By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis
Whew! We did it, folks. Wait . . . did we?
While we celebrate having survived this school year and look forward to a better, more “normal” year ahead, we can’t help but feel a fog of threat looming over us. Is it really over? Will next year feel like pre-pandemic years past? Do we want it to?
I don’t know about you, but I now watch movies and TV shows that fictionalize global traumas through a new lens. I used to be able to get lost in the outlandish plots, where in the end we learn that tragedy knows no bounds and that all must unite to defeat evil. There was something soothing about being able to escape everyday chaos and watch a film that left me with the satisfaction that “Okay, things aren’t great right now, but at least there hasn’t been a multicontinent earthquake, satellite hacking, or . . . global pandemic.” But after a year that made it clear these scenarios might actually be a possibility, this reassurance is no more.
As humans, we are conditioned to believe that we know what might happen in the future. Whether our expectations are good or bad, hopeful or doom-filled, there is comfort in thinking that we know what will come. Now, as we enter new post-pandemic territory, we have learned that the future can bring unimaginable obstacles and we wonder what uncertainties might be in store for us. Are there more possibilities, even, outside of what we can imagine? Can we withstand whatever may arise? How can we prepare?
Feelings of uncertainty and even dread around change often come from an experience in life when the rug was pulled out from under us. These experiences teach us that things can happen that we didn’t realize could happen (we all know that unexpected things happen, but we don’t know know until we are facing one and are, as I say to my students, freaking OUT), and we benefit from processing the intense emotions around these events.
Psychologist Gregg Henriques says that processing emotions starts with identifying where the emotion comes from: inner conflict, judgment from others, or judgment of self. Next, setting goals for moving forward without shame allows the person to fully accept, actualize, and refine the emotional response. Okay, now go do it.
Looking Back to Move Forward
Just kidding! If only it were that easy! At the end of this huge year, I’m giving a lot of thought to how to process my experiences and emotions about it. I don’t want to forget the past year (even though it was a difficult one), but I do want to be able to move on from it in spirit. Incidentally, I’ve found that thinking about processing my emotions has helped me, well, process them, and I suggest that you give it a try too. Doing so can help you meet the future with less resistance, which is often our way of protecting ourselves from further hardship. Below are some prompts to get you started.
- Recognize the experience. Be honest about what happened and how it felt (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
- Reflect on what you learned. List all the ways you grew, and the things you would like to continue to work on.
- Celebrate the things you withstood. Allow yourself the satisfaction of knowing you are still here and be proud of the strength it took to get there.
- Think forward about your strengths. Think of your strengths as new skills and imagine how you might apply them in other situations and settings.
We can discuss these components of emotion work with students, embedding them in content lessons as we read a book in class or solve a multilayered math problem. Normalizing the cognition it takes to process emotions is a skill your students will take with them as they grow and apply to various areas of their life as their world expands.
A Personal Journey
I believe that how we process emotions is completely up to the individual. I like to create with art and crafts, allowing the project to busy my hands while I think things through. One of my students does best when she starts each day with a guided meditative story, and another student likes to find me in the hallway at dismissal to share the things he did right (and sometimes the things he will apologize to his teacher about later). Some people write, whether in long journal entries or in choppy freeform poetry. Others might do their best thinking on a jog or while staring out the window listening to music on their headphones.
The key to finding something that helps you process your emotions is exploration. For you, this might mean flipping through books, scrolling Pinterest, taking a class, or veering in a new direction on your daily walk. Students might find their thing by trying new clubs, exploratory electives, or pop-up classes. Whatever your something is, allowing your mind the freedom to process your experiences creates space for the future, and can help you feel more prepared to move forward.
At the end of the school year, I typically like to process the year’s activity by taking a trip to somewhere I have not been and where I can walk on a city street. Something settles in me as I watch people move about their days in their own worlds. It reminds me how small I am in this big world. And yet in this moment, as I process the tangled web of emotions I have through writing this post, the light of hope for the upcoming school year is getting brighter with each word.
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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