George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

Focusing on Student Well-Being in Challenging Times

Wellness strategies like positive self-talk and mindfulness practices can help students feel calmer and more in control in this difficult year.

September 23, 2020
Teenaged boy takes a break to stretch while working at his laptop at home
allensima / iStock

After a summer of uncertainty, schools around the country are “reopening.” For some districts, this means distance learning. For others, it’s a staggered and blended approach. For others still, there is in-person education for all.

One thing we know for sure: It won’t be business as usual.

And it shouldn’t be.

Research has told us that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are much more common than previously recognized. Now we add the collective trauma of Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. It’s clear that care and healing must be a central focus as we welcome students back to class this month.

Promoting Student Well-Being in a Crisis

Focus on connection: Research has shown that absence of connection can cause distress and disease. Social connection is the antidote and is increasingly seen as a core human need. Getting to know your students and having them get to know each other in meaningful ways is key, especially now.

Place students at the center of mindfulness and social and emotional learning: Rather than telling students what to do and how to do it, we should support them in cultivating the ideas, skills, and practices they find useful. That way, they learn to make their own choices about how to be their best selves.

To do this, teachers might brainstorm with students about how they find support in challenging times; facilitate a discussion about what sustains them (and what doesn’t); explore nurturing practices with them; and invite students to share and lead practices that have worked for them.

Incorporate music and movement: Music can soothe us, lift our spirits, hold us in our anger and sadness, and sometimes assuage our fears. The right kind of music can generate excitement or alleviate agitation and stress. Music can be an effective noise-cancellation tool, filtering out unwelcome sounds. It can also help us connect through movement, rhythm, and harmony, while keeping our distance physically. Music can amplify what’s happening in our communities and inspire change.

To incorporate music into the classroom, teachers might ask students about music that has helped them during this period. Invite students to share this music with peers, who might sing, hum, drum, or move along with it.

Breathe: An intentional breathing practice can help students calm down, self-regulate, and better cope with stress. It can help ground them and make them feel more present in the moment.

For teachers who want to incorporate this practice in their classrooms, there are a few things to keep in mind. At first, practice breathing for no more than a minute. Some students need to learn to feel safe in their bodies first.

Use multisensory breathing activities that don’t ask students to go inside their bodies, where they might encounter long-held hurt or anxiety. Consider an external focus on touch, sound, taste, or vision.

Always use invitational language and provide options. For example, teachers might invite students to close their eyes or find a spot on the floor in front of them to gently rest their gaze.

Introduce positive self-talk: As students become more self-aware, they can work on recognizing and handling strong emotions through self-talk—positive internal narrative that can counter negative messages that students might absorb about themselves.

Share with students the idea that recognizing and naming strong feelings allows us to take a step back and not be controlled by them. When we name our feelings, soothing neurotransmitters are released into the more agitated parts of the brain, which allows us to reengage our thinking brain. This gives us access to creative ways to address the issues that trigger and stress us out.

Affirmations are a powerful antidote to prevalent negative messaging. They work best when you use the present tense, highlight the positive, and repeat them multiple times a day. For instance, you might confidently tell yourself “I am enough,” “I am worthy,” or “I am powerful” first thing in the morning and before going to bed. Then reinforce your affirmations with physical touch, like tapping the back of your hand.

Encourage social engagement and activism: The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many of the problems we already knew existed in our society. It has also shown us how deeply connected we are to each other and to the living world and how we all pay the price if we don’t honor and protect those connections. Social engagement and activism can help students find their voice and claim their power. Addressing problems in the world around them is another powerful self-care practice.

To do this, we should provide students access to an inclusive version of history that acknowledges historical harms and includes stories of resistance. It can be liberating to finally understand the how behind so many injustices— that they are human-made, not immutable facts of life. This knowledge can inspire students to move beyond feeling stuck or trapped.

In turn, better understanding injustice can give focus to our anger, turning it into valuable fuel for action (instead of the poison it becomes when it’s left to fester).

We know that students can’t learn unless they feel safe and connected. We can help engender those feelings by warmly welcoming students back to school, recognizing the reality of the world they live in, listening to their needs, and supporting them as they find their own ways to address the challenges they face, both individually and collectively.

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