By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
This is a part of the special series Back to School After COVID-19. View Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.
At this time last year, we were all uncertain about where and how learning during the next school year would take place. Three hundred sixty-five challenging days later, we are hopeful that we will all once more be learning together in the same physical space this fall. As school administrators and educators take much-needed rest and respite this summer, we hope that they have had space and time to reflect on their own needs and the needs of their students and those students’ families. We also hope they will consider how their school community can come together to start the 2021-2022 school year off with practices that demonstrate resiliency and commitment to becoming trauma-skilled.
Welcoming Staff, Students, and Families with a Sense of Belonging
COVID-19 isolated us physically from our community supports. Many schools effectively built community online. However, students and teachers we interviewed about the pandemic’s impact on mental health reported that a lack of face-to-face interactions contributed to a sense of loneliness and negatively impacted their mood, and for educators, their effectiveness. Many schools resumed in-person learning at the end of the 2020-2021 school year; however, not all students chose to return. Schools are optimistic about inviting their entire student body back to campus in August or September. This will be a major transition for a school community that has not been fully together in a year and a half.
Approaching the coming school year with the seven considerations we explore in our toolkit Back to School After COVID-19: Supporting Student and Staff Mental Health in mind will help educators build a foundation of belonging for everyone in their school community:
Foster safety and equity.
Work with community partners to support student and staff mental health.
Re-establish routine and connection.
Use mindfulness to teach self-regulation at home and at school.
Vision for a better future together, with a healthy dose of reality.
In Part V of this Back to School series, we discuss the importance of planning with equity and safety in mind as we restart in-person learning, designing a more compassionate school experience using the lessons we’ve learned during COVID-19. We also discuss the ways schools can leverage community partnerships to support student and staff mental health in this article. We discussed the specific ways that schools can address grief in this article. Attending to all of these competing, but important needs alongside academics will be essential to help school communities heal from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we talk about some of the key principles for returning to school: routine, connection, and mindfulness.
The Power of Routine and Connection
Routine can be a powerful tool to heal from trauma. Humans are most at peace when their lives have a sense of rhythm. While adventure and risk are important components to a full life, some level of predictability helps us feel safe and secure. The COVID-19 pandemic stripped our lives of many types of predictability that we had been taking for granted. To help staff, students, and their families heal from the effects that had on our collective ability to trust, schools can intentionally return to or create new routines that lend a sense of rhythm to the school day and year.
These schoolwide routines can also help us reconnect with each other and connect to the new members of our school community who were not able to establish the kinds of relationships a new student or family would normally seek out when they have come into an existing community. Think about what new or past routines in your school community can support positive well-being, connection, and safety, while increasing equity. We have some ideas for specific routines that target safety and equity in Part V of this Back to School series.
Using Mindfulness to Support Routine and Connection
When we experience trauma, which almost everyone who survived the COVID-19 pandemic has, our bodies and emotions become dysregulated. Part of the process of healing from trauma is retraining our brains and bodies to release the stress and difficult emotions associated with trauma. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can help us do that. Creating schoolwide routines that involve mindfulness not only helps us improve self-regulation skills; it also helps us deepen the connection we have with ourselves and each other. There are many popular formal mindfulness programs designed for use in schools, however, any school community can create mindfulness routines that work for their needs.
Mindful Routines to Heal Together:
Mindful moments practiced together as a school during morning announcements. These short practices can include breath work, a brief meditation or visualization, or yoga poses.
Mindful movement breaks as a classroom norm. Staff can be encouraged to create frequent opportunities throughout the day to experience favorite mindfulness practices for 3-5 minutes to reset overwhelmed brains and bodies.
Mindfulness instruction during all school assemblies, rallies, and other events. Give teachers and students the chance to teach others in the school community mindfulness practices that have helped them find a sense of calm.
Reflection as a regularly scheduled action item for individuals and the collective. Teachers can include time for reflection on growth and learning after exams or between units. Staff can engage students regularly in discussions that leave space for reflecting on emotional challenges and resiliency, perhaps monthly during advisory periods or classroom sessions with a school mental health provider. Administrators can encourage reflection on the things their school does that bring the school community together and those that cause disconnection, by holding feedback sessions that prioritize student and family voice a few times a year.
When educators understand the importance of working together to heal from trauma, they are more likely to engage in trauma-informed activities and practices that support community wellness. As we return to school this fall and create a new vision for what equitable, trauma-conscious education looks like, we must remember that while we were all touched in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not weather this storm in the exact same way. Students, staff, and families will come back into their school community with variable needs. Educators and administrators can take steps now to set up the school building, procedures, and school mental health support system to optimize safety and healing. Working together with staff, students, their families, and community organizations will enhance schools’ ability to meet their school community’s needs effectively.