As educators and parents, we know how important routine is for the children we love and care for, but what about our own? The back-and-forth of school environments in 2020 have caused us all to lose our footing. Our new norm is a revolving door of in-person school, Zoom classes, and remote learning with no end in sight. The daily routine of waking up and going to school provides a necessary and consistent schedule for children. Aside from the important learning that happens in school, we cannot and should not ignore the many opportunities for social engagement with other children and teachers that act as a support model for social-emotional learning. The persistent changes to our everyday routine have disrupted so many of these essential support structures for children, making it even more important for parents and educators to prepare to support children’s ability to pivot and adjust, regardless of the school setting.
A recent NPR segment addressed the many ways in which all of this uncertainty has brought an onslaught of questions and concerns from parents and teachers alike about how to support not only their children’s academic process, but also their own emotional needs and well-being. Before teachers and parents can do this, however, they need to look at how they themselves are doing. In order for us to help and support children’s many emotions, particularly those of stress and isolation-induced anxiety that are prevalent for us all, we must first manage our own.
Teaching and learning are an outgrowth of human interaction. Emotions are a foundational and fundamental part of learning, making it vital to provide children with opportunities to express their emotions, share their personal experiences, be listened to, and listen to others in a safe and secure manner. Children are sponges, and they gain knowledge and understanding primarily through their interactions, communications and experiences with others, especially the important adults in their lives. With all the stress and anxiety surrounding these uncertain times, children look to the adults in their lives for support. As a result, how we handle situations, deal with and express our own emotions, and respond to our children as parents and educators is key not only for our own well-being, but also impact our children and their own ability to handle challenging experiences. So, what steps can we take to ensure we do this successfully for ourselves and for our children?
Be aware of and accept your own emotions. With so much going on in our lives, it can be easy to forget to stop and look at what we are experiencing. Remember to be honest about your own emotions first. Recognize, identify, understand, and acknowledge feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety and accept your emotional experience. As we know, children are detectives when it comes to emotions, and they pick up on and respond to the anxiety of their parents, resulting in heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression - a vicious and escalating cycle that begins and ends with you. Isolation-related uncertainty is difficult for the whole family, and how well we as parents and teachers cope with uncertainty and anxiety directly affects how our children respond to these emotions in their own lives. Having feelings is not the problem, it’s what we do with them that matters most. Being aware of your own feelings and accepting that they are normal and felt by many will help you to better manage and deal with anxiety in a constructive way. Deciding on a plan of action can stop the destructive downward spiral in its tracks, leaving you feeling more in control in coming up with solutions to the problem - the first step in helping your child do the same.
Communicate your feelings openly and honestly to your children in an age-appropriate and constructive way. By discussing how you are feeling with your children and explaining the causes for your feelings, you are showing them that experiencing all emotions is okay! In doing so, you are also modeling a healthy response for children while giving them permission to also be open about their own emotions as well. Once again, it is so important for parents and educators to take care of themselves first, so they are able to model healthy emotional responses and coping mechanisms. Attempting to hide, downplay, or diminish your personal struggles can result in more confusion for children, which can become overwhelming as they try to grapple with similar feelings themselves. In expressing your feelings to your child, make sure they know if and when your stress or anxiety is or is not related to them. By talking openly about your emotions, you are modeling effective coping mechanisms for your child to instill. These coping mechanisms are ones that they will reach for time and time again as they learn, grow, and experience all that life throws our way.
Allow time for open and honest dialogue. Once you have shared your emotions with children, allow them to ask questions. Be honest in your responses. It is important to let children know that they are safe to express their concerns. When children feel that they are able to ask questions and receive an honest and appropriate response from the adults they trust, they feel listened to and understood. By creating a safe opportunity for children to ask questions, they then feel accepted in both being curious about emotions and in expressing how they too are feeling.
Take a team approach. Working together to problem-solve and find solutions to your child’s worries and anxieties is so important. Coming up with creative ways to stay socially and emotionally connected as a team during inconsistent times will benefit both you as a caregiver, and your child. Rather than trying to solve the problem for them, show them how you can find solutions together. This will give them a sense of ownership and empowerment. Encourage your child to suggest ideas of what might help them feel better and share your own ideas about what could help you feel better in return. Work to execute the plan of action you set in place and involve your child in the process. Engaging your child in this way not only provides opportunities for feeling empowered and in control, but also lets them know that their thoughts, ideas, and emotions are important and valued. This will help them to develop the resiliency skills necessary to manage and deal with uncertainty and change. As their lead caregiver, it is important for you to set an example of how to handle challenging situations constructively and effectively, modeling the positive habits you want them to foster, while working towards doing the same for yourself.
Being aware of our own emotions, understanding how to manage them, and being honest and open about our feelings will not only help us cope through stress and anxiety, but will also provide a beacon for our children. By modeling effective coping mechanisms and emotion management skills for children, we give them permission to openly share and discuss their feelings, and in doing so, help support their development of essential resiliency skills necessary for navigating the many storms life can bring. Providing safe opportunities for children to learn about and manage their emotions will allow them to do so in more productive ways. When we listen to, accept, and support our children’s emotions, we promote their ability to recognize, understand, manage, and deal effectively with their own emotions and the emotions of others. As we all struggle to find our footing through this relentless storm, it is critical that we as adults take a moment of pause to look at how we are feeling, acknowledge the emotions present, and take the time to manage and cope with them. This is so important, as we caregivers often put ourselves at the bottom of our own list! In giving ourselves permission, we are also making space for our children to do the same. Together, you and your child become a cohesive team - ready and prepared to navigate the waters ahead. Take care, and remember that in taking care of you, you are then much better able to take care of others!
Keeping Your Students’ and Your Mental Health Strong in Stressful Times
“As educators — before you can help children deal with their stress you must learn how to cope with your own stress and the feelings that accompany stress.” - Dr. Donna Housman