As 2020 draws to a close, our students are being buffeted by, among other things, the pandemic, the contentious presidential election, and the ongoing racial reckoning we are experiencing.
Much of the conversation about this period has centered on the adverse impact on adults. Nearly 70 percent of adults have indicated that the presidential election is a significant source of stress and anger for them.
According to child psychologist Nicole Beurkens, children are also absorbing what's happening in the world around them. But they have less life experience and knowledge to draw from to help them interpret what they are seeing or hearing. They are aware that something is wrong, and that adults around them are experiencing strong emotions, but don’t have much past experience to provide perspective or context.
During this historical moment, children are reminded every day of the uncertainty of the world around them, from the pandemic to the election. If they don’t develop healthy responses and coping mechanisms, the anxiety they are experiencing today can have long-term adverse effects.
Strategies for Supporting our Young Ones in Hard Times
Below are some suggestions for how we as educators can support our elementary school students during these uncertain times.
Note: It is critical that we have differentiated approaches and developmentally appropriate responses for these young students. For PreK-2, provide students with a brief and simple summary of information with appropriate reassurance. Students grade 3-5, who often have questions and are more vocal, can use our support in separating what is reality from what isn’t reality. We have a limited capacity to shelter these students from the sometimes upsetting reality of this historical moment.
Set the tone. Set a supportive tone in your classroom by discussing and deciding on community agreements for the class to ensure that everyone feels safe and belongs.
Self-care. Being intentional around your own self-care practices can help ease the minds of your students. It will allow you to model these practices for your students while helping you to stay steady and calm.
Help students manage uncertainty. This is the most unsettling time in recent history. As educators, we can guide students in learning self-care practices that can help them manage the multiple sources of uncertainty.
Recognize that each student is an individual and has different social and emotional needs. Create opportunities for learning more about students' particular strengths and needs, and then work to address them.
Encourage curiosity and invite sharing. Build time into the schedule to ask what questions your students have and allow them to talk through their feelings. Have an open discussion about things that your students have heard and seen. Listen to them and answer questions that they have. The intention is to ensure that students feel seen and heard. When students verbalize what they are feeling, it promotes cognitive integration, connecting the emotions and logic together, which creates more balance and can have a calming effect.
Reinforce and reassure. Reassure students that no matter what they hear or see, they are safe in school and that they are around people who care about them. Students need to know that school and the relationships that they have with others is a source of security and safety. Rather than reassuring students that everything will be all right, reinforce for students that we will work together to handle whatever may happen. Try to focus on the positive, while being honest. Often educators who want to ease students’ concerns tell students, “everything is going to okay” – which isn’t necessarily true and can consequently break students' trust in us.
Create consistent routines for students, especially now, when their routines have been profoundly disrupted by the pandemic. This gives students a sense of control, predictability, and calm, which can help them to feel safe during these uncertain times.
Share information at a level that is appropriate for your students. But remember that they don’t need unnecessary facts. Be honest and accurate, because students often imagine situations that are worse than reality, and age-appropriate facts can reduce fear. It is inevitable and normal that our students will feel a spectrum of emotions and it is our responsibility as educators to listen to them, affirm their emotions, and support them in developing strategies to cope with those emotions—especially in times like these.
Spread love. This has been a year of tremendous adversity, and our students have been profoundly impacted. It’s our responsibility to help students navigate this moment. Have a pedagogy that is rooted in love. Show your genuine and heartfelt concern for your students by supporting their social and emotional development during these uncertain times Practice active listening with them, give them your undivided attention, show your appreciation for them, laugh with them, but also have defined boundaries.
SEL & Self-Care Practices
Here are some social and emotional learning strategies and self-care practices that may be helpful for your students these during uncertain times.
Listening circle or listening space. A listening circle (or a listening space, if your class is remote) is an opportunity for students to say what they are thinking and feeling. It allows time for each student to speak and to listen without being interrupted. It is not a time for discussion or dialogue, or for responding to what other people say. Rather, each student is invited to speak in response to a question or prompt. When a person is speaking, the others in the group should listen only and not interrupt. The intention is not to listen to reply, but to listen to understand, which is a rarity during contentious times like these. Tell students that each person will have a minute to share their thoughts and feelings – or to pass. When one person is speaking, the others in the group should pay close attention but not comment. The listening circle or space is over after every person has had at least one chance to speak. If you are facilitating this activity online, you might want to post the order of who will go first, second, and so on in the chat box.
Listen to calming music. To soothe students, and to encourage their own self-care, play calming music throughout the day. This can be an effective tool for reducing stress and has other positive visceral effects. Some music can be used as a form of meditation and can inspire the mind to slow down. Alternatively, play some upbeat or positive music that can improve students' mood. Be ready with a collection of songs that might be relevant for your students.
Mindfulness release. Facilitate a guided meditation with your students to help them stay present with challenging feelings without analyzing or suppressing them. Meditation is an effective tool for reducing stress and anxiety. For a guided meditation that focuses on the body: Have students sit down in a comfortable chair. Ask them to close their eyes if they feel comfortable doing that. Then ask them to release the tension in their shoulders and unclench their jaw. Have them scan their body and notice where they feel tension. Ask them to release the tension on each exhale.
Release journaling. To let go of all of things that are going on in students' minds (around Covid, the election, or anything else), ask students to journal about whatever they've been thinking about. Be sure to mention that this journal is for them only. The contents won’t be shared.
Creative expression. Use art as a form of creative expression to help students release complicated emotions around what is happening in the world. Ask students to draw a picture of how they are feeling. This can be an alternative way for students to express their emotions, especially if they are introverted or appreciate artistic expression.
Dance and creative movement. Guiding students in moving their bodies in creative ways can release tension, improve sensory awareness, and increase mental focus.
- Read calming books aloud
- Talk about managing emotions
- Teach positive self-talk
- Teach active listening skills
- Brainstorm cooling down strategies
- Practice understanding different opinions
- Have regular class meetings
Related lessons and guidelines on TeachableMoment:
- Self-Care: Self-Talk for Elementary School: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/self-care-self-talk-elementary-school
- Teaching Self-Care for Grades K-2: Music https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/teaching-self-care-grades-k-2-music
- Teaching Self-Care for Grades 3-5: Music: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/teaching-self-care-grades-3-5-music
- Student Voices on Covid and Black Lives Matter: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/student-voices-covid-and-black-lives-matter
- Fun Activities for Remote Learning: Pre-K-5: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/fun-activities-remote-learning-pre-k-5
- Self-care for Educators & Caregivers During a Pandemic: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/self-care-educators-caregivers-during-pandemic
- Addressing Change & Loss for Grades PreK-2: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/addressing-change-loss-grades-prek-2
- Addressing Change & Loss for Grades 3-5: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/addressing-change-loss-grades-3-5
- Covid Crisis: A Lesson on Feelings for K-2: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/covid-crisis-lesson-feelings-k-2
- Covid Crisis: A Lesson on Feelings for Grades 3-5: https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/covid-crisis-lesson-feelings-grades-3-5
Edutopia’s Resources for Resilience has multiple videos, including tools for de-escalation. https://resourcesforresilience.com
Talking to Children about Elections: https://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/talking-to-children-about-elections
Contentious Politics Through the Eyes of a Child: https://www.drbeurkens.com/anxiety-in-children-during-election-week-and-tips-for-parents/
From the National Association of School Psychologists: Helping Children Cope with Changing Results from Covid-19: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/helping-children-cope-with-changes-resulting-from-covid-19