviors tell our stories, signaling the pain we can barely speak of or understand.
The therapist Bonnie Badenoch says that “the shards of these accumulating experiences that linger in our muscles, belly, hearts, brains, and body systems gradually shape our perceptual systems and how the world looks.” We can plan distance learning curricula, create new ways of presenting content, and innovate our assessment protocols for virtual learning, but with so many unknowns in this time, students’ emotional and social well-being must be a priority.
We don’t know exactly how schools across the country will reopen, but we do know that every student will need to feel safety and connection to teachers and peers. Many of our students are going to walk in relationship-resistant, and we will need to set aside chunks of time for emotional regulation practices.
Below are strategies and mini brain-aligned practices intended for distance learning that prepare the brain and body for a calm regulated state, improved focus, and attention. They are ways to create touchpoints—moments of connection—and to release anxiety and build a strong sense of connection in a class.
Strategies for Promoting Calmness and a Sense of Connection
1. Express Yourself: When we can share our sensations, thoughts, and feelings, we feel a sense of relief, safety, and calm, and artistic expression is one of the most powerful ways to regulate our nervous systems during stressful periods of time. The teachers I work with have used these questions before distance learning lessons, sharing them in packets sent home so students can have some time to express how they feel before the academic part of the lesson. These questions are also great discussion starters that families can use to explore children’s emotions.
- What are two images or pictures that pop up in your mind when you think of this pandemic? What do these look like, sound like, smell like and feel like? Can you draw them, write about them, or act them out?
- What are two ways this pandemic has affected you and/or your family? Can you express them through images or words?
- How does your world feel different now compared to six months ago?
- We cannot see the virus, but imagine that you can. What does it remind you of, and how does it look? What are its colors, its lines? If this virus could talk, what would it say? What would you say to this virus?
- If you could help create a better world as we go through this pandemic together, what is one change you would like to help create or see? What would your plan look like?
2. Dual Drawings: Students working with a peer, the teacher, or a parent can create a shared drawing as each takes a turn and draws a line or shape and then passes the drawing to their partner to add their line or shape to the drawing within a specified amount of time. Each partner can add shapes, lines, and color and can observe how this shared activity produces a collaborative design. When I have done this, we usually create together without talking—when the time is up we discuss our creation.
This activity can be shared with students through packets sent through the mail over a longer period of time. The teacher can begin the drawings and send them home to students as a weekly or biweekly design unfolds. Once students have the starter drawing, they can also mail it back and forth to each other, rather than sending it to the teacher. The key step of reflecting on and discussing the creations can happen throughout the process by having students write short journal entries about what they added and why.
3. Dual Story Writing or Journaling: This activity designed for closure is similar to the dual drawings except we create a story together. This story could be created with images or words and could be a 30-minute, one-day or weekly family activity, or a distance learning collaboration. A student and a peer, the teacher or a parent can write a fictional story together, or create a dual journal by writing alternating entries to share experiences from their daily lives.
4. Brain Scavenger Hunt: This creates movement, shared and expressed feelings, and connection, and it can be a family ritual or a part of distance learning if students have an internet connection and a device. I have played this through Zoom with fifth-grade students, asking them to find objects around their home that answer these five brain-aligned questions in a specified amount of time. We place our responses on a Padlet so everyone can share what they discovered.
- Can you find something in your home that can change its shape, is malleable, and stretches like our brains when we learn something new? This represents the brain’s amazing neuroplasticity—our experiences structurally and functionally change our brains, and we are always growing and learning, repairing and healing.
- Can you find something that feels calming and soothing to you? When we calm our nervous systems, we open up the regions of the brain that can self-regulate, think clearly, remember, and pay attention.
- Can you find and share something in your home that stresses you out? What you can name, you can tame. For this question, students can draw a picture or write out their answer if it’s not practical to bring the actual object to the Zoom call—for example, if the stressor is the student’s sibling.
- Can you find something in your home that creates a memory for you? What experience does an image, or an object invoke that creates feelings of joy or peacefulness?
- Can you find and share something in your home that makes you feel smarter and more focused?