By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis
It’s a strange time. We are sad about our lives being on hold, and yet we have enjoyed time with ourselves in a way that wasn’t possible before. We are moving but standing still; we are hurrying to wait. My students report that they both miss school incredibly but also kind of love having first bell in pajamas. My teachers report that they have seen a new side to students as students attend video classes and chat together with fewer social divides. Despite all the sadness that COVID-19 has brought, it seems there are some silver linings among the tears.
Resolving the good and bad of an international pandemic gets to the heart of the power of resilience. How do we bottle up the power of what our students are experiencing this year and help them take it with them through the next phases of their journeys? We work through our current crisis highlighting their accomplishments (big and small) and empower them to take agency over the things they can control.
In all we have seen this year, the ability for people to adapt has by far been the most amazing thing to witness. We have endured difficulties back-to-back until our heads spun, but here we are still standing together. Within this, our students have even learned new skills to get through their “new normal.” Before the shutdown, how many students were taught to:
- wake themselves up
- stay home alone
- maneuver through multiple digital classes
- adhere to strict health guidelines
- remember new safety protocols
- operate a digital video service
- create a classroom environment at home
The answer? Very few! But students have adapted and have proven themselves to have a strength that adults rarely give them credit for. Our students need, and deserve, to know that this type of resilience is not because of the pandemic; it was already there, waiting to be exercised.
Risk and Reward
Sometimes there is risk in being tenacious. I do a lesson with my students about inclusive classrooms based on my aunt Concetta, who lived a very large and full life with spastic cerebral palsy. I talk to students about how others may give us certain character traits that have a negative connotation (for example, hard-headed, stubborn, sassy), but those traits can actually be positive when used the right way. It’s a risk to hang onto those traits if we are told to let go of them (the risk might be getting grounded!), but with time we can learn to use them for good (such as to advocate for the rights of others).
Asking for help is another tool that many believe is risky. Students and adults alike wonder if they will appear weak and often avoid asking others for assistance in accomplishing something. For someone like my aunt, however, not asking for help would have meant missing out on a million adventures. Reframing seeking assistance as advocating for oneself—even, dare I say, being pushy—will tremendously help students who are experiencing adversity. When obstacles are uncontrollable, accepting help from others is one way that students can have some authority in choosing to have more positive experiences.
Practicing gratitude is often praised as a method for exercising mindfulness. In times of crisis, gratitude and mindfulness are not just about ignoring the negative and focusing only on the positive. They are about focusing on the positivity that an individual creates. Part of resilience is being able to face hardship to fully process it. This being so, we want to allow students to embrace all the emotions they may feel as they work through something difficult. Quarantine? It stinks. COVID? It’s the worst. Zoom school? It isn’t the same. But hardship can lead to new lessons and experiences.
Quarantine –> stinks –> so I rearranged my room into my safe space and now I love it
COVID –> the worst –> so I started drawing and now I have a whole book of art that depicts emotions
Zoom school –> isn’t the same –> so my friends and I started writing a short story together about it that is hilarious
In all three of the instances above, students are acknowledging their feelings while also proving to be highly adaptable without even realizing it! Gratitude activities for students that focus on what they have done to improve their situation can provide proof that they are strong and thriving even in the face of a tough time. A couple activities that might expose some of this evidence include:
- Skills show-and-tell. Allow students to present one skill they use at home. From cooking to crafting to skateboarding to training their dogs, kids have some pretty cool hobbies! Allow them to showcase things they work at improving and discuss how they got so good at them.
- Gratitude tree. Have students write their names as a tree trunk and draw branches to represent choices they have had to make (including about friends, positive attitudes, and so on). Then have them draw smaller branches representing positive outcomes from their actions.
Defying the Odds
Through the years and in various school counseling offices, I have seen young people defy the odds and persist beyond circumstances that I would likely not have been able to overcome. They are outdoing themselves in 2020. Our students are experiencing multiple layers of trauma, many of which are completely out of their control, and they have remained intact. Some of them may have stopped doing classwork, some of them may have acted out in class, and some of them may have sat silently just asking for a moment of peace. But by and large, what they all have done is continued to choose to wake up each day and face new challenges as they arise. The year 2020 is not the year of the quarantine; it is truly the year of resilience.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
Stephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.
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