Help Students Returning to the Classroom Navigate their Emotions
Ms. Conner guarded the door, which was ajar, so seven-year-old Mark would feel safe changing his rain-soaked clothes. As Ms. Conner discretely ensured Mark’s privacy, she pondered his destructive tendencies and realized that they were his way of expressing and releasing emotional turmoil. Now his stress and grief were manifesting as a fear of being alone, even for a few minutes. Admitting this vulnerability and asking for help was out of character for Mark. Despite his usual bravado, this little boy needed emotional support as much, if not more, than other students did. Mark is hardly alone in having a big emotion overwhelm his ability to regulate behavior.
No child escaped repercussions from the pandemic. Some students suffered catastrophic losses. Many students dramatically changed their lifestyle. Every student had to adapt to differences in the community and at school. New thoughts and conversations about safety permeate every aspect of daily life.
Students returning to the classroom after remote learning or a holiday break will have varying responses. Returning to school can be an emotional experience, even in regular times. In addition to all the typical emotions, students returning in 2021 may also be suffering grief, depression, fear, disappointment, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, and more.
No one expects you to act as a counselor. However, your daily interactions provide an opportunity to help students develop socio-emotional skills. The blog Supporting Students Experiencing Trauma During the Covid-19 Pandemic discusses the importance of classroom routines and ensuring students feel a sense of control in their lives.
Teaching Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
As discussed in Three Steps to Emotionally Support Students to Promote Academic Success, feeling emotionally safe in the classroom improves learning. As the teacher, you set the tone. However, students affect the emotional climate as well.
A student who has not experienced stress from the pandemic at home may start feeling it in the classroom. Students likely echo their family’s response to the pandemic, which may be quite varied among different students.
This convergence of perspectives and feelings offers an opening to explore empathy and emotional intelligence. Without such instruction, many students will be oblivious to the feelings of their classmates.
Consider the differences between Marie and Mason. Marie had regular social interactions outside of school during the pandemic, including attending group events. Mason stayed home except for a few brief outings in which he always wore a mask and stayed six feet apart from others. At recess, Marie repeatedly invites Mason to play, and Mason continually declines. Marie may inadvertently be pressuring her friend to engage in a way that makes him uncomfortable, and Mason may be unwittingly hurting Marie’s feelings by rejecting her invitations.
Open conversations about what feels safe to each student help mitigate these types of situations. Reading and discussing literature is another great way to explore different emotional responses. Teaching children to respect the feelings and differences of other perspectives not only improves class culture. Harvard Business School considers Emotional Intelligence essential to a person’s professional success.
Happy, Sad, Excited, and Nervous – All at Once
Human emotions are rarely orderly and logical. Students often experience cognitive dissonance because they have conflicting feelings about the same situation. Let students know that an onslaught of coexisting mixed emotions is normal. Mason’s anxiety about the virus does not negate his excitement to see his friends.
Helping students identify each feeling and its source helps them make sense of how they feel. According to the experts in emotional intelligence at 6seconds.org, naming and admitting fear and anxiety helps people face them. Emotional check-ins also give students practice identifying their emotions and aid in forming a trusting relationship.
Like learning any skill, learning to identify and cope with tricky emotions requires seeing someone doing it. Some of your students may lack a model of emotional health in their home environment. You could act as the model or invite a guest speaker to address the class. Talking about a time you experienced conflicting emotions normalizes how they feel. The Disney movie Inside Out does a great job showing the purpose of negative emotions and could be used as a light-hearted entry point to the discussion.
Of course, keep your discussions and resources appropriate for the students’ developmental level and the classroom. As you teach students to identify authentic emotions, including healthy coping strategies will help your students through tough times. These conversations invite your students to increase their awareness and manage their feelings.
Providing Comfort and Calm
Even in the calmest, most nurturing classroom environment, students may have emotional breakdowns. Emotional breakdowns look different in different individuals because emotional expression varies by culture, gender identity, developmental level, personality, and temperament. Whereas Mark often destroyed property, Marie would cry, and Jordan would withdraw. If possible, try these strategies to help the student in crisis.
Help calm students so they can think clearly. Human touch is healing, and your first instinct may be to hug the child. Now, a simple embrace may not be allowed or safe. Dr. Robert D Keder suggests students hug themselves. The pressure and skin-to-skin contact of a self-hug mimics the feeling of a real hug. The self-hug will release oxytocin to aid in calming the child. He also provides some mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing.
Once the student relaxes enough to think and talk, ask them what caused the intense emotions. As you listen, help the child find places they can take control of the situation. Unfortunately, there are circumstances where the only thing they have the power to control is their thoughts. Luckily, improving the positivity of one’s thoughts cultivates positive emotional responses.
In the revolutionary work, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” it says,
Whether they’re aware of it or not, all people keep a running account of what’s happening to them, what it means, and what they should do. In other words, our minds are constantly monitoring and interpreting. That’s just how we stay on track. But sometimes the interpretation process goes awry. Some people put more extreme interpretations on things that happen-and then react with exaggerated feelings of anxiety, digression, or anger. Or superiority. (p. 215) Carol S. Dweck
For example, a child who incorrectly answers a question could think, “I am dumb.” or “I need to study this more.” The first thought demonstrates a fixed mindset, whereas the second thought shows a growth mindset. The growth mindset fosters an improved emotional response because it puts the thinker in control of the situation. Dr. Dweck emphasizes the critical role teachers play in helping students develop a growth mindset. There are plenty of growth mindset resources available for the teachers.
Sometimes an event becomes catastrophized in the child’s mind. For example, a child may touch another child who is fearful of germs. While the event may seem small to an onlooker, the scared student may jump to the conclusion that they now have a fatal infection. The thought induces a panic attack.
Acknowledge the student’s authentic emotion. The way a student perceives the situation may, or may not, have its basis from accurate information. Either way, the feelings triggered are genuine. After verbally acknowledging their feelings, you may help the child reframe their negative thoughts and perceptions.
A much as you care for your students, you do not have to shoulder all of their emotional needs yourself. Send families these parent resources from National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Ask a mental health professional to teach some lessons on coping strategies. Refer children who need it to the next level of support.
Being back in the classroom may present some emotional challenges for you too. Remember to take time to address your own emotional health needs. In the next blog, we will discuss how administrators can support the emotional needs of teachers and each other. At Harris Education Solutions, our mission is to help schools improve and succeed, thereby helping students succeed.