HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Of Sound Body and Mind: Resilience in the Face of an Ongoing Pandemic

by Oshra Cohen Issue: Remodeling Ma'ayanot Yeshivah High School for Girls, Teaneck, NJ

There is widespread consensus that this year every school’s primary focus will be on health. We have all gotten a crash course in immunology and epidemiology, and have spent many hours and significant financial investment to minimize the risk of Covid transmission. Our schools have held in-services and developed lessons about the protocols of mask wearing and physical distancing. We have labored to figure out ways to teach while keeping everyone safe. The next task at hand, one that is likely to exist long after Covid is gone, is creating protocols to mitigate the emotional challenges our students face as a result of the pandemic.

Rates of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents have been steadily rising over the past 10 years, from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011- 2012, according to the CDC. Schools have been and continue to be at the forefront of helping children and their parents navigate these mental health challenges. As students return to school, be it in person or virtually, we expect to see an increase in both health anxiety and generalized anxiety stemming from a deep sense of uncertainty about the future. We expect to see an increase in rates of depression due to prolonged isolation and reduced physical exercise, and we anticipate social challenges stemming from lack of face-to-face contact.

Most children spontaneously recover and are able to overcome these feelings. To ensure that resilience is achieved and to protect those who will not be able to overcome these difficulties on their own, our focus this year should be on teaching resilience skills. As we search for a vaccine to immunize us against the virus physically, we can already “vaccinate” our students against the stress and anxiety they are experiencing and teach them positive approaches to coping. We do that by creating multitiered systems of support, starting with caring for our caregivers.

PARENTAL SUPPORT

Research on ways to reduce rates of PTSD in children who experience ongoing threats to health and wellbeing indicates that one of the most effective interventions is the reduction of anxiety and stress for parents. Children whose parents report better stress management abilities demonstrate less stress and anxiety and better ability to cope with fearful situations.

Parental stress over health concerns, financial challenges and child-care difficulties contribute to a stressful home environment. Younger children in particular are prone to absorbing parental stress and are less likely to be able to articulate it. This is particularly salient when children are “Zoom”ing in from home. Some parents will not be able to supervise learning or to compensate for services that are usually provided by trained learning specialists.

When planning lessons, teachers must take into account the level of parental involvement that might be required and modify accordingly. Offering educational programs for parents where they can learn to identify and modify their own stress reactions will help shore up parents who will, in turn, scaffold children.

Consider:

Offering stress-management classes for parents.

Asynchronous learning to afford parents flexibility in terms of when they need to be available for their children’s educational needs.

Maintaining ongoing dialogue with parents via phone calls, emails or Zoom in order to modify expectations accordingly.

Providing parents with positive language to use when framing for their children how to overcome challenges, for example using the rose, bud, thorn technique in which children need to identify what’s working well (the rose), an area to be worked on or explored (the bud), and something that isn’t working well (the thorn). The aim is to help children see a fuller picture of their current experience in which we can identify a range of experiences and emotions.

Teach parents how to model and use emotionally validating language (“I understand why that feels overwhelming”).

Teach parents how to model and use coping statements (“This is hard and I can get through it,” “Let me think what would be helpful right now”).

TEACHER SUPPORT

Teaching is hard work, now more than ever. Our teachers are being asked both to create in-person lesson plans and to be ready to switch to virtual lesson plans within hours. Teachers are tasked with helping children and adolescents (who have been out of the classroom for many months and may continue to be out for more) reintegrate back into a social environment. It will fall upon teachers to remind students how to socialize appropriately and to help them maintain, be it in vivo or virtually, a sense of decorum and the stability of routines. Our teachers need to inspire, motivate and maintain discipline.

While most educators report that teaching is a profession replete with meaning, it is also a profession that has high rates of burnout. In a survey of 5,000 teachers, conducted by CASEL and the Yale Center for Emotional intelligence, the most frequent emotions reported by teachers were anxiety, fear, worry, feeling overwhelmed and sadness. Teachers cannot be present for the students’ emotional needs if their own psychological needs are not being met; therefore, supporting our teachers during this time is paramount.

Teachers would benefit from psychoeducational workshops on how to cope with their own stress and anxiety, and from instruction on how to support and enhance students’ social- emotional wellbeing in the classroom. Additionally, as demands upon teachers’ time increase, it is important to remain mindful of teachers’ need for work-life synergy and the need for their own “mask breaks” (literally and figuratively). It will be beneficial to provide faculty with a safe and supportive environment in which to share their concerns and provide them with evidence-based interventions designed to regulate emotions. We can only teach that which we know; allowing faculty to learn and practice social- emotional strategies will in turn allow them to teach those strategies to their students.

Consider:

Providing psychoeducation regarding anxiety and depression and the way they manifest in the classrooms.

Strive to provide the opportunity and time for work-life synergy by allowing time off for familial obligations that are Covid-related.

Allow faculty to express their own fears and concerns.

Plan mask breaks for teachers.

Show gratitude and appreciation.

ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT

“No person is an island,” not even an administrator. In addition to coping with the same reality as the rest of the world, administrators are also carrying the responsibility of making major health, academic, social and emotional decisions for large numbers of students and their families and for teachers. Thus, they too need their emotional needs addressed in order to set the tone for and be available for all those affected by their choices as well as being aware of their ability to help bolster the resilience of faculty and students alike. Providing administration with a spirit of flexibility and adaptability will reduce the stress placed upon them as they are charged with making decisions in a world of uncertainty.

Consider:

Time off (hours off if days are not possible).

Encourage lay leadership to act with a spirit of flexibility and adaptability.

Training in approaches toward modeling social-emotional skills to faculty, parents and students.

STUDENT SUPPORT

Through supporting parents, teachers and administrators, we can create the warm environment that our students need in order to be resilient in the face of this challenge. Children are coming back into our classrooms having encountered a diverse range of experiences. Some children have suffered a loss of a loved one; others had to take over parental responsibilities while parents were sick or had to work. Children may be feeling anxious about the changes to their schedules, the new physical distancing rules and masking. Additionally, the challenges of social interactions after months of isolation need to be addressed as well.

Ongoing conversation between teachers, guidance staff and students on how to manage difficult emotions and building strong relationships are necessary. We need to ask, “What is going on in my student’s life, and how can I demonstrate empathy and understanding?” The ultimate aim is to develop strong, protective, appropriate relationships with students as well as support students in developing strong peer relationships.

Integrating skills such as having and expressing gratitude into the curriculum provides children with an additional protective factor during challenging times. Finally, it is important to support the children who may be the most vulnerable. Children who indicate more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD should be identified as early as possible and be referred for more focused therapeutic interventions.

Consider:

Help students fortify social relationships, with friends, family members, teachers and the larger communities.

Provide opportunities to reflect gratitude while acknowledging challenges.

Teach and model emotional regulation skills and have students practice them in school.

By abiding by social-distancing regulations, we do our part to protect ourselves and others from the physical risks of Covid-19. By emotionally supporting parents, teachers and administrators and teaching them how to model and incorporate social-emotional teaching in their interactions, we can do our part to protect and help heal our children from the virus’s psychological toll. Hopefully, with both approaches together, we and our students will emerge from this challenge of sound body and mind.

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Remodeling

This issue examines how schools are adapting to the challenging circumstances of conducting business during the Covid-19 pandemic. Articles explore ways that school leaders are managing to organize stakeholders in a crisis; that schools are collaborating with each other and internally as a community to strengthen all systems; that educators are reinventing Jewish education through these exigencies by using online tools and shifting their pedagogies. Authors seek to find changes in the present that may have lasting value for a future, post-Covid reality.

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