By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
Schools have been closed across the country for weeks now. Some school systems have opted for online/distance learning, while others have provided optional ungraded course material.
Students have had a range of reactions to the shutdown. Anxious kids may be worried about themselves or their families, but may be relieved if going to school was a source of anxiety for them. Other kids may become depressed, missing their classmates, teachers, and even some of their classes. Students who were looking forward to end-of-year events, including sports, plays, concerts, dances, and graduation, are likely deeply disappointed.
Chances are that students have heard news reports of people getting sick and dying from coronavirus. Many parents have been furloughed, laid off, or let go, resulting in a drop in income that can be catastrophic for families. Kids may worry about their elderly relatives, their parents who still have to leave for work or groceries, and their own safety.
It’s probable that some of your students are struggling to make sense of all this. Fortunately, you may be in a good position to offer guidance.
Challenges of Teaching During the Pandemic
It is scary and depressing to watch the constant barrage of news, little of which seems positive. No one knows for sure when things will return to normal or even if that will occur. Most people, including students, have a harder time focusing and maintaining motivation when they are under stress.
In addition, it is more difficult to hold kids’ attention during online classes. Platforms such as Zoom and Google Classrooms can be helpful for those kids who enjoy interacting, though it is not the same as in-person learning. They may joke around with each other rather than focusing on instruction. Students with disabilities are at a special disadvantage, since they often learn best with one-on-one aides to assist them.
Mental health issues such as ADHD can make it harder to engage in online learning for long periods of time. Anxiety can make it harder for kids to ask questions or admit when they don’t understand what is being taught. Depression makes it harder for kids to be motivated to do their best. What may seem like oppositional behavior in kids may actually be their way of communicating anxiety or depression.
Teachers are also under their share of stress. Lesson plans that were created for in-classroom use with students suddenly have to be revamped. Not all teachers are familiar with online instruction, and many are having to learn new technology in a short amount of time. Educators also need to take into account protecting students’ privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The US Department of Education has recently released information via webinar on how FERPA applies to online learning.
How Teachers Can Help
It is harder for teachers to notice signs of mental health issues in their students when they are communicating electronically via video classes. However, by watching students closely and creating an atmosphere that encourages them to be open about struggles, teachers perform a valuable service to their students.
Ask How They’re Doing
Checking in with students prior to the start of instruction is an excellent way to start. Examples of open-ended questions teachers can ask include:
- How are you feeling about having school be cancelled for the rest of the year?
- What are some good things about being home instead of at school?
- What do you think of doing school online? How does that compare with being in school?
- What things are you doing to reduce your stress?
Inviting students to reach out to you privately if they are having issues can be very helpful. Let your class know that you are available to listen and offer help if they need it. Watch for students who seem overly distant or are not participating, especially if this is a change from previous behavior.
Give Thoughtful Feedback
Be careful when giving negative feedback. Shaming a student for not listening or performing only makes it worse and can even be a trigger for suicidal thoughts or actions. If a student isn’t performing, ask what is making it harder for them to focus on their work.
Some teachers find that teaching basic mindfulness techniques can help students lower their stress. Mindfulness can help students focus on the present moment rather than worrying about the future or fretting over the past. Spending even one minute doing deep breathing or visualizing a happy place before starting a lesson or at the end of one can help students relax. Encouraging them to practice on their own helps them build up their resilience to stress.
An article by Patricia Jennings, author of Mindfulness for Teachers, explains how teachers can use mindfulness.
Reach Out to Parents
You may also be able to help parents who are struggling to balance time with their children with time on the job, if they still have one. Those parents fortunate enough to be able to work from home are likely not used to doing so while managing their kids’ demands for attention.
Teachers may be able to help students indirectly by reaching out to parents and offering them support and advice on how to structure their children’s days to include time for learning. Parents may also need to be more flexible in terms of tech time. There are only so many homework assignments to complete, chores to do, and walks or bike rides to take before kids get bored. For better or worse, tech time can be a helpful way for kids to deal with their underlying anxiety. It serves as a distraction and may make it easier for parents to get their work done as well.
The US Department of Education has provided resources for school personnel on dealing with the pandemic. The site MentalHealth.gov offers signs of mental health issues to watch for and steps that school administrators can take to make the school environment more supportive of students’ mental health needs.
When More Help Is Needed
While teachers may be able to offer reassurance and support to students with mild levels of anxiety and depression, some students may need professional help. For example, if a student talks about having suicidal thoughts, this should always be taken seriously. Teachers can reach out to school counselors for support and advice on how to help these students.
Teachers (and counselors) also need to balance their desire to help and be trusted by students with students’ need for confidentiality. Students may not open up if they think you will share everything with their parents. Kids may assume that their conversations with you are private; if you contact their parents without their permission or advance warning, it can be harder for them to trust adults in the future.
Of course, if a student is acutely suicidal, you will need to contact their parents to keep them safe. However, you can give students some control over how to share this with their parents. Here’s an example: “I’m very glad you told me about your suicidal thoughts. I’m sure that wasn’t easy. We need to let your parents know so they can get you more help. Would you like to tell them yourself, or would you be okay with me sharing it? We can call them together.”
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
This is a stressful time for all of us. Learning new ways of teaching, trying to make sure your students stay engaged, and taking care of your own needs is a tough balancing act. Be sure to get plenty of rest, go on walks, chill out by watching something on TV, read a good book, take a hot bath, remind yourself that this will pass, and be grateful that you still have a job. And think positively—you are learning new ways of teaching that you never thought you would have to learn. This may lead you to find other creative ways of engaging with your students.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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