Whether your child is heading back to school in person, online or via a hybrid model, the school year looks and feels different. Stress levels are high, uncertainty reigns, and routines that usually anchor us during transitions are absent. Amidst all this uncertainty, it would be easy to focus our attention on the most tangible things in front of us – How do I use this Chromebook? Where is the Google Meet link? What are the protocols going to be at school?
These are all important details that ensure access to safe learning. But there is another set of less tangible tools that are just as important as we prepare to navigate the school year ahead. They aren’t as easy to capture in checklists and can’t be loaded onto your child’s device. They do, however, help form the mental and emotional architecture that will buffer your child from stress and prepare them to navigate learning in a pandemic.
Connection is the primary way that children regulate their emotions and manage stress, allowing them to access their cortex for thinking and learning. The challenge is that connection isn’t always easy and the pandemic strains our ability to connect in familiar ways. We can compensate for this at home by communicating the messages, “Our relationship can handle your big feelings,” and “we can do hard things together.”
Emotional regulation allows children to settle their stress response enough to access their “thinking brain” and consider right action. But as we start the school year, let’s remember that emotional regulation is not the same thing as quiet and compliant. We must continue to grapple with big, complicated questions and take meaningful actions around anti-racism and equity that are essential to our children’s wellbeing and our collective future. Preparing our kids to grow into and do this important work means helping them know and name their feelings, learn the context for them, and build tools for settling their bodies enough to channel feelings into healthy actions for themselves and others.
Teachers are working overtime to create safe learning environments at school or to bring teaching and learning online. Administrators are working hard to find ways to provide food and technology to families who need them. Caregivers are juggling full time work, the strain of job loss, or the stress of working on the front lines at the same time they are working to support distance learning at home. Children need caregivers and educators on the same team more than any online learning platform or single assignment. Our capacity to form collaborative relationships that support student wellbeing during this time is key.
At this point it’s clear that living through this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. For many of us, our “surge capacity” that might have helped give us focus and energy last spring has been depleted. We need to remember that “stress lives in our bodies before it lives in our brains.” This is especially true for young children. In other words, we can’t expect our kids to verbally process their way through this time. Indeed, if you ask a four year old, “How are you doing?” they are likely to say, “Great!!” and then proceed to throw all of their toys against the wall before falling to a sobbing heap. Many teens are equally as unlikely to share their inner lives with us when we ask. With this in mind, prioritizing activities like play, nature, sleep, and exercise aren’t just nice, they are essential. Remember, your recharge activities don’t have to be ideal, they just need to be real.
Kids, parents and educators alike are starting this school year with all sorts of supplies and feelings. The pencils, notebooks, tablets and headphones fit neatly on shelves or inside their backpacks. The feelings – including excitement, fear, enthusiasm, and misgivings – can be harder to pin down. We are all bringing something intangible but very important to our mental health: a set of beliefs about our ability to learn and grow. Growth mindset is no substitute for real, sustained work confronting racism and transforming education to support all students. But, done well, growth mindset can complement systems-level work by communicating to our kids that stretch mistakes are welcome and that their brains can keep growing no matter where school happens.
As we dive into this school year, there will be times where it feels like we can’t come up for air. In those moments, rather than diving deeper on our own, let’s be sure to look up and towards each other. Let’s work to stay focused on the things that matter most: our connections, our collective wellbeing, and our capacity to learn and grow. It’s going to be far from perfect. But our kids will remember more about our efforts on these fronts than anything they can fit into their backpacks or load onto their tablets.