Many young people, like adults, are feeling anxious and disoriented about the new coronavirus, Covid-19, and the sudden changes the pandemic has brought to our lives. We adults need to give young people a supportive space for sharing their thoughts and feelings—even if that space is a virtual one.
Below is a set of general guidelines for supporting our students, online or in person, as they grapple with what is happening.
Don't ignore issues.
Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind, whether we talk about it or not. If you, the adult, provide a supportive environment in which to address challenging situations constructively, they can become powerful teachable moments that can strengthen your classroom community, even in a virtual space. If you don't, these very same issues can become distracting in similarly powerful ways. Consider using your homeroom, advisory group or crew to open up conversations about the coronavirus.
Be present and available.
When confusing, upsetting, or frightening things happen, when there is uncertainty, upheaval and stress, students need to know that adults in their lives are present, available, and ready to provide accurate information and support where needed. Being a calming presence in a sea of turmoil can help students calm down, reset, and gather themselves.
Take care of yourself.
This is a time of high stress for us the adults as well as our students. Consider what extra measures you can take to not only remain physically safe, and keep those around you safe, but to get the support and space you need to be available for your students. Consider virtual gatherings with colleagues as well as with students, to share your concerns and feelings during these trying times. Like our students, we need to be heard, acknowledged, and feel a sense of connection and support. See this suggested virtual gathering for you and your colleagues.
Check in with students.
Before turning to academics, check in with students, find out where they’re at. School closings and distance learning, brings change and upheaval to our students’ lives. The fear and uncertainty of the situation is likely to throw students and their families off, creating further unease, stress, and distress. For families who are already struggling to make ends meet or suffer from other kinds of PTSD, this is an additional trigger that they may not have the psychological or emotional bandwidth to absorb. Remember also that some students may have lost the one place in their life that has structure, food, and caring adults welcoming them: school. Finding ways to co-create spaces like that online will be essential in the weeks and months ahead.
Invite students’ feelings and thoughts.
When students are worried or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. Feeling a sense of connection and support is often more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what is happening.
Listen and paraphrase.
Acknowledge students’ feelings and thoughts. It is important, especially in difficult times, for students to know they are being heard. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging students' feelings and thoughts, allows students to process how they’re feeling and possibly move beyond some of their most intense feelings so that they can begin to explore and generate further understanding about the coronavirus and how to respond to it and the new normal this pandemic has created.
Normalize student feelings and thoughts.
Let students know they are not alone in their feelings. Many people feel fearful, confused, and anxious right now. It is not at all unusual to experience strong feelings in situations of uncertainty and crisis. Talking about it will help kids understand that they are not alone.
Provide norms and structures.
At times of uncertainty and anxiety, it is especially important to have structure. This is as true in a virtual space as it is in real life. Create a schedule, stick to it as best you can, and translate classroom norms to a virtual space, as needed. This can provide some comfort and reassurance for kids to hold onto when they feel shaken. If you don’t already have supportive group norms (guidelines for how you and your students will work and treat each other), engage students to develop such guidelines or tweak the ones you already have to be relevant in a online space.* Post new norms, or share them with students via email. Refer to them on a regular basis as you come together online, especially early on. Virtual education and distance learning are new for many of us, although you likely have students in your class who have spent much time in other online communities. Draw on their knowledge and online wisdom to structure how information, questions, thoughts, concerns, and feelings are shared. * Morningside Center staff came together for a check in meeting via zoom and came up with these guidelines, which you might consider as an example.
Be aware that sometimes uncertainty, fear, and anxiety can get misdirected.
Talk with students about misinformation, bias, and prejudice that could result in a backlash against specific groups of people. In the case of the new coronavirus, we’ve mostly seen scapegoating of staff and students of Asian descent. More on that below.
Check in with individual students.
Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others need to be encouraged. So check in with students one on one, beyond advisory, crew and your homeroom gatherings, especially those who you know to be more vulnerable. Think about students who have challenging home lives, who are naturally introverted and may find it hard to share, as well as students who in today’s climate might be scapegoated, ostracized, or otherwise targeted, including online. Coordinate with colleagues, especially if students don’t have a homeroom teacher, crew leader, or advisor. Who checks in with whom? Make sure students don’t fall through the cracks.
Provide information as needed.
Share basic, factual information with students as is appropriate and needed. Be honest about the need for social distancing and online learning. Recognize the implications of the worsening pandemic for the most vulnerable of our students and families around health crises, job loss, and housing challenges.
Make sure, also, that you yourself are ready to address the basics of the virus. Educate yourself with background knowledge, recognizing that the information about the new Coronavirus, known as Covid-19, continues to evolve. Two places to get updated information are:
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
- The World Health Organization (WHO) at https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus.
Also be aware of some of the myths about the coronavirus and how it started that have been spreading, especially on social media.
And if you don’t have answers to student questions readily available, know that that’s okay. Things are moving quickly and admitting that we don’t have all the answers in a situation that continues to evolve, shows that we’re human. It opens space for mistakes and learning collaboratively in new ways. Create a list of questions, as a work in progress, to come back to after having done some research. See also the point below.
Encourage students to generate questions.
Generate lots of questions, open-ended questions, questions from different perspectives. The world is a complex place and the tools we use to engage it should embrace that complexity, rather than ignore it. Try to promote thinking that brings the real world into view, accepting and respecting a multitude of varied thoughts and opinions. This, of course, with the caveat of recognizing that there is a difference between opinion and sound information based on research and expertise. If students express opinions that reflect bias, interrupt them. (See more below.) As author Robert Jones, Jr. reminds us, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Interrupt slurs and other biased behavior each and every time.
Even if we don’t always know exactly what to say, it is important to interrupt slurs and other kinds of prejudiced, biased, and hurtful behaviors. Refer back to the school and classroom guidelines if needed, and speak up. It is important we speak up every time and in the moment. Say something, so that you send a message that this behavior is not acceptable. Think about what you might say ahead of time so that you’re more prepared.
And remember, being patient, present, and listening mindfully to one another enables us to collectively create a caring community that can support all of us in these challenging times, tapping into our collective strength and resilience.