Written By: Tiffany Creager
As we all deal with the new reality of every day life, we are met with a new challenge. How do we get back to school? Although we do not yet know what school will look like in the Fall of 2020, we know that we need to support our students academically, socially, and emotionally. I put together 6 tips for a healing re-entry plan for schools.
A few days ago, my husband and I joined our neighbors for a socially distant beverage on their porch. Our daughters, nine and five, ran around the neighbors’ yard playing with their two dogs. Our younger daughter pet the dogs over and over, played in the mulch, threw a ball around and got all kinds of five year old dirty. She then wandered over to the porch where we were and had a brief conversation with our friends. This conversation ended in a high-five between Mr. R and our almost kindergartener. Seconds after the high-five, she froze, keeping her hands still and said, “I’m going to need to wash my hands.” It was not the dog petting, mud playing, or dirty ball throwing, but the high five that gave her pause and caused her a moment of genuine fear.
From the beginning of the school shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, I’ve heard at least two schools of thought for how we move forward from this place in history. There is the undeniable desire to return to normal and then there is the acknowledgment that “normal” may not look the same. When working with grieving families, we often talk about a new normal. The way that life will look after the loss. I certainly don’t have the answer, but I do know that even when societal “norms” are restored we will have very few people who weren’t impacted in some way. At least for a period of time, we will have a new normal.
My daughters have been home with (relatively) attentive parents, space for and support in their school work, and a backyard to escape to and play. The narrative they’ve heard from us to explain the changes was that of caution and protection for people like their immunocompromised grandfather with consistent reassurance of their and his safety. We have not been fearful or spoken from a place of fear. We don’t have cable so they have seen zero news coverage and yet, my five year old froze after a high five from a friend who is much more like family than friend.
For months, I’ve wondered and worried how our most vulnerable students would fare during and after this shutdown. I’ve brainstormed ideas for our neuroatypical students, our students whose families have endured loss of income, food, or loved ones. I’ve angst about those who have been left to their own devices because their parents had no choice but to work and of course, for those, who are living in abusive situations. While it will be important to have strategies and resources for our most vulnerable students, it is also important that we create a re-entry plan that is supportive across the tiers. A plan that meets the needs of all of our students and all of our staff.
As I’ve pondered these points and worked with others creating plans for their schools, I have seen a lot of resources focused on trying to get back on track. Then today, I watched Becoming on Netflix and heard Michelle Obama speak about her transition to the White House. She was asked how she got her life back on track during or after the transition and she replied, “It’s not getting back on track, but it’s creating my next track.” Of course! For years, we have been talking about the paradigm shift from traditional to trauma informed or healing centered engagement. We have been training for this and studying it and it is time to go full force in creating that track. But, how? Here are 6 tips for a healing re-entry plan for schools.
1.Create or Tap into a Multidisciplinary Team
In an effort to meet the unique needs of the student and staff population, it is imperative that the plan is created collaboratively and supported by administrators. It will be important to continue these team meetings as the year goes on to continue to evaluate and meet the need as it shifts and changes. This is a wonderful opportunity to really lean into the lessons we have been taking in, in regards to brain development, educational neuroscience and a trauma-informed lens. This group will benefit from understanding these concepts and creating a plan founded in these teachings. It might mean a heavy focus on relationship building to start with an ongoing commitment to connection. Without this team and without a plan, we risk moving forward with academics too aggressively, further impacting the mental health of all. If you don’t have a team that is able to meet the needs, learn more about building that team here.
2. Appoint a Mental Wellness Leader
Once the team has started to create a plan, it is important that the communication of and implementation of the plan is supported in every building. This can be done more effectively with a designated point person who is well versed in the plan, in the needs of the people she serves and who is a trained mental health professional, such as your school social workers or school counselors. It may be helpful to operationalize everyone’s roles to see how this leader’s schedule can be opened up to be available to lead the assessment, intervention and evaluation plans. Head over to the SHAPE system to learn more about initial assessment and tap into their teaming resources for guides in operationalizing roles to utilize your team members in the most beneficial way! Due to the varying level of impact school closures will have on our students, it may be especially helpful to operationalize roles by tiers so that teams are equipped to meet a potentially higher number of tier two and tier three needs.
This person may also oversee integration of strategies outlined below to meet the needs unveiled by initial wellness screeners given to both students and staff at the start of the year. This might mean offering training for teachers to identify common signs of stress or mental health struggles in students to ready the team for early intervention. They may also focus on developing strategies for students to learn about and recognize signs of distress for themselves. Some ideas might include a beginning of the year brain camp. Spend the first week or so front loading social emotional learning and educational neuroscience. Resources like this may be helpful to create such a plan. Building a strong emotional foundation will set students and teachers up for a more productive social and academic school year. Integrate relationships, connections, communication skills and regulatory practice into a predictable schedule with beginnings and endings to further enhance student development. As the year goes on, this representative will help guide students and teachers through the tiers as these skills are identified as strong or lagging and offer ongoing support for growth and development.
3. Create a plan that includes Psychological Safety
Let’s begin by talking about what psychological safety is and what it isn’t. I was first introduced to the term when researching employee wellness tips. Google conducted a five year study that sought out to find out how to develop the perfect Google team. They anticipated finding the perfect cocktail of personalities and skill sets so they might hire these complementary people for a power team. Instead, they were surprised to find that it is not who is on the team that matters as much as how the team interacts!! As a result, they found five key dynamics that made teams successful with psychological safety being far and away number one. In this study, psychological safety was defined as a space in which, “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” Generally speaking, I tend to get a lot of push back when discussing psychological safety in team settings and definitely in school settings. It stirs up comments such as, “the last thing we need is to have kids sitting around being asked how they feel and generating fake feelings just to participate” or “what kind of example are we setting if no one can do anything without risk of having their feelings hurt.” Here’s where it is important to talk about what psychological safety is NOT. According to Amy Edmundson, Harvard professor and researcher of people and teams seeking to make a difference, “psychological safety does not imply a cozy situation in which people are necessarily close friends. Nor does it suggest an absence of pressure or problems.” Instead, psychological safety requires the rather challenging skills of giving and receiving tough feedback. It is an environment that allows for honesty while also leaving room for and even encouraging mistakes without resentment or humiliation. Psychological safety is met when there is mutual respect and trust among coworkers or students.
How do we create psychological safety? We can start as administrators by operationalizing the values of our schools and living those values. My favorite part of a PBIS school is one that has clearly defined expectations with a matrix describing what those expectations look like across settings. Common language is a great first step in creating psychological safety. It removes the guesswork of what the school values look like. In developing that language, we might start with a listening tour. Asking staff or students, what does support from me look like? Or What does respect, safety, trustworthiness (insert school values here) look like and feel like to you? These practices build a foundation for mutual trust and respect. This is further nurtured by integrating relationship building strategies into the fabric of the school day and practicing giving and receiving honest and constructive feedback. Dare to Lead is a great book to further develop these strategies!
4. Connection specific strategies
Creating psychological safety means nothing without positive relationships! All of our students deserve to feel connected and we know the ones who are hardest to reach likely need it the most. That can be hard. But, we can do it! Begin thinking now about strategies to integrate into the daily schedule that facilitate connection. This can be connection between peers as well as connection between staff and students. My favorite way to connect with students individually is using the 2×10. Simply dedicate 2 minutes a day for 10 consecutive school days to one student. Allow that student to talk about whatever their heart desires. It is an evidence based relationship building strategy that decreases undesired behaviors while increasing positive behaviors!
We must also consider and recognize the toll these changes have had on an already stressed staff. It will be difficult for an unappreciated staff to be emotionally available for their students in this way. Creating connections between administrators and staff and between staff members will be as important as developing connections with students. Learn more about staff specific ideas here
5. Recognizing emotions
When we are connected to our students, we are in a good position to guide them in recognizing and naming their emotions. For younger students or students just developing emotional self awareness, you might start by noticing sensations. As students begin to identify and notice bodily temperature change, shaking, tightness, tension, brain fog and so on, they are learning the signs their body sends them when stressed. This identification of early warning signs sets them up for early intervention or regulation! This can be practiced as part of a daily school routine. A few minutes at different times of the day, students might draw or describe their sensations. This will help them recognize feelings of calm versus feelings of stress. Body scans are a great way to really draw attention to sensations that may not be noticed without this mindful practice!
In addition to identifying sensations, educators can help students develop emotional language tying sensations to feelings words. When we give our emotions language we take the power away from the emotion. When we explain how the brain is working, we are letting our students know that they are having a stress based response. They are not broken. They are not “bad.” Their brain is protecting them and we can teach their brain how to re identify safe and stressful situations. This is a game changer for kids who have long viewed themselves as lacking control.
6. Regulatory strategies
Of course, once we’ve given the emotions names, we need to have tools to address said emotions! We can assume that there will be a transition period for many of our students once we return to school. It would be beneficial to plan a block of our day to be dedicated to social emotional instruction and practice. For many, I have seen this occur in a morning meeting setting. This family feel creates a connected safe space to practice identifying and naming emotions while sampling regulatory strategies that will eventually allow students to create their own healing menus. Perhaps we start each day with a few minutes of deep breathing. It is important that our students reflect on how the breath impacts them. We might then move on to a strategy of the week such as tapping, yoga, or journaling. Allow students to document which strategies calm them, which energize them and which they are unaffected by. Eventually, they will have a list of personalized strategies that can be turned into a fun one sheet or easy access document for times of stress.
In addition to social emotional instruction, it is imperative that our students have time to practice these strategies. Opportunities such as free play, group work or partner work can help transition what they are learning into conflict resolution, creative problem solving and critical thinking skills. After such a long period of isolation, it is even more important that our schools are supporting this type of development by giving students the space and time to play and work together.
While we can’t fully predict the impact the closing of schools and social isolation during this global pandemic will have on our students and teachers upon their return to the school year, we can begin preparing for support through a healing centered lens. The greatest benefit of focusing on mental wellness, psychological safety, and social and emotional learning is that these strategies will benefit ALL students. Even those who haven’t been negatively affected by recent events will indeed face adversity of one type or another in the future. By creating space and opportunity for mental health development, we are preparing our students to be advocates for their own wellness. We are arming them with the skills to create positive change in themselves and others. We are setting them up to be available for learning, growth and development on all fronts. The new track we are choosing to build may be treacherous at times, but the destination it leads us to will be worth it. Of that, I’m certain.