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As Kids Return to School, Five Ways Teachers Can Support Emotional Health

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Whether classrooms are reopening virtually or in person, we’ve never seen a new school year like this one. And never has it been more important for teachers to relieve their students’ stress and bolster mental health.

We know that students learn best when their bodies and brains are in a calm, alert state. That’s difficult to achieve now, with cues of danger all around us: face masks, hand sanitizer, and constant reminders to keep our distance. That all weighs heavily on our nervous systems. Yet teachers can play a key role in countering these cues of threat with cues of safety to make kids feel safe. Five suggestions:

Check in with yourself, and practice self-compassion. These are difficult times. As a teacher, you may feel just as vulnerable as your students do. That’s okay! But it’s important to remember that we subconsciously feed off of each other’s sense of safety through what’s called emotional contagion. In short, the better you feel, the better your students will feel. If children sense that you are centered, they will naturally feel more calm and relaxed.

That doesn’t mean you need to find instant calm. Just being aware of your emotional state is a great start. If you’re struggling, then acknowledge that to yourself, and offer yourself compassion and kindness. The key is awareness, not perfection. The stress you feel is real.  Rather than judge your emotions, be conscious of them. Showing up for yourself in this way is the best way to show up for your students.

Look at your students’ faces. The students whose facial expressions and eyes reveal fear, anger, disgust, or even silly emotions inappropriate to the situation are those struggling the most. Dr.Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist behind the Polyvagal theory explains that our facial expressions reveal how stressed our nervous system are. When you spot a struggling student—in person or online—offer a kind word or look of compassion. Simply letting the child know she isn’t alone can go a long way toward promoting calm.

Recognize the elephant in the room. Covid-19 has changed everyone’s lives. Acknowledge that up front. Try having each student share a favorite memory of summer break, or find other ways bring their families and experiences into the space through pleasant memories. Remembering moments of safety and connection and hearing others recall similar times brings a positive kind of emotional contagion. After the exercise, encourage children to think about fun memories whenever it might help.

Allow plenty of movement opportunities. When human beings, large or small, experience stress we like to move our bodies. Too often schools view students who need to move around negatively. But movement isn’t a bad thing. It’s a self-accommodation that we instinctively use to help maintain attention and regulation. So include opportunities for movement throughout the day, and supercharge them with music, rhythm or dance. Make it fun! Recognize and normalize what each student needs in order to feel calm in his or her body.

Above all, remember that kindness, love and routines go a long way. Humans love predictability. It sends messages of safety to the brain. By providing a predictable and engaging classroom routine while maintaining your own emotional regulation, you’ll help your students transition back to school more easily. Remember: teaching is an embodied experience. Every bit of self-care and self-compassion you give to yourself will be reflected back to you in your students’ brains and bodies.

You matter. You’re being asked to take on a difficult task at a time no one anticipated. Hang in there—and thank you. We are so grateful for you.

I share more about how teachers and parents can support children’s mental health in Beyond Behaviors.

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