“I’ve got to be on. I’ve got to be extra on,” said one school counselor I know during a recent staff meeting. As educators across the country welcome students back to school this fall, they are feeling the pressure. It’s difficult to imagine how we will navigate so many unknowns across this new school year. No doubt many of us don’t even feel ready to be back, yet here we are.
With this lack of control comes the need for flexibility and the opportunity to do school differently than we have before. A growing commitment to social and emotional learning (SEL) took hold before the pandemic, but the sociopolitical upheaval and global public health crises have made the focus on students’ well-being and mental health even more urgent.
This year, Greater Good Science Center’s education team partnered with California County Offices of Education to support statewide SEL communities of practice through an emergency grant funded by FEMA. Throughout the pandemic, we have networked, shared online SEL resources, and spotlighted districts’ offerings around staff and student mental health. Here are some of the things we have learned from this work with our educator-colleagues—along with some easy-to-implement, research-based practices and activities you can use to foster a stronger sense of collective well-being in your classroom or school.
Focus on staff well-being
As we begin this academic year, let’s start by supporting each other. At a recent virtual summit called “A Resilient Reopening,” Kamilah Drummond-Forrester stated: “We cannot expect to impact our students’ social and emotional well-being if we are not willing to engage in our own social and emotional well-being.” If we want our educators to be well, we need to take time for meaningful connection in our staff meetings, provide the resources that our staff or colleagues might need, and establish clear social support systems. In other words, we need to have each other’s backs.
To take care of our own well-being, school psychologist Heather Peck reminds us that we need to “allow time to process and validate experiences.” Naming our fears together, about our health or our students’ struggles, for example, can lessen the emotional impact of the pandemic. This isn’t business as usual, so it’s also worth slowing down and adding reflective pauses and questions during staff meetings to increase self-awareness and build trust. You can try CASEL’s Three Signature Practices for Social and Emotional Learning, as many California schools are doing, or make time for a group mindfulness practice, expressing gratitude, or building trust among your staff.
Some districts are also boldly prioritizing staff wellness by offering yoga and mindfulness courses, grief and loss groups, and nutrition consultations with local dietitians. To kick off their staff wellness campaign, the Madera School District used grant funds from the SH Cowell Foundation to gift their entire staff with 2,400 “We believe in staff wellness” water bottles along with self-care planners for the academic year.”
Beyond courses and other practical resources, school staff are more actively sharing and modeling stress management tools and strategies in emails, webinars, and face-to-face retreats. We tend to mentally navigate our anxieties in isolation, so it can be helpful to share how we manage difficult emotions. Can you identify situations that commonly trigger your distress, how you cope with that distress, and what you might need from others when you are upset? For example, you may feel most vulnerable when you experience a loss of control or feel criticized, shamed, or embarrassed. If so, your go-to strategies might include taking a deep breath, counting down from 10, or going for a quick drink of water. However, your colleagues might benefit from knowing that you prefer time alone rather than questions or affirmations when you’re upset.
And it’s important to establish a social support system: In those moments when we feel overwhelmed, strategies like Tap-In/Tap-Out allow teachers to text an available colleague to cover their class while they take a moment to refresh and recharge.
Prioritize students’ mental health and SEL
With this ongoing focus on staff well-being, we can turn to our students’ social and emotional wellness. COVID-19, school closures, and remote learning have exacerbated some of the societal vulnerabilities students and families were already experiencing—like poverty, displacement, and racism. Researchers report significant increases in people’s anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and a new study indicates that high school students who learned remotely (regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, or socioeconomic status) demonstrated lower levels of social, emotional, and academic well-being when compared with students learning at school.
Mental health will be front and center in the coming year. Now is the time to draw on trauma-sensitive practices and evidence-based tools for managing stress and anxiety, including a variety of mindful awareness and compassion-based practices. For example, Riverside County educators are creating “calming corners” and “meditation gardens” so that students have a safe and supportive space to go when they need to de-escalate or self-soothe. The Excelsior Corona campus designed two quiet garden spaces featuring water, murals, music, sand, and garden tools for sensory appeal—along with motivational quotes to inspire well-being and academic success. And Moorpark Unified School District recently developed a “Wellness Center” website for students, families, and school staff that they have shared widely across the state. The site serves as “a safe space to access support, take a break, rest and refocus,” and it highlights health and wellness tools, suicide prevention information, and calming activities.
There are also ways to stay in touch with students and to identify their “in-the-moment’ needs. In partnership with schools and districts across the state, an organization called Kelvin provides simple, customized tools to facilitate regular check-ins with students, families, and staff in real time. With a simple extension on your school’s computer browser, Kelvin regularly sends check-ins to students when they are online, alerting them through their icon—a dog named Benson. Schools can prompt students to “Name one thing you wish your teacher knew” or ask, “Would you like to talk with an adult?” Based on students’ responses, Kelvin generates and immediately routes relevant online resources to students.
And although classroom teachers cannot play the role of therapist or counselor, they can infuse their curricula with lessons and activities that promote students’ social and emotional learning. Educators can counteract the dulling “Zoombie” effect of screen-based teaching by focusing on service and project-based learning to promote student agency. Get your students active and outdoors—and have them reconnect with each other and their communities.
Teachers can also focus on providing students with opportunities to explore their strengths and their sense of purpose in the world. At Long Beach Polytechnic High School’s CARE Center, counselor Michael Gray shares a “life skills” video series with students. To accompany his series, a science teacher at his school designed a graphically appealing “Bellringer Journal” that includes self-assessment tools, reflection questions, and infographics focused on each weekly theme. For example, one week students might learn why it’s important to “Know Your Why” and then journal about one to three goals they want to achieve in their lives. Together, the video series and daily journal activities set students up for ongoing self-reflection and identity exploration.
Foster a sense of belonging at school
However, the biggest challenge we face may be how to nurture collective well-being in schools. Parents, students, educators, and school administrators have experienced an unprecedented sense of isolation over two academic years. And “cave syndrome,” anxiety or fear about returning to everyday life, may play a role in perpetuating students’ arrested development. As a mom of a teenager, I have deep concerns about how my daughter will emerge from a life lived in her bedroom to embrace her senior year. How will she navigate the anxiety she feels as she re-integrates into a semi-normal life at school?
Our children and teens desperately need to be with each other again. We adults need each other, too, and we will all benefit from a growing sense of community in our classrooms and school buildings. Research tells us that when teachers strongly identify with their school and feel a sense of teamwork, their workload tends to feel lighter, which lessens their stress. And when students feel a sense of belonging at school, they tend to experience greater academic success and better health as they grow into adulthood.
So, consider implementing some of the following group practices at your school:
- Family Business: This practice helps you create a safe space for regular discussions. You can begin by prompting your students to define “family” and discuss what family means to them. Then, remind them that families don’t necessarily see things the same way, but they still work together to respect and support each other despite their differences. Ultimately, you can use this frame to reinforce the value of everyone’s perspective within your classroom community. Researcher Chezare Warren suggests setting aside time for this practice every day.
- Check-In Circle for Community Building, from Circle Forward: Start this student- or staff-friendly practice with a moment of mindfulness and then have each member share how they are doing. Use a talking piece like a soft toy or ball or any object your students value to cue respectful turn-taking. Then, the process concludes with a shared, brief reflection on the group experience.
- “I See You. Everyone Matters: Members of your group can stand together in circles (or face each other in Zoom’s gallery view) and acknowledge each person in the group with a respectful gaze, a soft smile, or a nod of the head—whatever feels comfortable. The point is to recognize and appreciate everyone. After reserving a quiet moment to mindfully take in all the faces of your group members, you repeat these words together: “I/We see you. Everyone matters.” Every human being has the need to feel seen and heard, and sometimes simply acknowledging each other’s physical presence can meet this need. Originally created by Rhonda Magee, author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice, this practice can be used to begin or end a class or staff meeting, and it only takes a couple of minutes.
We face many unknowns this fall, and reconnecting will take some effort. GGSC science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas reminds us, “Being physically near each other and not experiencing harmful or threatening consequences is the way that our nervous systems need to relearn the foundational trust, and the affiliative and cooperative potential that is so fundamental” to being human. We belong together, and we will find our way forward in community.