Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

5 Tips to Center Student Wellness During School Reentry

Teachers can take simple steps to help students feel safe and positive as they return to the classrooms.

March 30, 2021
Fly View Productions / iStock

The last year has been one of constant recalibration as many of us move from teaching in person to online to hybrid and back to in person. Reentry is on all of our minds, with many of us wondering how educators can support our students’ well-being.

As administrators of a global school, we see how this essential challenge presents itself across schools we work with around the world, so we asked school leaders what responsive teaching means during this critical phase. Specifically: How can we welcome students back to their in-person school community; acknowledge the journey we have been on; reflect on the benefits, successes, challenges, and hardships we have faced, and set the tone for growth ahead?

The answer, we found, lies in conversation—including ones within ourselves.

1. Set the Stage

As with all significant events that happen in our school or student communities, we must devote time and space for honest and open processing with young people. When we strive to center our students’ experiences and honor collective and individual wisdom, we ultimately create stronger and more engaged class communities.

Creating this kind of environment requires intentionality. Develop a framework for conversation with norms that value inclusivity and collaboration. These might include being present, being supportive, respecting each other, and recognizing that all of our experiences are valid.

2. Know That the Only Way Out Is Through

With your class, intentionally address the experiences of the last year, recognizing both the hardships and successes we experienced. Openly discuss worries and hopes for moving forward. These conversations are not about finding the “right” answer. Rather, they are about holding space and building community together.

A few prompts to consider:

  • What was the hardest thing about learning at home? What was the best thing?
  • What worries do you feel as you move back into a classroom space?
  • What hopes do you feel as you move back into a classroom space?
  • What are some things that would help you feel safer as you move into a different school environment?
  • Who are some people you can reach out to for support when you need it?
  • What are some ways you can support those around you?

3. Have Students Take an Emotional Temperature Check

When we help students name their emotions, especially the big, difficult feelings, it gives them more control over a situation. Calling an emotion out puts it right there before you, so that you can see it more clearly and begin to accept and address it.

Help students to take an emotional temperature check in which students (1) name their emotions as specifically as possible and (2) accept that all emotions are valid.

This work of naming our feelings clearly and considering the nuances among feelings is called emotional vocabulary; developing a vibrant emotional vocabulary is important in building and centering wellness in schools. Emotions are information, meaning that all emotions are valid. The information that our feelings give us is neither right nor wrong, bad nor good; it simply exists. Recognizing and naming this can help us respond with more intentionality and control.

Students may need support in talking about their feelings with more specificity.

  • Model nuance: Are you feeling sad or dejected? Happy or excited? Are you feeling several emotions at once? Maybe you are both scared and excited.
  • Honor the different ways in which your students want to express and process. Some students will be comfortable talking about emotions in class. Others may need time to think or journal ideas privately first, or talk them through one-on-one.
  • Lean into creativity. Collages, sketches, painting, meme-making, and sculpting can give students space to explore their feelings through the arts.

4. Guide Students to Do a Brain-Body Scan

When life gets busy and we feel stressed, we are often tempted to keep moving or even pick up the pace. This rushing makes us more stressed and tired. Here’s the paradox: When we are stressed and tired, working more or working more quickly doesn’t help us reach our goals. In fact, we end up moving more slowly and making mistakes that cost us even more time in the end. How do we work through this paradox? Slow down.

You can help your students slow down by encouraging them to take a deep, intentional breath and ask themselves these questions:

  • How is my concentration?
  • How does my head feel? How about my stomach?
  • How is my energy?
  • What do I need right now?
  • Am I hungry or thirsty?

Our bodies and brains can do a great job of telling us what we need, but only if we listen. In our work with teachers and students, we are seeing often that we all need to hit the proverbial pause button. Some ways to do this include taking deep breaths, getting up from your seat to walk around, drinking a big glass of water, playing a game or texting a friend for a few minutes, going outside in the fresh air, stretching, and/or listening to a great song.

Give students strategies to check in on their own well-being and the space to respond to the messages they’re hearing.

5. Set Up a Choice Board Focused on Wellness

To center wellness, it helps to create space for open and honest conversations (even when those conversations are difficult), openly declare that this work is important enough to invest time and resources in it, and explicitly teach strategies for emotional health.

Here is a choice board to encourage students to make time for wellness. The options can be adapted to any grade level and are both general and broadly accessible, depending upon a student’s resources. This choice board offers specific ways for students to recognize where they are now and practice strategies for processing and wellness.

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