Jessica is a middle school social worker working in Brooklyn, New York.
This article is the second of three in our "Get Set, Connect, Engage!" Back to School Series for Teachers. Today we're focusing on how teachers can Connect during this unusual year to provide meaningful and impactful instruction; while ensuring that students' social and emotional needs are met.
In the beginning of the pandemic, educators were tasked with the difficult job of moving teaching to online platforms. Several months later, many educators needed to figure out how to simultaneously instruct some students in person and others online. As we move into the next school year and prepare for almost all in person instruction, we have a new unknown to navigate.
We must grapple with the question of how to provide meaningful and impactful instruction while ensuring our students' social and emotional needs are met in the midst of a pandemic. For some students it may be their first time back into a school building since March 2020. For others it will be their first time with several students sharing the same space. As we enter a new kind of back to school, it will be important that students feel safe, supported and connected.
It Begins With Self-Reflection
Before we start with the work of navigating a new kind of back to school with our students, we as educators need to do some reflective work of our own. When we engage in a reflective practice, it can support us in making more intentional and effective decision-making. First, consider the following questions:
- What were the various feelings that came up for you since March 2020?
- How did you (or how did you not) take care of yourself?
- What did you learn as you supported students academically, socially and emotionally during distance learning?
- What are you feeling anxious about when thinking about the upcoming school year?
I encourage you to sit and engage in this reflective work through journaling, drawing and/or talking with someone. Tapping into this honest and reflective space can aid in best supporting our students for the upcoming school year. Before we can support students to do the work of showing up mentally and emotionally in addition to academically, we need to make sure we are doing the same work.
As we strive to manage our feelings and expectations of the upcoming school year, we need to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for the range of emotions and reactions from students. For the students we worked with in person prior to the pandemic, we should both keep in mind their possible triggers and typical responses as well as be prepared for new triggers and responses that we may not anticipate.
We may have worked with students who loved coming to school before the pandemic but feel hesitant about returning. If you work with late elementary to high school, I recommend starting the school year with journal prompts such as “How are you feeling about being back in the school building?”, “What would you like me to know?”, and “What was your experience like during remote learning?”.
This will help students begin their own reflective work and give you insights into how to begin supporting their transition into the new year.
Make a Space for Mindfulness
If a student is triggered, it can be beneficial to know what they find helpful in regulating their emotional state. We must meet the student with compassion and empathy. Having a peace, calming, or mindfulness corner that has soothing colors, images of nature, and comfortable seating is a great way for students to have a space inside the classroom to process and self regulate. This corner should not be a punitive consequence but a space students go to when they are feeling triggered or overwhelmed.
At first it may come from the teacher’s recommendation but when consistently used in a non-punitive way, students can begin to advocate for themselves and utilize the calming corner on their own. In addition, allowing students to co-create this space by decorating or adding encouraging quotes gives them a sense of ownership and belonging. Start the beginning of the year with a space that has relaxing and self-regulating items and ask students how you can make it more impactful for them.
Create More Social Space
Aside from creating a physical space to decompress, creating more social space for students will be vital this school year. Some students stayed in touch while others may have not had the opportunity to or were not comfortable.
Students have experienced a range of losses from the loss of social functions to the loss of loved ones. It can feel uncomfortable hearing about loss and we must be mindful not to engage in toxic positivity by making comments such as “well just look at the bright side”.
At the start of the school year, it will be helpful to hold welcome back circles and/or activities, such as discussions, classroom decorating time, or games. These activities may be grouped on one a day or you can create several days of social spaces that give time for students to connect, pause, reflect, and prepare for the upcoming school year.
When we give students the space to process socially and emotionally, we show that we value their well-being. If we want to serve the whole child, we must ensure that we spend intentional time listening and forming authentic connections before attempting to tackle academics and potential learning loss.
Offer a Support System Advisory
Another way to support in the formation of authentic connections is through the use of advisory. Advisories may have a number of various names, homeroom, crew, or breakfast club just to name a few, but all serve a similar purpose of creating a support system that aids in students' academic, social and emotional development.
When intentionally created and maintained, this can be a space that allows for student expression, group bonding and a way for students to actively listen and support one another as they transition to a new kind of back to school. For more on making meaningful advisories check out this article.
While we do not know with certainty what the next school year will hold, we can do the work of preparing ourselves through reflective practice, mentally preparing for a range of emotions and responses students may experience and plan ways for even more social connectedness to take place in our school buildings. A new kind of back to school will require more deep breaths, an intentional commitment to trauma-informed practice and critical thinking to best support the various needs of our students.
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