During difficult times, it’s natural for us to try to put a brave spin on things. We somehow made it through remote learning, and now we’re just trying to get through another day of potentially bad news and countless unknowns. We can’t be with our friends or colleagues. Every “How ya doing?” text message feels like an existential question.
As we begin to prepare for the next school year, we have to remember that it’s OK not to feel OK. We’re all experiencing some form of trauma, and everyone will feel it and interpret it differently. It’s a good time to be forgiving and empathetic of yourself and others. The fact that you’re alive and healthy is enough.
Through it all, we’re experiencing new feelings in ways we may not expect. A second thought before touching a doorknob, a nervous hustle through the grocery aisle. It’s important to acknowledge that we need more time and space than usual to express and process these emotions. That goes for ourselves and our students.
Taking things one day at a time often feels like a cliché, but today it feels like the only possibility. We can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, let alone next month. With each rising sun brings new information and circumstances. It’s impossible to process it all. Rather than fill our day processing information, let’s direct our energy to process our feelings.
How to Help Students Process Their Feelings, Even in Distance Learning
Help them identify the feeling and what it feels like in their body: If they’re struggling with words, ask them to show you how they feel using their face or a movement with their body, or by drawing a picture. If you’re able to facilitate a classroom meeting virtually, have students hold up the picture they drew or take turns depicting their emotions through facial expressions.
Validate their feelings: Thank them for sharing, and steer away from suggesting they should feel a certain way. Suggesting that a child should feel grateful or telling them there’s no reason to cry sends the message that their feelings aren’t OK. You can say, “Thank you for telling me,” and share a story about a time you felt similarly or ask another student if they feel comfortable sharing a story. You’ll want to follow up with students individually as appropriate to ask open-ended questions about what made them feel that way, how they would like to feel, and what you can do to help get them there. You can also send these ideas to parents, so that they can help facilitate the conversation.
Provide accurate information in a way they can understand: It’s difficult enough to comb through information and news as an adult these days—now imagine being a child. As their teacher, you know what vocabulary to use to help your students understand. Share information during virtual class meetings and incorporate visuals as appropriate. If students are unable to join class meetings, send links to child-appropriate videos via email or text message. Do your best to keep information focused on prevention in the present rather than focusing on future possibilities.
Offer reassurance by highlighting the good: Show your students all the good things that are continuing to happen in the world and all the people who are working hard to help others. Provide safe opportunities for students to offer help in the community, such as creating thank-you cards or videos.
Maintain your regular routines as closely as possible: In a period of immense uncertainty, these will provide feelings of safety and security. If you typically had an opening or closing day message for students, try to replicate that in the virtual setting. You can also identify routines that students could continue at home and share with families.
Encourage positive media habits: We’re trying to be even more mindful of the media and content we consume during this time, and we know that many other adults are doing the same. Suggest limits around media usage, and try to watch, listen, and discuss the news with your students, so that you can answer questions immediately. You might have students submit questions via a Google Form or an email. Then you can choose a certain number of questions to answer each day, whether by class meeting, sending out a video, or emailing a newsletter. Remember, it’s not on you to answer every question, so loop in parents if there are discussions they can help facilitate.
Be a role model for healthy habits: You can’t pour from an empty cup. You will be a better parent, teacher, partner, and friend if you put a few things in place for your own well-being. Try to incorporate movement into your days, and prioritize sleep and eating well. At a minimum, do one thing that will bring you joy each day. Share what you’re doing with your students, and encourage them to share their healthy habits as well.
Now more than ever, all we can control is how we move through each day. If we can build intentional routines and maintain our physical and emotional well-being, we can get through this difficult time and be better prepared to enter our new normal together.