Right now the present and the future are both scary. They’re scary for parents and teachers, for the scientists, healthcare workers and volunteers, for the government officials and the people in charge. By now the phrase “we’re building the plane as we’re flying it” has become a pretty common one. So if the future is scary and uncertain for adults, it is likely to filter down to children. For children who are very young and may not fully comprehend what’s going on, they can still detect the uneasiness of their parents. For older children and teenagers, the realities and uncertainties of the future into which they’ll become adults could seem like a dark cloud of doom overhead. COVID-19 isn’t just affecting one place on the planet, it’s all over the globe, even in rural communities seemingly isolated from the cities that are hit the hardest. It’s a global pandemic, a global crisis. As a teacher, what can you do to help?
Create Certainties and Assurances
For one thing, remind kids of what they can be certain of — that no matter what, they have adults in their life who care about them and who they can count on. No matter what happens, around them or to them, they have people who will care and do their best to help them. Reassuring kids of that certainty, through both words and actions, will help them cope with their current fears and give them security as they look ahead. We all must look ahead.
While things are certainly scary, and many people are dealing with stress and fear about the illness of loved ones, it helps to look for the good where it can be found. With many parents and students home, together, this could actually be an opportunity for families and even school communities to bond. Closer relationships will be developed, and kids might come out of this with greater Emotional Intelligence.
Another way to create certainty is consistency and routines. It might be unreasonable to expect students to sit and complete classes virtually while sticking to the same schedule they would have in school, but having some degree of routine will help kids feel secure. Maybe it’s a check-in with a teacher, an ongoing virtual book discussion, a regular walk outside – something that can be counted on daily, or maybe weekly. Their whole world (and yours) has been turned upside-down. A sudden loss of routine may be fun at first, like a surprise vacation. But as the weeks go on and reality sets in, anxiety may be at an all-time high. Creating a predictable routine for your students will lessen their anxiety and keep them grounded.
Talk and Listen
It’s also important to talk about what’s going on. Your students may have picked up more information than you realize from other people or what they hear on the news. Try to ask them what they think is going on, and how they feel about it. And don’t feel afraid to share what you’re feeling about the situation. Students may be accustomed to looking at their teacher as someone who knows the answers, but right now no one truthfully knows how things will unfold. It’s ok for your students to know that you’re a little scared too — but that you will be right there beside them to comfort them and help them through it as well.
If possible, make it part of the conversation with students when you video chat or call them. Get to know what’s on their mind, really pay attention to both what they are saying, and also what they may not be verbalizing. While it might be easier to avoid the subject, not talking about it can actually increase anxiety, uncertainty, and misinterpretation. Having a frank discussion of the facts in a calm manner can help dispel undue fear, while maintaining the seriousness of the situation.
And if you’re an educator on social media, you’ve likely seen all the video messages from teachers to their students reassuring them that they love them, miss them, and that they will get through this together. It’s not just hype – don’t underestimate the power of those words. Those conversations will provide stability and a way to talk out the challenges they are facing, and concerns about things they’re hearing or seeing in the news.
Keep Calm and Try to Be Positive
We are all being bombarded with news and media about the coronavirus. Of course, you want to know what’s going on. But constantly tuning in can amp up your anxiety. Students are affected by this too, perhaps especially through what they see on social media, or the TVs in their own homes. As discussed previously, it will probably help your students to have frank discussions about what’s going on, but constantly focusing on the virus, how scary and uncertain things are, added to everything they’re already seeing on the news, will only increase fear, anxiety, even hopelessness.
So maybe take the advice from Mr. Rogers, or rather his mother, and ‘Look for the helpers.’ There are plenty of people helping and working through this crisis to keep us all safe. Your students and your children can be reassured that there are people doing this. In fact, that’s one reason why they’re not in school, it’s to help keep everyone safe.
Maintaining calm as an adult will help too — not that you have to pretend none of this bothers you. But explaining your feelings calmly, and refraining from panic will help students to do the same. And as mentioned before, this can actually be a time for families, as well as students, teachers, and school staff, to improve their relationships and learn how to support each other. Looking for positive things throughout the day and sharing those will help cut through all the bad news. Laugh with them. Keep it light where possible.
Remember the Students Who Need You Most
One of the groups most affected by this crisis are students who struggle with their mental health, have experienced trauma, and those who are in an unstable home environment. If you are a teacher with a student facing any or all of these challenges, you are probably extremely anxious for their welfare. You can be a lifeline for those students right now. Checking in to see how they’re doing, or what they might need is simpler than ever. Sending a quick email, hopping on a video chat or phone call just to check in can go a long way.
But this is especially a challenge for students that don’t have access to the internet, and some of those students may be the ones who are at the highest risk. However, there are tools available to keep them connected, like Google Voice, Remind, or just a plain old phone call. If your school hasn’t already looked into it, there are also resources like Everyone On available to provide internet access to those who need it. Everyone On works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and helps provide low-income families with access to the internet, as well as computers. They have a toolkit for school districts to provide low-cost internet access, which you can learn more about here.
Whether you’re a parent, an educator — or both — a little compassion will go a long way for students, and for yourself right now. Supporting them now will help them stay grounded and cope with the stresses a global crisis like this brings. It will also help them build resilience as they look back on this crisis in the future. As stated, none of us knows exactly what that future will look like, but we know things aren’t going to go back to being just how they were before. There will be new challenges to face that we may not be expecting.
Modeling calm, maintaining a positive outlook, and creating certainties will help you best prepare students for these challenges. And above all else, they’ll remember that you cared.
Lastly, don’t forget to take time for yourself as an educator. Stay healthy, both emotionally and physically. If you burn out, you cannot assist anyone. Think: what brings you comfort and reassurance? Take a walk, enjoy some poetry, listen to music, whatever it is that helps you decompress. Even 30 minutes of a distraction exercise may fill your emotional tank, helping you, and those you assist.
If you stay positive and energized, this will come across as you meet with your students. Not easy, but worth the effort!