By Dr. Charmain Jackman
Shorter days, back-to-school sales, and shopping for new school outfits are all telltale signs that summer is coming to a close, signally that the first day of school is around the corner. Unfortunately, this year, the usual back-to-school excitement usually felt by students (and parents) is overshadowed by emerging concerns about the Delta variant and what it will mean for the new school year.
For the past two years, education as we know it has been disrupted. Many hoped for a “normal” school year as millions rushed to get vaccinated. However, the reality of another year of disruption seems inevitable as news headlines focus on mask mandate debates, social distancing, and speculations about what school schedules will look like as COVID-19 infection rates and COVID-related deaths are again on the rise.
The Multiple Pandemics and the Impact on Emotional Health
As students return to school, remediating learning loss is a high priority for school leaders and teachers. While some educators may feel better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, how they prepare for the emotional repercussions brought on by the multiple pandemics (i.e., COVID-19, racial injustice, & health & economic disparities) will be critical. The fallout from COVID-19 and the health, economic, and racial pandemics have significantly impacted children and adolescents. For example, students are experiencing homelessness, hunger and food insecurity, social isolation, child abuse, and grief/loss from losing caregivers and family members. Additionally, rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior have skyrocketed in youth—in the face of a broken child mental health system. For example, screening data from hospital emergency rooms show higher rates of suicidal thinking among adolescents during the pandemic than in the previous year (Hill, Rufino, and Kurian et al., 2021). While these student concerns are not new, there is no doubt that these issues will appear at higher rates at school and in classrooms. A 2021 KFF report shows that youth reported 25% worsening emotional and cognitive functioning at the start of the pandemic.
Trauma and the Impact on Learning
To say that the past two years have been traumatic is an understatement. The potentially traumatic events caused by the multiple pandemics do not fit within the Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) framework. ACEs focus on child abuse, neglect, caregiver mental health, caregivers who are out of the home due to divorce/separation and incarceration, and domestic violence. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the multiple pandemics contribute to toxic stress (i.e., long-term stress that impacts brain development, learning, and health outcomes). Recent research by Bernard, Calhoun, Banks, et al. (2021) expands the ACE framework to include structural and systemic problems like racism. The Culturally-Informed Adverse Childhood Events (C-ACE) focuses on the “intergenerational and multilevel impact of racism on the mental health of Black youth,” which we have seen play out in disparities in the health and educational systems in the wake of COVID-19. As schools prepare to welcome back students, knowing what their students have undergone will be critical to meeting their learning, physical and emotional health, and social service needs.
On the other hand, it is important to highlight that the pandemic has not been all bad for all students. While many students had challenges with remote learning, some found it a positive change. According to a report by Speak UP, a parent-led advocacy organization focused on equity and excellence in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 43% of Black families surveyed shared that remote learning provided more positive experiences because there were fewer microaggressions from peers, teachers, or the curriculum. These Black parents also reported a decrease in bullying from 40% (pre-pandemic) to 6% during distance learning (Speak Up, 2020). However, some students with mental health concerns such as depression and social anxiety where in-person school was a challenge found remote learning to be a reprieve. For these students, returning to school may increase their stress level, and school leaders may observe resistance from students and caregivers about returning to the school building.
Recognizing that learning will be a challenge if teachers are not adequately equipped to identify and support their students' emotional health needs to be a priority for the attuned school leader.
Undoubtedly, the multiple pandemics have taken a toll on teachers too. Teachers reported high levels of stress and burnout brought on by teaching during the pandemic. A 2021 RAND Corporation report highlighted that 1 in 4 teachers were likely to leave their jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year compared to 1 in 6 prior to the pandemic. In a May 2021 EdWeek article, Linda Loewus shared that the main reason teachers stay in their job is for the love of students. However, the reality is that students will present with more challenges than in typical years. How will teachers maintain this love when their students show up with a host of complex needs?
Preparing Teachers for the Year Ahead
More than ever, teachers will look to their school leaders to equip them with the tools to meet the varied student concerns. Some schools will receive all their students back for in-person learning for the first time since March 2020, while other schools have gone through this process for a few months or the entire school year. Regardless of your school’s re-opening experience, we can expect that the emotional health needs of students will be a priority as the shortage of therapists continues to be a struggle for families, especially families of color. As a result, teachers may ask themselves questions like:
How do I help my students navigate these significant life-changing events?
How do I create lesson plans that take into account the stressors students face while maintaining standards of excellence?
How do I show up for my students when my own emotional well-being is precarious?
Giving teachers and school counselors the tools to help them be skillful educators is a priority for school leaders.
Here are seven strategies that school leaders and teachers can engage in preparing for the school year ahead:
Develop a self-care routine or ritual: The reality is that teachers have experienced significant amounts of stress and burnout, which has impacted their own emotional well-being. While summer may have afforded some quality downtime and opportunities for nurturing, your self-care plan cannot end when summer does. Take some time now to design a self-care plan that focuses on reflection, restoration, and stress reduction. Identify your triggers, and list activities you can use to cope. Use mindfulness strategies and add joyful breaks to your daily planner. The bottom line: take care of yourself.
Reconnect with your “Why” for teaching: Reflecting on why you chose to be an educator is a great way to regain and maintain motivation. Vera Ahiyya shares three questions that help her stay connected to her “why”: 1) Why did I get into education? 2) What is it about teaching that I love? and 3) What is it about teaching that keeps me excited?" As a school leader, sharing your vision with your educators and helping them get excited about the school year will be extremely important at the start of the school year and throughout the year.
Build meaningful connections with students (and their parents): In the wake of the overwhelming isolation that many people experienced during COVID-19, focusing on social connection will be an essential teaching skill to engage/re-engage students. Create opportunities for students (and their caregivers) to share how COVID-19 has impacted them. Knowing the stressors that your students have experienced can help you be a more attuned educator. Students want to feel seen and heard. Make a plan to connect with your students and families at the start of the school year.
Create trauma-informed curricula and classroom culture: With the reality that most of your students are experiencing some form of trauma during COVID-19, integrating trauma-sensitive strategies into your classroom practice is essential. Building in rituals and routines at the start, end, and throughout classes provide predictability. Students who have experienced trauma thrive in structured and predictable environments. Starting with mindfulness strategies like breathing techniques, creating calming spaces, collaborating on class norms, adding movement breaks, and building a positive classroom culture is key. For school leaders, ensure that the professional development offerings include trauma-sensitive lesson planning and emotional health topics.
Collaborate with school counselors: School counselors are the emotional health brokers in schools. As a school therapist and school administrator for the past 17 years, I have had the opportunity to lead and guide our emotional health initiatives. My most successful programs were classroom-based interventions I co-created with arts and academic teachers. Not only did we learn from each other, but students truly benefited from our shared expertise. Finding creative and sustainable ways to integrate emotional health tools (e.g., mindfulness) into lesson plans can foster better outcomes for students without overwhelming your counselors, who are often focused on one-on-one and small group interventions.
Lead with Empathy and Compassion: School leaders hold the competing needs of the district, union, staff, students, and families. Centering the needs of any one of these constituents can leave the other groups feeling ignored. Nevertheless, it is vital to your leadership to understand the unique stressors that your staff members experience and how they cope. Naming others’ struggles demonstrates your interest and awareness of other factors impacting them as they perform their duties. Like students, teachers want to be seen and heard. Talking about emotional health, sharing school and community resources, and modeling healthy self-care are important ways to help your team prioritize their emotional health. If you want your teachers to practice strategies in the classroom, make sure to use them when you lead staff and department meetings.
Engage student voices: Of utmost importance is creating spaces for students to share what they need. Often, schools develop initiatives and interventions from the top-down without student input. I have learned that students know what they want and what works for them. Be mindful of going beyond those students who are in the established leadership pipeline. Tap into students who do not typically volunteer and those who have social capital with their peers.
Undoubtedly, the past two school years have brought unprecedented challenges (and opportunities) for school leaders and educators. The emotional health of students and teachers is a priority for schools as they prepare to re-open. Recognizing that learning hinges on the emotional health of students will be an important point to keep in mind. While teachers do not have to be experts in counseling, integrating trauma-sensitive and other emotional health strategies into their curriculum can help all students learn basic tools to manage their emotions. Plus, teachers will also feel more skilled in identifying students who may need more in-depth emotional and mental health support.