School districts and parents across the country are focusing on how to keep children safe as they head back to school this fall. These conversations are essential as we do everything we can to protect our kids’ health and learning through the pandemic. While highly visible and politically divisive measures like masks or distancing dominate the headlines, there are additional essential protections that kids need from us as we embark on another uncertain school year.
Every one of our kids, whether they have packed a mask in their backpack or not, is bringing harder-to-see strengths and vulnerabilities that will shape their learning and wellbeing. Let’s name and prioritize the protective measures that can buffer kids from the worst impacts of toxic stress and prepare them to navigate the challenges ahead. Perhaps most importantly, let’s create and sustain systems that don’t leave these protections up to chance.
“Let’s name and prioritize the protective measures that can buffer kids from the worst impacts of toxic stress and prepare them to navigate the challenges ahead.”
For a long time, we only studied what went wrong in the lives of kids who experience a lot of adversity. In the last couple of decades we’ve started asking what goes right in the lives of those same kids. A clear factor emerges when we look for the positive childhood experiences that protect kids from poor outcomes: connectedness. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one warm and committed relationship with an adult.
Strong relationships alone aren’t going to solve all of our problems nor are they substitutes for building equitable systems that support kids and families. But relationships are the “active ingredient” that these other solutions can’t do without.
What does that mean for us this fall? At school this might look like ensuring that students are treated with unconditional positive regard and that their strengths and capacities are the anchors of connection.
At home, this means staying connected with our kids through stressful times. Let’s be clear that connection with our kids doesn’t mean instagram-ready perfection or forced positivity. Fun and happiness are parts of connection but aren’t the sum of it. Instead, connection is communicating that we are on the same team in the face of challenge. It’s avoiding power struggles and battles when we are setting boundaries. It’s communicating to kids that our relationships can handle their big feelings – even when they are messy and overwhelming.
“Our social needs are not met by just being in proximity to others. Our fundamental need is to belong. Just take it from Mister Rogers, who knew how important it was for children to know that ‘I like you just the way you are.'”
We’ve spent nearly eighteen months figuring out creative ways to be physically distanced yet socially connected. But our social needs are not met by just being in proximity to others. Our fundamental need is to belong.
A sense of belonging in our schools, families, communities, and groups has been linked to better stress management, stronger relationships, higher levels of motivation and achievement, and greater feelings of happiness and optimism. The opposite feeling, that of not belonging, puts us at higher risk of mental illness, poor physical health, and feelings of hopelessness.
The challenge is that belonging isn’t measured by simply participating in activities like eating dinner together as a family, showing up to a school building, or signing up for a group. Belonging is measured by how we feel about ourselves and others once we get there.
While many really think about belonging in early adolescence, even very young children are starting to ask questions like, “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit?” Just take it from Mister Rogers, who knew how important it was for children to know that “I like you just the way you are.”
This means that we don’t do kids any favors by ignoring what makes them who they are. Kids deserve to feel included and valued because of, not in spite of, their identities, histories, and experiences. From early childhood through adolescence, kids need us to consistently communicate through both policy and practice “Your whole self is welcome here.”
“Acknowledging uncertainty doesn’t mean promoting chaos or ignoring sources of toxic stress. Far from it. It is about acknowledging and naming emotions, breaking big and overwhelming tasks into more manageable parts, and learning and practicing skills to move through them.”
Coping With Uncertainty
There are plenty of feelings and worries – large and small – that are showing up for kids, parents, and educators alike that can get in the way of our ability to connect and problem solve together.
It can be tempting to respond to kids’ concerns with either heavy reassurance or by taking over completely. Psychotherapist and anxiety expert Lynne Lyons argues that when it comes to worry, we would be much better off helping our kids “roll around with the uncertainty and go with the mights and maybes” than to try to constantly persuade kids that everything will be great and one hundred percent predictable. This would be a good time to distinguish between the things that are good to know (things like basic routines, teacher assignments or safety measures) and the things that we can’t know or that we need to learn-about-as-we-go.
Acknowledging uncertainty doesn’t mean promoting chaos or ignoring sources of toxic stress. Far from it. It is about acknowledging and naming emotions, breaking big and overwhelming tasks into more manageable parts, and learning and practicing skills to move through them. As Lynne Lyons reminds us, “The opposite of anxiety isn’t certainty. The opposite of anxiety is tolerating uncertainty.” Learning to tolerate (appropriate levels of) uncertainty involves everything from externalizing worry to practicing stress recovery skills to participating in collective solutions to our concerns.
“Empathy is one of the core “pro-social skills” that enable young people to build community across differences, navigate ethical challenges, and put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters.”
We all hope that our children grow into compassionate, courageous, and empathetic adults. We may not agree on much in this country right now, but we do seem to have consensus that raising caring children is a worthy goal.
However, as the saying goes, “hope is not a plan.” Even before the current divisions we are navigating, Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project highlighted a “rhetoric/reality gap” when it comes to empathy and caring. The report found that nearly eighty percent of youth think their parents are more concerned with achievement and happiness than helping others.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with achievement and happiness. Nonetheless, part of growing up is learning how to respond when these interests collide with the needs of others. Empathy is one of the core “pro-social skills” that enable young people to build community across differences, navigate ethical challenges, and put the collective good ahead of their own self-interest when it matters.
Play. Rest. Repeat.
While this is a sober and serious time on many levels, we cannot ignore the activities that bring us joy and help us recharge. Indeed, as stress piles on, we risk sidelining things like play and rest when we need them most. While most people acknowledge that little kids need to play, too often it takes a back seat as we grow up. The evidence is clear though that play is not a frivolous diversion from the things that matter most. Instead, all of us benefit from play. Play and playful interactions build connections, brain power, and protect our mental health. Play can fuel our engagement with each other and the world, not distract from it.
Navigating the pandemic and coping with uncertainty is a marathon, not a sprint. So let’s double down on our toolkit for recovery and recharge. Let’s prioritize play and rest. Not as a retreat from the world – but to sustain our capacity to engage with it.
“Let’s double down on our toolkit for recovery and recharge. Let’s prioritize play and rest. Not as a retreat from the world – but to sustain our capacity to engage with it.”
Keep going, keep growing.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the protections our kids deserve as they head into the school year. But with all the talk of mandates in the news, this is a powerful time to consider the additional measures that set all kids up for a healthy and safe year of learning during COVID and beyond. Kids need parents and teachers on the same team as we enter another unpredictable school year. Let’s work to prioritize mandates for connection, for belonging, and for navigating these high levels of uncertainty together.