As schools across the country remain closed, students with trauma, difficult home situations, and anxiety need support now more than ever. The abrupt change can trigger stress and fear in students that can leave mental scars.
A framework of safety is critical for students’ brains and can be the first phase of healing for those experiencing trauma. Help students feel safe through the three Cs: communication, consistency, and control.
Communication: Mental Health Check-In
According to one study, “Simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing—reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing physical and emotional distress.” Communication helps with coping and healing. Teachers can create spaces—even remotely—where every student can check in. Communication allows teachers to gain insight on student safety concerns, feedback, and traumas.
Consider creating a check-in using a Google form that asks first about a positive part of their day. Then inquire specifically about a student’s mental state. Using multiple-choice answers can help students feel less intimidated to complete the check-in. Offer choices such as “I’m great,” “I’m OK,” “I’m struggling,” or “I’m having a hard time and would like a check-in.” For younger students, consider using happy/sad faces that show varying degrees of emotion from happy to upset. Use an open-ended question to ask if there are particular needs that can be addressed.
For students who lack internet access, consider a school-approved messaging platform, such as Remind 101. Creating a Google Voice account provides a phone number for parent and student communication. Send mental health check-ins via text to students.
Beyond messaging, consider calling parents. I have 86 students, and calling a few families every day—even if I have no specific agenda—is important for keeping communication open to families. I have one student whom I was not able to contact, and I mailed them the mental check-in with return postage. By being purposeful in our communication, we can provide the support that our students need to feel safe.
Consistency: Schedules and Routines
In these difficult and changing times, it is important to give students routines and consistency. Consider offering families a sample schedule for at-home schooling. The schedule might include a wake-up time, reading, exercise time, or nature time. Remember to include opportunities for social interaction where possible. In my online class, students log on at the same time, and we talk about how we are doing, read poems, and work in groups to talk about content and life. Students without digital access have a call-in number from Google Voice so they can participate in class. Consistent social interaction can help students cope with the changing situation and provide a sense of stability in difficult times.
Control: Self-Care Plans
A self-care plan is an intervention that can give students a sense of control and prevent them from being completely consumed by emotional reactions. As students create their own, they also develop ownership and autonomy. Having a plan takes the guesswork out of what to do and where to turn in a moment of crisis. Students can respond rather than react to the situation at hand. It allows them to take time to think about what they want to do and how they want to do it. When an educator knows a student’s individual plan, they gain insight into strategies, activities, and tools to help that student.
Start by asking students to identify support structures, people, and activities that help them feel better. Model creating a simple list of activities that make one feel calm or happy, such as music, exercise, coloring, art, or meditation. Offer suggestions of appropriate cognitive activities based on grade level. Once the activity list is complete, ask students to identify one or two people with whom they have a good relationship and to whom they feel they can turn for help and support. If a student reports they don’t have a strong relationship with anyone, help them recognize the characteristics of someone who shows support. Generate a list of people whom they currently interact with daily in their everyday life and who currently help support their daily needs. Remind them that there are adults in their lives who care.
After completing the support section, ask students to list stressors that might act as speed bumps to their mental well-being. This section serves as a guide for moments when they might use their self-care plan. Thinking through a typical day can help students home in on specific areas of stress, like transitions between times of day, or particular situations such as a parent leaving for work. Then help them create a plan to address each of the stressors and barriers using tools from the support section.
As students create their plans, they will realize that they are in control of how they respond to any situation in their life—increasing confidence and a sense of control in times of stress. Students need safety now more than ever in these turbulent times. Putting compassion before content helps students learn and deal with the changes that are happening.