How to Model Healthy Worry and Coping Strategies as We Emerge from the Pandemic

By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide

How to Model Healthy Worry and Coping Strategies as We Emerge from the Pandemic

For the past year, as we’ve avoided outings and people, visualized germs coating every surface and spewing from the mouths of our loved ones, my daughter has felt reassured. “Finally,” she says, “everyone is thinking like me.”

When you are parenting an anxious child, the last thing you need is the entire planet confirming her fears. And yet, here we are. People, places, and certain activities are more dangerous right now. We need to avoid them. But also, avoidance makes anxiety worse.

While I’ve made sure my family follows public health guidance to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, I’ve also spent a lot of time over the past 12 months trying to keep some boundaries on our COVID-19 anxiety. “Avoiding avoidance” hasn’t always been easy—we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have been under some of the harshest lockdown restrictions in the nation since March 2020. My daughter hasn’t set foot in a school in more than a year. She’s in high school now, though we tend to forget that as she logs in from the dining room. She’s seen just two friends in person all this time—and one recently had the audacity to move across the country. She has also stayed home from most errands because I haven’t wanted to expose more of our household than necessary. All of which means lately, my teenager has not had much practice meeting new people, navigating new places, or strengthening life skills outside our four walls—all things that give her anxiety and that we worked hard not to avoid in the Before Times.

Our county still has many COVID-19 cases, and we’ll continue to wear masks and make decisions to minimize the risks to ourselves and others. But with vaccines rolling out, we’re beginning to anticipate the return of social events, clubs, school and work, and I know I’ll need to model healthy ways to handle any anxiety that bubbles up from those changes. For my child, relearning not to consider people and places “dangerous” could be challenging. The first day of school jitters alone might be epic. So I’ll take some steps to help my family (and, yes, myself) adjust during this next, awkward re-opening phase.

Gradually Work Back into a Groove

Socializing can be difficult and exhausting for kids with anxiety. This spring, I’ll be encouraging more frequent (but still safe) time with friends so it won’t feel so abrupt to be with peers all day again. For younger kids with separation anxiety, there may be another layer to this—being apart from parents, possibly for the first time in months. Practicing little by little may smooth the path forward.

Still, even as we’re allowed to do more, I won’t be instantly filling our calendar. A series of packed days would tire out my teenager in the best of times. I’ll be keeping lots of at-home, low-key days on the board as we reacclimate to society.

Be Unnaturally Chill

I need to be “minimally worried woman”—obsession and overreaction are real things in this house. Even if excessive sanitization or performing relatively safe errands on my own might make me feel like I’m protecting my child better, I could be causing other problems.

As it becomes safer, I feel it’s important that my child practice navigating the world and gauging risk. Should we wash our hands after being at the grocery store? Absolutely. Should we change our pants? (Real question!) As I tell my daughter frequently, “only if you plan to lick your jeans.”

Keep Up Self-Care Routines

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that in order for my daughter to be healthy, I needed to be healthy. One benefit of our COVID internment has been the opportunity for me to get eight hours of sleep each night and physical movement every day. Adequate sleep and exercise lower anxiety.

As we anticipate returning to commutes and obligations outside of the house, I will do everything I can to protect the time I need for myself—modeling healthy adult behavior for a young woman who will inevitably face pressures to sacrifice her own well-being for others.

Talk Out Loud

As we take our brave first steps back into the world, I’m going to be more expressive—specifically, regarding what I’m nervous about and how it feels. Maybe my stomach will be in knots as we anticipate spending time with vaccinated relatives. That’s okay, and my daughter needs to know any feelings she has are normal as well.

When possible, I’ll reframe my anxiety as excitement, which Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks says can help us focus on all the ways a worrisome event could go well.

Keep Up New Hobbies

Bad news: We’re in year two of a pandemic. Good news: We can plant a summer garden again! New hobbies and more family time came about during lockdown, and we like it. Keeping some of those things up even as the ground feels like it’s shifting again—with more activities becoming possible and a return to work and school—might help maintain a sense of stability and familiarity.

Oddly, the things that might feel comforting during this next period of change could be the very things that seemed so strange a year ago.

Think Small

I tend to fret about tomorrow, next week, and my five-year plan all at once. This is not appreciated by my daughter. Thinking about everything that may—or may not—happen in the next several months, let alone what next Halloween will look like, could make anyone want to bury her head in the sand.

When I find myself or my daughter becoming overwhelmed, I’ll take the advice of Narges Zohoury Dillon, executive director of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, and encourage us both to focus on just the next few minutes or hours. If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we can’t control the way events will unfold. So let’s just focus on the next step.

Summer BatteSummer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid's GuideSummer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide


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How Trauma Impacts Students’ Motivation

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

How Trauma Impacts Students’ MotivationMy daughter is nineteen years old and deep in the throes of individuation. She has always been one of those kids that we would call a self-starter, but is now also past the age of wanting to hear her mother’s approval, instead opting for the voice in her own head. Living independently has strengthened this resolve and helped her find other measures to judge success. In fact, in the later years of her high school experience, she told me that my unconditional encouragement and positive reinforcement were “super-annoying and unnecessary.”

Pulling away from parents is a hallmark of late adolescence. I started to notice around midsummer last year, however, that something had shifted between my daughter and me. She started to call and text me as if she were back in middle school. She was asking me for advice, asking what I thought about things, and if what she was doing was okay. She was seeking validation and assurance from the adults around her again, and I struggled to figure out if I was just being tested. It turns out that she really was looking for my validation!

Anyone who has had a teenager is familiar with the parental paranoia I experienced. We are fairly certain that when our teen is nice to us, something is up. I thought this was all really interesting and started to wonder what was going on.

Shifting Needs

I have seen a similar pattern arise at school with my students. In the hallway, my sixth graders have been super-sweet and incredibly appreciative of every bit of rapport that I create with them. They are always a delight, but typically by this point in the school year, they are figuring out how to command their school and life, causing some unintentional negative reactions as they pivot through their discoveries.

Something is different about this year. Teachers are also reporting that their students are reaching out to them and engaging in the classroom differently than they have ever seen. Both online and in person, students are creating a new type of relationship in their schools. They are offering vulnerability and accepting help on a different level.

All these stark changes inspired me to do a little research on the internalization and externalization of emotions and motivations. Digging deeper with the additional knowledge of what our kids have been through this year, I started to whittle down to information that also addressed changes that occur with trauma response. What is going on in this COVID-19 era that is causing our students and our children to need more reassurance from outside themselves? What is happening to the voice inside them as they look around them to see a world that is struggling?

As I looked for answers to my this mystery, I found an amazing study done by Winnie Chan at San Francisco State University in the early 2000s. In it she discusses complex trauma and its role in the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation of children. The difference of these two types of motivation is kind of like the developmental shift in childhood, when a child starts to avoid stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar because they know that stealing just isn’t right, instead of avoiding it because they don’t want to get in trouble.

  • Intrinsic motivation is internally fueled motivation, or drive that occurs from inside a person, such as when a student does homework so they can feel the personal satisfaction of getting a good grade and feeling accomplished.
  • External motivation is feeling satisfaction and inspiration as a result of responses from people outside themselves, such as a student doing well on a test so their teacher thinks they’re smart.

Though the study was focused on complex trauma (trauma that occurs over time, beginning in childhood), can we really measure the unique, unprecedented, and ongoing trauma that our children are currently experiencing? What I do know is that the article seemed to describe the emotion-based behavior I was seeing in my daughter and my students. A huge lightbulb lit in my head, and I realized that my daughter was reaching out as a result of recent traumas that caused her to need affirmation from me. The voice in her own head was feeling a bit run-down, so she was turning to older methods of reassurance.

Giving the Kids What They Need

Similarly, at work, our students are under an incredible amount of stress. These crises have wreaked havoc on our lives, and there seems to have been a bit of an emotional reset. It is certainly possible that our students are experiencing a change in the sources of their motivation as a result of the pandemic, school shutdowns, social unrest, and the many barriers that these large-scale traumatic events have caused. Naturally, the next question is, how do we respond to this, and is there a way to harness this generational glitch and use it to our advantage?

Using the Chan article as a starting point, I think the best way to help our students combat stress-induced motivation and emotion-based behaviors would be to give them more externalized prompting, support, and encouragement! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Ramp up professional development to give staff a toolbox of positive-reinforcement language they can use in their classrooms.
  • Check out your PBIS stockpiles and go heavy on the Tier 1 interventions so expectations are well laid out and there are multiple pathways to receiving positive reinforcement.
  • Keep a close eye on caseloads and intentionally recall personal things you remember about students, so they can feel your interest in them.
  • Surprise students with tokens of appreciation (personalized postcards, stickers, and the like) so they can begin to reenter a world where surprises are positive.
  • Don’t worry too much about precise age recommendations for these strategies, as many students will find comfort in tactics that are nostalgic reminders of being younger and having fewer complex stressors.
  • Focus on school culture and fun ways for kids to participate in their school community to bring a sense of ease to school life.

 

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie 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.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.


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9 Tips for Creating Inclusive Movement Activities

By Connie Bergstein Dow, author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play

9 Tips for Creating Inclusive Movement ActivitiesThe basic tenet of creative movement/creative dance (the terms are interchangeable) is that the most important part of the activity is the process itself. Kinesthetic learning, or learning by doing, happens as a result of the movement explorations that are at the heart of all creative dance sessions. There are no predetermined expectations or outcomes. This allows creative movement to be inclusive of all children, even for those whose ability to move or participate is limited. Here are nine tips for modifying movement activities to include all children.

1. Guidelines for an activity should be thoroughly explained beforehand, including how the activity will begin and end, and the transitions that will happen as the activity progresses.

2. Clearly mark and explain the spatial boundaries of the activity. Is the movement to be done in one spot, in a line, in a circle, confined to a small space, in a space with obstacles, or in a large, open space? Explain, show, and if possible, mark the boundaries before you begin the activity.

3. Use movement games and prompts at the beginning of the session to reinforce the boundaries of the dancing space. Here are three examples:

  • Play On Your Spot: Ask children to move within the boundaries of their own personal bubble of space, maybe a carpet square or an arms’ reach.
  • To help children understand the concept of personal versus shared space, follow up On Your Spot with prompts that take the children off of their spot, but only to the point where someone else’s bubble starts: “Walk a small circle around your spot. Now walk a larger circle.  Do this until you come close to, but not touching, another person. That is the outer edge of your bubble.”
  • To define the outlines of a large space, such as a gym floor, you could have the children, either one by one or in a line, perform different motor activities along the perimeter of the space: Can you march to the first corner of the gym? Can you take baby steps to the next corner? Can you sidestep to the third corner? Can you take giant steps back to our starting point? Now let’s do it again, moving the other direction. Repeat with other large motor skills: Moving at a low or high level, moving in slow motion, skipping, walking on tiptoes (balls of the feet), moving like a robot, moving like a rag doll, moving like different animals.

4. Open-ended prompts allow students to explore movement within their own range and ability. Examples: Can you move like a cloud changing shapes as it floats through the sky? How many different curvy shapes can you make with your body? Can you move like a dinosaur?

5. Any part of an activity can be modified to accommodate differing needs. Marching across the room can be changed to marching in place. Jumps can be changed to jiggles so that the movement can be performed in a sitting position. Move your legs can be changed to move your arms or move your fingers.

6. Use many different types of cues throughout the movement session: Auditory: your voice, a clap or clapping rhythm, a drumbeat, a short song or verse, or a tap on a tambourine; Visual: flicking the lights off and on, pictures, signs, written instructions, sign language, hand signals

7. A partner can be assigned to help another child with special needs.

8. For children who are very limited in their movement options, encourage them to respond to the movement prompts and music on their own while sitting or lying down.

9. If a child is unable to participate in the movement activity, offer an alternative so that they are still included. Examples: playing a small percussion instrument, holding visual cues/signs for the activity, helping to pass out props, calling out instructions for/with you, and reading or turning the pages of the story during interactive story time. You can also give them a task such as, Do you see someone moving at a low level near the floor? Do you see someone balancing on one leg? Do you see someone who is marching to the beat?

Connie BergsteinConnie Bergstein Dow took her first dance class when she was four years old and has been dancing ever since. After attending Denison University and earning an MFA from the University of Michigan, she danced professionally in the United States, Venezuela, and Guatemala. Connie has had a long career as a dance educator and has written two books for teachers about integrating movement into the early childhood classroom, articles for magazines and journals, and verses for Highlights. She shares her passion for dance by writing, teaching, volunteering, visiting schools and libraries, and offering movement workshops to early childhood professionals. Visit Connie at www.movingislearning.com.

From A to Z with EnergyConnie is the author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play


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Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: Combating Burnout During the Pandemic

By Molly Breen

Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: Combating Burnout During the PandemicThe weight and strain of the pandemic has stretched most of us beyond what we thought was our limit. We have bowed and bent; we’ve pivoted until we’ve worn out the soles of our shoes. We may be at our breaking or burnout point. It feels like enough just to get through the days with kids and families, softening the strain of pandemic life, without adding in the typical requirements of early care. Although most regulatory agencies have allowed some temporary program modifications, the requirements for professional development can feel like a burden right now.

But it’s all virtual!
You can take classes from people all over the world!
You should embrace the opportunity!

These statements may all be true, but many of us are feeling overworked and overwhelmed. (And with good reason! Early care and education providers are the heartbeat of the US economy.) When we’re exhausted and Zoomed out, the last thing we want to do is log into a virtual training session—even if it’s a unique opportunity with a specialist from another country.

Provider burnout in ECE is real.

Burnout, quite literally, means to wear out the nervous system with large amounts of stress and anxiety—in this instance, due to workload and managing the traumatic impacts of the pandemic. Burnout can lead to illness, depression, and ultimately leaving the field. In the United States, on average, teachers leave the profession at an astonishing rate of 8 percent per year. That’s hundreds of thousands of teachers each year, and only about a third are leaving to retire, according to research.

Although professional development can help combat burnout in the long run, in the short term we need sustainable daily practices to keep our heads and hearts clear. Whether you are an administrator or working in the classroom, these tools can help you stay attuned, connected, and grateful for the work we do each day—pandemic or not.

1. Establish a Daily Reflective Practice

You might be thinking, “I’m not going to add in another thing!” But no matter what, teachers are required to reflect in at least two ways daily: (1) IN action and (2) ON action. IN-action reflections are the daily decisions we make with finesse based upon wisdom, experience, and knowledge. ON-action reflections happen after the fact—sometimes when we are talking with a colleague or maybe just on the drive home. ON-action reflections may require us to dig a little deeper, seek out help or resources (like peer-reviewed articles or other credible research), and grow in our practice.

Journal: Make your daily reflections intentional! You can write down a few things you notice each day. Don’t forget to include the good stuff; all too often we reflect only on what we want to change or do differently or better. Find opportunities to express gratitude for the work in addition to expressing the challenges.

Make time for conversations with colleagues: Anecdotally reflecting with peers can help us turn our experiences into learning. It is important to seek out dialogue, and we can make this an intentional practice. Make a weekly or monthly check-in time or call with teaching colleagues to share your experiences, ask for feedback, and to grow in your collective wisdom.

2. Make Time to Regulate

Breathe: It’s the oldest trick in the regulating book, right? Our breath helps calm the nervous system and establish a felt sense of safety. Try doing a simple breathing pattern (all through the nose, if possible): breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of two, breath out for a count of six. Repeat this at least four times (or more if possible). You don’t have to wait until you are feeling stressed; make this practice part of your daily routine during transition times or when you are outdoors.

Attunement: When we are in the midst of a busy day with children and washing our hands for the four-hundredth time, it’s possible that we lose track of how we, the teachers, are feeling. It’s important to check in with ourselves about our state to ensure that we can regulate and show up authentically with our students. Here are some simple questions to ask ourselves: What does my body feel like right now (tense, relaxed, agitated, fatigued)? What is my self-talk right now (beliefs, attitudes, messaging loops replaying in my brain)?

Witness and respond: As part of the cycle of attunement, we can do our best to objectively witness our state and then respond. Again, this can happen in all our daily routines—the transitions, the good times, and the challenging times. Witness your answers to the attunement questions above and then respond with action. Maybe you need a giant drink of water, or to roll your shoulders and neck to release tension; perhaps a nice, big yawn and stretch or audible sigh (a great way to release tension, by the way) would do the trick. When we are responsive to our own needs, we can better respond to the many needs of the kids with whom we work.

3. Keep It Relational!

Humans are wired for connection and relationship. And so we, as teachers, must remember to care for and nurture our connection to ourselves in addition to our connection with students.

Being relational calls us back to core values in our approach to our students, our colleagues, and ourselves, such as practicing compassion, respect, inclusivity, and humility.

When we all do better, we all do better! For teachers, this means we can do our best to avoid transactional interactions that feel like we are going through the motions and instead favor of more meaningful and connected experiences. This focus is good for us and good for our students.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeking out professional development now, during the pandemic, or anytime. On the contrary: I can’t get enough of best practices and emergent research findings for ECE (and I enthusiastically recommend these online trainings through Penn State). But I do believe we must nurture ourselves both within our hearts and our heads to avoid burnout. So, next time you review your required hours for PD and feel the weight of obligation on your shoulders, I encourage you to reflect, regulate, and relate for your best professional development.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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6 Ways Educators Can Create Safe Spaces for Students of Color

By Isaiah Moore

6 Ways Educators Can Create Safe Spaces for Students of ColorI first noticed it in retrospect. In my second year of college, while writing a proposal to my city advocating for better youth programming as a strategy to thwart teenage homicide, I thought about the variables that allowed me to write such a proposal instead of being one of the subjects discussed. I concluded that the most important factor was my schooling, and no, it was not the sustenance of school lunch or the Advanced Placement classes that mattered. What made the difference was the environment. My ninthgrade year was lackluster, but in tenth grade I met my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher and a history teacher who had mentored my sister before me. They were connected to the junior varsity basketball coach, who was from my neighborhood. Those three turned out to be connected to the two Black male guidance counselors in the school. Before I knew it, I had a broad and secure network of support that prompted my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth. 

As I matured, I continued exploring and researching the phenomenon I encountered in high school and concluded that this system of connections was my safe space; I felt comfortable enough to study and grow. This support is the very reason I became the man I am today; it’s the whole reason I decided to enter the best profession known to humankind. Having experienced the benefits of such a network, I now seek to create it in every school I am in. Every child deserves to feel safe while learning. 

Reflecting on this practice, I realized there is a formula for success when setting up support teams. Underpinning this formula is a foundational tenet that every safe-space educator must understand and truly embrace: Please be mindful that the hinge needed to open the door to safe spaces for students of color is authentic relationships and not the supposed need to “rescue” them. Once this principle is accepted, the following six factors will help you succeed when collaborating with other educators to create safe spaces for students of color: 

1. Recognize the Myriad Issues Facing Students of Color  

Social issues seep into schools; classrooms and schools are microcosms of society. This means that students of color face many problems. It’s draining simply thinking of all these problems, and even more of a depressing experience trying to solve them all at once. Focus on one or two that you can manage and research ways to fix them. Such issues may include a lack of diversity in the teaching staff (which makes it harder for students of color to find mentors) and schools devaluing the cultures and interests of students of color. Issues may even exist within the curriculum itself; certain cultures may be misrepresented or left out of school learning entirely, which causes students to lose interest in education. Whatever problems you identify, try to narrow in on the specifics and then seek out the best ways and people to help solve the dilemma. 

2. Create a Diverse Team  

On average, people are more likely to have an impact in a group rather than alone. That’s why a crucial step is to create a diverse team that contributes to alleviating the identified problem or problems, and to creating a safe space for students of color. When assembling a team, do three things: create a team of differing skills, take into account people of different ethnicities, and seek out diverging opinions. Take inventory of the skills needed to solve the problem you’re focusing on. This means that if you need someone with artistic ability or someone who has counseling experience, consider asking those people to help out. And while it is important to surround students with individuals who look like them, it is also important to introduce them to individuals unlike them. This normalizes learning from both like and unlike individuals. Lastly, be intentional about seeking out differing opinions. As Adam Grant, an author and specialist in organizational psychology, says in his book Originals, “create a strong group culture that also allows for dissenting opinions. Go for an organizational model that mirrors the commitment blueprint’” (p. 180). Grant describes this as finding people whose values and norms match that of the group. Dissenting opinions on the details, coupled with commonality in the larger goal, allows for creative ideas that have been vetted and thus are more likely to help solve problems.  

3. Well-Being First, Then Academics 

And there will be problems to solve, because every individual has dilemmas. These dilemmas have the potential to not only impede learning, but to stop pupils from forming the relationships they need to feel safe. To that end, it is important that collaborating educators ensure the mental well-being of students before focusing on academics. Dr. Michael Lindsey (executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work) argues that schools are some of the largest providers of mental health services, but those services are still inadequate or absent in too many schools—especially in schools serving low-income areas, and those serving largely Black and Brown students.  

To help fill this need, support teams must be aware of the many issues plaguing communities of color; recognize that these issues can be a burden on adolescents who may not have developed the skills to manage their emotions; and attend to these challenging emotions first and foremost. This can be done, in part, by advocating for more mental health support for schools. Educators should also seek to decrease microaggressions and increase microaffirmations. Micro-affirmations have been defined as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” Making micro-affirmations an intentional practice, while minimizing microaggressions, will increase positive feelings within the safe space you are building. 

4. Seek to Decolonize Curriculum  

To increase feelings of safety among students of color, safe-space teams must actively seek to incorporate the stories of those they are forming bonds with. According to the University College of London, “Decolonization is crucial because, unlike diversification, it specifically acknowledges the inherent power relations in the production and dissemination of knowledge, and seeks to destabilize these.” Providing students with an education that is not exclusively Eurocentric broadens the scope of learning and allows all students to encounter their cultures in what they learn.  

This is an act of inclusion that can seem daunting. Teams may go into it feeling as they need to overthrow their whole curriculum, but keep in mind that these changes can start small. It can be as simple as replacing elements of the traditional canon with books like Justin A. Reynolds’s young adult novel Opposite of Always or Juana Martinez-Neal’s picture book Alma and How She Got Her Name. Teaching inferences or cause and effect through these books will allow students to see education differently while activating prior knowledge where they’re comfortable. If they continue to enjoy this learning experience, consider offering them inventive ways to express their findings and thoughts, such as through a podcast.  

5. Extend Practices to the Community Beyond Your Classroom and School   

To create lasting safe spaces that extend outside of the influence of the core support team, seek to expand the safe-space team’s practices to the rest of staff. While this will naturally include other teachers, administrators, and counselors, the list should also include librarians, custodians, attendance workers, cafeteria workers, and other people who help make your school the community that it is 

For instance, microaffirmations can go a long way when students show up to school late for various reasons. Similarly, it would do wonders if cafeteria workers identified when students weren’t eating. This way they could inquire about how the child feels and get to the root of the problem.  

And the safe space should continue outside of the school, as well. Sometimes people that meet the aforementioned criteria of differing skills, ethnicities, and opinions while having the same goal in mind can be tough to find in one school, so it is important not to neglect the wider community in the building of safe spaces for students of color. Not only will this increase the pool of people to choose from, but it will break down the walls between academics and community, an outcome most schools strive for. 

6. Challenge Students  

The goal to extend safe spaces for students of color outside of the confines of your group is worthy and ambitious. However, it is not imperative for a team to have done this before establishing one of the most important components of a safe space: Once support is established, safe-space teams must challenge students to grow. Encourage students to self-evaluate and set their own goals in multiple arenas—and then hold them to it. The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia suggests intentionally using language that promotes a growth mindsetAdditionally, encourage students to take higher level classes and step out of their comfort zones to learn, knowing they have your support 

Remember, the safe space you create is not intended to be the only space where students feel safe. The goal is to prepare them to extend those spaces with different people throughout different environments. The ultimate goal is that they will, in turn, create safe spaces for others. That is the preeminent challenge. 

It is with that challenge in mind that I now walk through life. As a person of color, I felt as safe in my high school Advanced Placement English classwhere I was one of three students of color in a class of thirtyas I did in my male mentorship program with my mentors and friends. I was even comfortable extending that space over 500 miles away to my college campus in Atlanta, Georgia, away from all of the influences that had molded me until that point. It was not that I had never felt uncomfortable in any of these places or at any of these times. But, crucially, I had been prepared to work in and through discomfort before it became comfortable. I am a product of safe spaces and know that their existence transforms students into productive citizens of the world. My hope is that this post will help other educators replicate these spaces so they can impact students like the one I was and continue to be. 

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.


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