The Kids Are Alright: 10 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Their New Normal

Veteran educator and TeacherVision Advisory Board Member Andrea provides some trauma-informed strategies for teachers (and parents) on the challenges and stress facing students who are learning from home during the "new normal" of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A perspective on helping students through COVID-19 closures

Two weeks ago, “zoom” was something kids just did around the playground and the classroom was one place where students could expect not to be constantly connected. In these topsy-turvy days, our students don’t know what to expect and those of us who are lucky enough to still be teaching are doing so in a brave new world.

A week in, I find myself worried about these students: How can we encourage classroom community? How can we keep our students connected to their learning and to each other? And how can we, as educators, provide the support they need? To answer these questions, Iet's look to some trauma-informed teaching strategies to help our students process their stress.

Focus on Relationships First

Knowing our students allows us to best support them. Try starting meetings with a check-in to acknowledge and name how they are feeling, even if it’s brief, and ending meetings with appreciation - either for someone or something in class, or in their life beyond school. Make time to check in with students as individuals, even if it’s just for two minutes, once a week. Content can wait - and our ability to deliver content (and students’ ability to work with it) is contingent upon these strong relationships.

Acknowledge What’s Hard and What’s Been Lost

Psychologist Lisa D’Amour makes this point in a recent article. Maybe that loss is recess or small talk during a passing period. Maybe it’s a larger rite of passage like prom or graduation. As teachers, we get to help students process these changes in their worlds. As with trauma-informed teaching, consider asking students to tackle these questions together, providing an opportunity for empowerment and problem-solving. What alternate plans could they make for prom at a distance, or graduation? What pointers can they share with one another to help build relationships with siblings? How are they avoiding fights with parents?

Find and Celebrate the Joy

As Dr. Emma Seppla writes, happy kids are more likely to show up for school, learn better and faster, and be healthier. For our students, maybe that joy comes from getting to sleep in later, wearing pajamas to school, or canceled tests. Wherever it comes from, create space for students to share these small moments with your classroom or school community. For inspiration, listen to This American Life’s recent clip, “The Job of Delight.”

Provide a Predictable Routine

We know this from the classroom - routine and clear expectations help all of our students to thrive. Before you jump into your first flipped lesson or ask students to participate in an online discussion, take time to describe how class and work will be structured in this new virtual environment, then show them, labeling each piece. If your school has moved fully to an online learning management system, ask students to do a scavenger hunt on your LMS, then take a “quiz” to make sure that they know where to find everything. Publish deadlines and expectations well in advance. The same holds true if you’re sending home packets of work -- use a consistent format, make sure students know where to find everything, and make sure that they have clear expectations about the work, quality, and deadlines.

Create New Rituals

These last few weeks have certainly mixed up our routines! So now is a time to shake off the dust and consider creating new classroom rituals as a means to build community. You might ask your students to create a meme about their experience these last few weeks. If your class is still meeting more than once a week, consider making one day a week a wacky dress day. Or, task each student with finding a silly joke to share to open class (or weekly work packet). The possibilities are endless - just consider what will help to bring your class together.

Find Ways to Get Your Students Outside (and Moving!)

We’re all in front of our screens even more these days, so finding ways to get our students outside, screen free, and moving is increasingly valuable. Maybe in art class, this means asking students to create a found color-wheel, or creating a piece to install in a natural environment. Maybe it means asking students to go on a solo walk, a la Thoreau, and record their thoughts at the end, or to find a natural structure that represents a mathematical concept or problem. Certainly, safe access to the outdoors these days is a real privilege. If it’s at all possible (and maybe this means asking your students or their parents what is possible), create opportunities for them to get outside.

Knowledge is Power

Provide students with the opportunity to learn about our current moment in history. If it is appropriate to your students’ age group, abilities, and well-being, creating the chance for students to understand what is happening in the world right now can actually provide them with solace.

Foster a Sense of Empowerment

Trauma-informed teaching tells us that when we feel best when we feel in control of ourselves and our environments. In the classroom, this may mean creating opportunities for student choice in the kinds of work we ask of them, the deadlines we structure, or the ways that we assess their learning. Fostering empowerment may even go so far as allowing students to choose the subject or application of their learning through passion projects or project-based learning.

Model Resilience

In ways that are appropriate for your students and context, talk about the challenges you’re facing as school moves online and the ways that you’re coping with them - by reaching out to experts, trying new strategies, and moving past hurdles. Share how you’re practicing mindfulness, breathing techniques, or other self-regulation techniques to help you manage your stresses. And share how you’re excited by the opportunities these challenges present.

Expect the Unexpected

This is certainly easier said than done. But, as with our partners, our own children, and ourselves, we must extend grace to our students. Dealing with the new stresses of home life, distance learning, and social isolation is stressful, beyond the broader stress students are absorbing from the culture at large. So, we have to be prepared to roll with the punches and expect our students to act out in ways that we can’t anticipate.

As far apart as we are from one another these days, our students need us, our classroom routines, and our classroom communities more than ever. And this moment, as challenging as it may be, provides us as educators with an unprecedented opportunity to care for the students who got us into the classroom in the first place. The kids will be alright.

How are you helping students cope? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Andrea Cartwright brings twelve years of high school English teaching experience to her blog and consulting practice, On Education. She is passionate about creating innovative, student-centered curriculum, empowering student voice, and supporting teachers through community and best practice. While she has been a lifelong Californian, Andrea currently lives in Connecticut with her family and is braving her first New England winter.

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