Back to School After COVID-19 Part III: Open Up with Optimism and Connection

By Kate Nugent, Vice President of Learning, Life is Good Playmakers and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

This is the third part of the special series Back to School After COVID-19. View Part I here.

As staff and students return to school this fall, behind computers or at their school desks, educators have an opportunity to vision together with their school community for a brighter future, full of hope, joy, and connection. Educational leaders and neuroscience researchers are urging schools to spend time at the beginning of the school year building healthy relationships between staff and students and cultivating important connections and reconnections among students as well—before jumping back into academics. As we remain in the midst of a global pandemic, students’ brains won’t be primed to learn until they are able to experience a sense of safety and belonging in their school community. Life is Good Playmakers has an online training program to help educators and other adults caring for children who have experienced trauma create this “O’Playsis” where kids can engage, connect, and explore with the aid of a caring adult.

Focusing on the Good

Keeping kids safe, joyful, engaged, and connected these days is our number one priority as educators. But how can we do that as we navigate restrictions, social distancing, and remote learning?

Optimism enables children to see the opportunities amid the obstacles and remain resilient in times of darkness and adversity—it is the cornerstone of social and emotional health. As caregivers, more is caught from us than taught by us, and right now the children we care for need us to be as emotionally strong and healthy as possible.

So, to educate effectively, we need to tap into the power of optimism. Not the, “Everything will be okay,” type of optimism, but the type of optimism that will keep us believing in a better future. At Life is Good Playmakers, the definition of optimism is a person’s capacity to see, feel, and focus on the goodness and value in themselves, others, and in the world around them. And what we focus on grows.

The problem is that in times when we need optimism most, like now, it is most difficult to come by. When things are going our way, optimism—as an emotional state—is easy to come by. However, when things fall apart and life gets overwhelmingly difficult, an emotional state of optimism can dry up faster than a drop of water on desert sand. If we want optimism to be accessible to children even in life’s darkest hours, we must help them develop optimism as a trait of character, not just as a state of mind. Optimism as a state of mind is fleeting. Optimism as a trait of character is lasting.

Open Up with Optimism

Think of all the qualities you most admire in your students and those you had when you were in elementary school. Creativity. Humor. Simplicity. Compassion. Authenticity. Fun.

Schools are a place where these superpowers emerge, and these are the powers capable of changing the world. Kids, in their purest form, possess the social, emotional and cognitive superpowers to change the world. We are not fully educating children if we are not helping children nurture their superpowers.

Making Connections to Support Students and Staff

We know that many students and school communities have lost people close to them. Others have been spared this personal suffering, but have lost opportunities for celebrations and closure, such as graduations, sports ceremonies, and more. Part of supporting students and staff through grief and loss towards hope and optimism is helping the community to return to a place of predictability. Routine and structure help children to feel safe in processing intense feelings and moving through grief. While some students will be returning to a familiar place, others may be going to a new school or new classroom when schools reopen. Teachers, administrators, and other staff can assist with these transitions by providing space to acknowledge what has happened whenever possible. Staff can lead students in visiting old classrooms and postponed or canceled ceremonies can be adapted and carried out when it is safe to do so.

Schools can use strategies like the Red Blanket Project to ensure that each child has a positive connection to an adult in the building. As a staff, review the entire school’s roster, having each staff member place their name next to the name of students they have a healthy relationship with. Older students can also participate by submitting the names of teachers they would turn to if they were in need. School leaders can compare these lists and identify students who don’t feel like they have an adult to turn to and intentionally create a connection with a staff member. Schools can even designate a member of the support staff who interacts with the majority of the student body, such as a custodian, paraprofessional, or cafeteria worker, to be a connection crisis monitor. To increase the number of school staff members who can serve as your school’s point of contract for students who slipped through the cracks in the past, make plans to ensure professional development activities that train all school staff on how to respond to a child’s behavioral difficulties with compassion. The Life is Good Playmakers course, “Playmaker 101: The Healing Power of Optimism,” is designed to help all school staffers to understand the impact of toxic stress on children’s brain development, social emotional development, and physical health. The course also shares the Playmaker framework and key strategies for creating optimal environments where kids can heal, learn and grow .

The number one responsibility as an educator is to embody the same things we want our children to have, those things that cannot be taught, only caught. By tapping into our own sense of optimism, we can bring our most positive disposition to work each day and build life-changing relationships with kids. It’s not anything we would have hoped for or asked for, but we get to make the best of it and use the power of optimism to overcome adversity.

Join the Life is Good Playmakers for Open Up with Optimism: A Webinar for Teachers and Educational Professionals on August 27th at 6:30 p.m. You can also become a Playmaker by joining their online training, which opens on August 10th, Playmaker 101: The Healing Power of Optimism.

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