We know that being there for students is important, but it’s not always obvious how to support them — especially when we’re seeing them through a screen some or all of the time.
At the same time, the emotional and social challenges of the pandemic have made it even more crucial for teachers to attend to students’ mental health needs. Here are some tips for doing that, both remotely and in person.
Emphasize social emotional learning
By building social emotional learning into the daily routines of your classroom, you’ll provide students with a reliable way to deal with whatever feelings they’re experiencing. Even small exercises can go a long way toward helping kids feel safe and validated.
For example, at the start of each day (after the physical temperature check, if you’re teaching in person!) you might have your students take their “feelings temperature” by labeling their emotions using a feelings word chart. Then, they can rate the intensity of the emotion on a scale from one to ten and notice where in their body they’re experiencing the feeling. Is their heart beating faster than usual? Do they feel tension in any part of their body? Do they have a stomachache? Students can track these “feeling check-ins” in a journal and share with the class if they comfortable doing so, for example during morning meeting. Practicing identifying their feelings and body responses will help kids learn how to cope with their feelings.
You can also normalize and validate feelings by taking bits of time throughout the day for direct social emotional education. For example, you can lead read-alouds about feelings or mindfulness, or facilitate journaling, role-playing, media discussions, or even just quick group check-ins about feelings. The idea is to let students know it’s okay to feel exactly what they’re feeling in the moment and give them tools for days when they might be experiencing uncomfortable feelings. Specific tools students can practice using might include a mindfulness corner, a hanging visual about belly breathing or a list of self-calming strategies taped to their desk.
Strengthen student relationships
Isolation can cause feelings of depression and anxiety. This has become especially apparent in recent months. While social distancing makes building interpersonal bonds harder, helping students form strong relationships at school has never been more important.
The social learning that occurs between peers at school can be just as important as academics. When you can, prioritize opportunities for your students to get to know each other and bond. With online learning, this might look like playing class games through video chat or assigning group work that students complete together. Group discussions are also a great way for students to practice interacting and build relationships.
Having a close relationship with the teacher can also be a strong protective factor against the development of mental health issues. It’s important for students to feel they can go to their teacher if they’re having a hard time. Discussing emotions in class can help with this, and you can also emphasize to students that you’re available to talk one-on-one if anything gets tough. If you notice a student seeming down or having trouble engaging, consider checking in on them — even a simple “How’s class been going for you?” can go a long way.
Incorporate mindfulness and relaxation
Put simply, mindfulness means paying attention to the moment on purpose and without judgment. There are many creative ways to incorporate mindfulness into your classrooms, including these simple exercises:
- Two-minute meditation: Try starting the day (or taking scheduled breaks) with two minutes where you encourage your students to focus only on their deep, slow breathing.
- Noticing details: Kids can practice mindfulness during activities like coloring, dancing, listening to music or even eating. Help them notice small details about their surroundings and what they’re doing. What do they hear, smell, see, feel, taste?
- Relaxation skill of the week: Teaching relaxation strategies when kids are calm gives them tools to use when their feelings do get intense. Build their toolkits by introducing a new relaxation skill every week and practicing it daily as a class. Some simple skills to focus on include paced belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery. Remember, you are your students’ model, so take time to verbalize moments when you are beginning to feel stressed or overwhelmed and narrate as you use one of the relaxation strategies to calm yourself.
Keep kids in the loop
Kids can usually tell when adults are hiding things from them. That can make an already anxiety-provoking situation feel even worse to kids, since they often assume that things are worse than they actually are. That’s why it’s important to help your students understand what’s happening — without overwhelming them with information.
When students do come to you with questions and concerns, it’s important to validate their feelings: “I get that the uncertainty about our school schedule is making you anxious.” Then, provide answers to their questions as much as you can: “You’re right that there’s a chance we might have to switch back to remote learning, but right now we’re still coming in person. I promise to let you and your family know as soon as we have any indication that might change.”
For younger kids, visuals and stories can help you provide information in a way that they’ll understand. For example, you might create a document with pictures highlighting the rules in your classroom around masks, hand-washing and social distancing so that students have a clear sense of what’s expected.
Prioritize hands-on activities
Even with school underway, many kids have a lot of free time right now and they’re still limited in the kinds of activities they can do. This often leads to kids spending a lot of unstructured time in front of screens, which can have harmful repercussions for their mental health.
Teachers can help with this by structuring as many active, hands-on activities into the day as possible. Even if you’re engaging with students online, you can work as a class to come up with a list of fun non-screen activities (taking a walk, playing board games, drawing) and have students complete one activity from the list as part of their daily school assignments. You can also encourage kids to schedule their favorite activities into their daily routines and share with the class about what they’ve been up to.
Amid so much stress and uncertainty, you may not be able to promise your students that everything will be okay. But by actively supporting their mental health in the classroom, you’ll help them feel safe, valued and cared for during a truly challenging time.