To say that this school year is different from any that came before is an understatement. If you’re anything like me, you may fear that hearing the well-intentioned phrase “unprecedented times” one more time will send you over the edge. However, changes in education during COVID-19 challenge teachers, students, and parents in new ways. This is the case whether you are dealing with in-person school with serious safety modifications, virtual school via distance learning, or a hybrid of the two.
Beyond the practical challenges of handling this school year, the psychological impact of this year’s upheaval should be taken as seriously as education outcomes. In this blog post, I’ve pulled together some resources about negotiating this uncertainty and how to cope.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, information changes daily. We don’t know whether we or our loved ones will become sick. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last.
Few have experienced extended mental and emotional pressure without breaks. From a psychological standpoint, humans are better designed to respond to sudden and short-lived crises: a terrible accident, for example, or an environmental crisis like a hurricane. In these situations, there is a general process through which one acknowledges and responds to the immediate threat, comes to terms with the realities of the situation, and ultimately moves through a grieving process. Even in a national crisis as horrifying as the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, most Americans were eventually able to move through typical psychological processes of grief and recovery.
In our current situation, we are not yet able to move through familiar emotions. The crisis is ongoing and chronologically undefined. This has left many people dealing with chronic stress, in which the body’s fight-or-flight response remains activated continually, rather than only when facing an acute stressor. In children, chronic stress has been shown to impair brain functioning and overall development. It is not surprising that during the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have been rising.
Though a great deal of our current reality is out of our control, there are things that can be done, particularly in education, that may reduce the stress felt by students, parents, and teachers. Please note that this is not a definitive list, but instead a group of suggestions inspired by studies in emotional regulation, motivation, and child development.
Involve students in decision-making
When considering the helplessness that many adults feel during the pandemic, imagine its effects on children, who now have even less autonomy over their lives than before. Response to the pandemic uprooted many students from their normal routines in March, and they too have no sense of when their lives will again feel normal. Offering younger students a chance to make decisions about some elements of their routine can give them some sense of control. Teachers may offer students choices for independent assignments or work groups. Parents can involve children in decisions, such as designing and creatively decorating their home “school” space. Even small decisions can give children something to hold onto as they live through this confusing time.
Older students also struggle: Many high school seniors and students who would have started college this year are in unusual circumstances. The typical process of separating from their parents and becoming independent college students is either on hold or occurring in ways that had not been envisioned (such as virtual classes while on campus). For high school seniors, the college application process is stressful even in the best of times, and parents and educators should think critically about how to best support these students. Reinforce that although things are strange and complicated, students ultimately still make choices about their own futures, even if circumstances have left them struggling emotionally. Managing expectations and considering varied options for higher education are important, but adults should pay special attention to students’ mental health, as well.
Validate their emotions
Under normal circumstances, children are still in the process of developing emotion regulation, or the ability to modulate and express one’s emotions in a manner appropriate to the situation. During a crisis, not only will this ability be challenged, but children may feel a range of emotions that are new or at a higher level than what they have experienced previously. New education structures and expectations may be frustrating. Losing social connections may bring sadness or loneliness. Seeing their parents struggle may cause stress and worry. Through all of this, validation from the adults in their lives can make an enormous difference. In short, let them know that whatever they may be feeling is normal and that they are allowed to express it honestly. Tell them that the adults around them are also feeling scared, sad, or angry—they are not alone! Feeling that their emotions are validated and accepted can boost children’s ability to negotiate challenges.
Give yourself space for your own emotions
Many adults feel pressure to show a strong and positive façade to the children in their lives, especially during a crisis. This is understandable; however, emotions do not disappear simply because we want them to. Parents, teachers, and other adults involved in education may feel frustrated, sad, angry, and a range of other emotions in response to the pandemic. In her work on emotional agility, psychologist Susan David states that emotions are not directives or commands, and are instead providing us information about our internal state. Acknowledging emotions and considering options in our responses to them allows us to regain at least some control over the situation. Moreover, realistically and honestly working through the challenging emotions brought on by the pandemic can strengthen our ability to support the children in our lives.
In short, this school year is not going to be normal. The good news is that children can be remarkably resilient, even when faced with great challenges—provided they are offered coping skills and support from caring adults. One important aspect of this support for this year is rethinking expectations. Children’s academic strengths and productivity are likely to differ in a new environment. The types of motivation that they respond to may shift. Their attentional direction or stamina may need special support. Their behaviors and relationships with siblings or peers may shift from how they were other years. None of these changes need be inherently bad; in fact, for some students the change in routine may bring forth new skills or interests. However, supporting students’ positive and healthy growth requires adults in children’s lives to understand and adjust expectations accordingly.
Bridget Thomas (@DrBridgeQIP) is Senior Education Researcher at QIP and Adjunct Professor at George Mason University. Her work focuses on early childhood policy and translating research for multiple audiences.