By Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., author of How (and Why) to Get Students Talking: 78 Ready-to-Use Group Discussions About Anxiety, Self-Esteem, Relationships, and More (Grades 6–12)
Children listened carefully when adults talked about the pandemic. They heard our opinions and attitudes about masking, safety protocols, school closings, and online learning. They saw parents and teachers struggling with at-home learning technology, working from home, little-to-no in-person contact with friends and close relatives, and altered family rhythms. They felt increases in tension and bickering—but also positive new patterns and harmony. No one was immune to changes as COVID galloped through communities, churches, schools, and businesses.
How did kids feel about pandemic changes? And how are they feeling about the gradual shift back to a more familiar life? Some kids aren’t encouraged to feel and express—especially if strong emotions are feared, are usually disruptive, or are routinely stuffed and stored. Parents, teachers, and adults providing child care can use group discussion to encourage expression of emotions.
When I directed a high school program for high-ability students, small-group lunchtime discussion was the most popular of twenty-five program options. In the groups, I wanted students to share insights, learn from one another, and not feel alone. Discussions had a development focus: influencers, stressors, anxiety, mood swings, friendship, maturity, leaning on others for support. Nearly one hundred students attended weekly groups—two lunchtime groups per day for thirty weeks.
I invited one of the four principals each year to observe a session on a topic unlikely to compromise privacy (for example, “What do you wish teachers understood about kids like you?”). Routinely our guest said, “We should have these groups for all students.” I agreed. The head principal believed the groups contributed to a gentler school atmosphere. A quarterly newsletter for teachers listed our topics, and some said, “I didn’t realize that bright kids had stressors.”
Learning from Tragedies
On two occasions, the groups helped students process grief, serving a reactive purpose. A girl in a car and a boy on a motorcycle collided in a school parking lot, and the boy died. Tension was high, particularly because of socioeconomic differences between the two. The groups were a safe place for students to express emotions. One group member seemed gradually to withdraw, with a dull expression on her face. One day she entered the meeting room a bit early, and I expressed my concern. She said, “How can the school just continue as if nothing happened?” Her group followed her lead, describing the various ways they thought and felt about the accident. I encouraged her to tell her parents how she felt, and they fortunately scheduled an appointment with a therapist. Another tragedy occurred while I was attending an out-of-state convention. A sophomore died by suicide. When I returned, the principal said, “We need the groups—throughout the school.”
Before those events, I had promoted the discussion groups as proactively helping kids feel and talk about emotions for the sake of current and future relationships. With the emphasis in school usually on performance, academic achievement often takes precedence over students’ social and emotional well-being. With those events, however, I realized discussion groups could be reactive as well as proactive.
Change, Loss, and Sadness
I mention this awareness because kids, parents, and families have likely experienced puzzling emotions during the pandemic, including anger, frustration, and anxiety. The most distressing may be what I call “vague sadness”—not severe enough to nudge them toward help, but still unsettling. The pandemic calls for reactive group work, in addition to the benefits of child-to-child connections and communication skills.
I view the pandemic through a change-loss-grief lens, an appropriate framework for group discussion. We can think of expected changes as, for example, moving into a new developmental stage (puberty, entering kindergarten, leaving for college). We can also think of changing schools, relocating to a different community, having a good friend move away, having a parent return to work, parents divorcing, or being diagnosed with a serious illness. Any of these can lead to extended sadness.
Group discussions can address pandemic losses. No thunderclap announced the changes, but “everything changed”—for kids around the globe. With any change, large or small, something is left behind—“lost.” Kids and parents alike might think, “It’s not a big, dramatic change. We’re still alive, living our lives. Then why do I feel this vague sadness?”
Guidelines for Discussion
The pandemic is an opportunity to develop new listening and discussion skills. Use these guidelines when talking about pandemic changes with students:
Stay open-ended, asking questions that can’t be answered with one word. Start questions with words like what, how, when, how much.
- How are you adjusting to learning in different ways?
- What are some new challenges you’ve experienced?
- How is learning from home different for you?
- How much has your life changed during the pandemic?
- When do you feel most optimistic?
- Tell us more about that.
- Help us understand what that was like.
Avoid telling kids what or how to think:
- What has changed in your life during the pandemic?
- What has changed in your friendships? With teachers? With family?
- What do you expect to remain changed after we’re back to normal?
Avoid thinking that you need to fix anything or anyone. Your most important contribution will be listening without judgment, making statements that reflect what you just heard and that show you are listening.
- That sounds intense. Who else has had experiences like that?
- I could feel your emotion when you talked about missing your grandpa.
- So you’ve wondered if your life will ever feel “normal” again.
- Sounds as if your parents have helped you cope.
- That was a scary time for you.
- You felt the difference with your parents working from home.
Reflect their emotions:
- That sounds frustrating.
- I can hear that it was disappointing.
- It makes sense that you were angry.
- You were afraid when you heard about people dying.
- So you’re feeling more calm and satisfied lately.
At the end of your group time, ask one or more group members to summarize the discussion or ask each member to make a statement about feelings and/or thoughts they had during it.
Subsequent topics for future discussions might include:
- What stress feels like
- How we each cope with stress differently
- Who our models are for coping with stress
- What metaphors capture our pandemic experiences
- How to express sympathy and compassion when people we know are hurting
Whether a group meets once or many times, expressing emotions around the pandemic can help kids cope with change, loss, and sadness.
Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., is professor emerita and former director of school counselor preparation at Purdue University. A licensed mental health counselor with considerable clinical experience with children and families, she conducts workshops on academic underachievement, high-ability students’ social and emotional development, prevention- and development-oriented group work with children and adolescents, bullying, listening skills for teachers and parents, and more. Dr. Peterson has authored more than 130 books (including Get Gifted Students Talking, How (and Why) to Get Students Talking, and Bright, Complex Kids), journal articles, and invited chapters, and her articles have appeared in journals such as Journal of Counseling & Development, Gifted Child Quarterly, Professional School Counseling, and International Journal of Educational Reform. She has received 10 national awards for scholarship, as well as numerous awards at Purdue for teaching, research, or service, and was a state teacher of the year in her first career as a classroom teacher. She lives in Indiana.
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