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Navigating a Relentless Storm Part I: How Do We Support Our Children Through These Days and Beyond?

November 2, 2020

In October we recognized Mental Health Awareness Month. While it is good to shine a spotlight on mental health in the midst of the relentless “storm” we are all experiencing we should really be focusing on the importance of maintaining and supporting mental health every day! All of our lives have been set adrift amidst the turmoil of these days and the upheaval of routine has left all children, caregivers, and educators with extraordinary levels of stress and anxiety. School days, which have often been thought of as the most rooted and predictable part of children’s lives, no longer provide the necessary stability and support for children. With the unpredictability and back-and-forth between in-person school, online education, remote learning, and Zoom classes alike, children, parents, and educators have been unable to find their footing.

The very real concern of how children are learning and what they are currently missing academically has been compounded with the impact that our current times have on their emotional growth and well-being. A recent NPR segment sheds light on these social-emotional challenges and addresses the fact that children are experiencing isolation-related trauma fueled by unpredictability and they need our support now more than ever. How can parents and teachers find ways to help children talk about their feelings and anxiety about what they are experiencing? How can we help them move forward when we cannot see what might lie ahead?

The lack of consistency in routines, both in-school and out, are causing us to lose opportunities to discuss how children feel. As a result, children might be more likely to hold feelings inside, leading to a sense of vulnerability and a lack of control. These feelings are particularly palpable for young children for whom a clear sense of routine is critical. Without the structure of a consistent school environment, children’s stress and anxiety piles up, leaving little room in the brain for real learning. Children learn their core social-emotional skills primarily through communication and interactions with others, especially with the significant adults in their lives. As the NPR segment discusses, one approach is for parents and teachers to use a trauma-informed approach to work with children in providing additional and extended times to talk about and share their feelings.

In today’s online learning environment, however, this is a challenge that makes it difficult for both parents and educators to provide any resemblance of consistent communication opportunities for children. It is so crucial for us as parents and educators to think outside the box to provide these opportunities for children to express and share their feelings, to listen to and be listened to by others, and to feel comfortable talking about their emotions in a safe and secure manner. The following are ways in which we can authentically connect with children anytime, anywhere, in order to help them identify, understand, and manage the many emotions and concerns we are all experiencing:

Listen to and acknowledge children’s feelings. When we listen and acknowledge children’s feelings, they learn that their feelings are important and valued, which in turn helps them to feel understood, connected, and not so very alone even in times of isolation. Approaching children’s feelings with openness and understanding helps them feel listened to, rather than judged or criticized for their emotions. This is essential for helping children positively cope with stress.

Be honest with children. Avoid comments such as, “you don’t need to worry.” Instead, try saying, “I understand that you are worried. I am worried too, but we will get through this together.” Sharing stories of your shared concern during times of uncertainty and change can help children realize that their own feelings are not so different and most importantly, that they are not alone.

Engage children in conversations about what they think others are feeling right now and what they can do to support their friends and family members who might be worried and scared. This will help them think about emotions, the cause of that emotion, and think about a plan to help others feel better.

In doing so, children are able to think about not only their own emotions, but the emotions of others as they figure out ways to problem solve in and out of the heat-of-the-moment, while also building empathy for others.

Find daily opportunities such as morning Zoom meetings or morning circle discussions for everyone to share their feelings, worries, or anxieties. This exchange opens the door for others to respond and reflect on their own feelings. Incorporate mindfulness into these daily opportunities and try to integrate some form of routine back into your day. Mindfulness practices such as breathing or drawing representations of a feeling can often provide feelings of tranquility even in chaos. Reading stories aloud and identifying what characters are feeling as a group can act as an icebreaker and help children more openly discuss their own experiences.

Try to keep routine and school traditions, even when schooling remotely. Engagement with others within your in-person or online school community can help maintain key relationships and enforce a sense of normalcy.

Support children in managing their emotions effectively so that they are able to deal with and handle their emotions in a healthy and productive way. Helping them to identify, express, and cope with their emotions and the emotions of others is key in promoting a safe experience and helps in reducing feelings of anxiety. Children in this sense, are just like us. When anxiety is not cluttering our brains, we have more brain space available for learning, problem-solving, creativity, and exploration.

These are unchartered waters that we are collectively sailing in right now. There is no playbook for teaching and learning in the midst of a pandemic. Navigating these unchartered waters safely requires us to work together and focus on what we can do to support one another. Give yourself permission to take a deep breath and look to the tools that we do have to call upon. Finding creative ways to connect, paying attention to how children respond to and express their feelings, maintaining as much routine as possible, and remembering to spend time during the day to help children and ourselves feel calm are all ways to help us all maintain a sense of normalcy. In doing so, we are allowing the continued learning and growth of social-emotional skills for our children… and for ourselves! Keep sailing!

Next up: how to be sure to take care of YOU now and beyond.

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