A Truly New School Year: Emotional Wellness during a Pandemic

If we think back to our childhood days, we probably remember getting something shiny and new for our birthday or Christmas and usually loving it. And sometimes we got a sweater or socks or a book, and maybe we didn’t love that gift so much. Some might say that 2020 has been that less-preferred gift. Yet here we are now, being mature and productive grown-ups, pulling our educational communities back together and getting underway while wearing the metaphorical sweater we didn’t ask for and don’t really like. So let’s take a few minutes to consider ways to care for ourselves in these trying times—especially ways to care for our students, who don’t have a way to be as productive or mature as we can (or try to) be.

We have an enhanced responsibility to consider our students’ emotional wellness.

We will continue to work with students in person and online during this unfolding school year, and we have an enhanced responsibility to consider our students’ emotional wellness. Emotional wellness is the condition that results from using a well-developed ability to identify and manage our emotions in a relevant way, to remain positive in our thinking and goal setting, to demonstrate empathy and respect for others, to remain productive with our decision-making, and to maintain positive and reciprocal personal relationships. People who experience emotional wellness are usually resilient and purposeful when handling adversity. Children and adolescents can develop emotional wellness by learning from healthy adults around them.

When considering our students’ emotional wellness, we must be careful to respect their developmental age. Usually developmental age is predicted by chronological age but not always (e.g., “She is young for her age”). Elementary school students are neurodevelopmentally different from middle school students, who are neurodevelopmentally different from high school students. In addition to obvious physical differences, there are more subtle differences in self-awareness and language usage.

When addressing an issue as complex and critical as emotional wellness, familiarity with the differences among these age groups is essential. In general, elementary school children use language that is relatively concrete, their self-awareness is at the beginning stages, their attention spans are relatively short, and they rely more heavily on their teachers to complete the routines of the day than do high school students. In contrast, older students usually demonstrate better developed self-awareness, more sophisticated use of expressive and receptive language, and more independence in their thought processes and reliance on routine. As a result, each strategy described below will look a bit different among the various age groups—the primary difference being how you talk with your students and what expectations you have about their insight, ability to express feelings, and ability to use strategies on their own.

In children and adolescents, that stress may look like irritability, distractibility, anger, withdrawal, noncompliance, abrupt changes in mood, perfectionism, school avoidance, stomachaches and headaches, and crying.

During a typical year, teachers interact with students who demonstrate an array of sparkling strengths as well as with those who experience great difficulties. Those difficulties may include mental health challenges, physical health challenges, socioeconomic challenges, and situational stressors. Currently, we are experiencing a truly new year during which we will continue to see these difficulties, and they may even be amplified. In addition, we experience a shared stress related to the pandemic. That stress may include health fears, financial loss, and grief related to loss of access to leisure activities and peers along with disruption of routines. In children and adolescents, that stress may look like irritability, distractibility, anger, withdrawal, noncompliance, abrupt changes in mood, perfectionism, school avoidance, stomachaches and headaches, and crying. Notably, children and adolescents who experience anxiety during a typical year will now require additional support and understanding.

Anxious students may exhibit the following:

  • late to class or missing class entirely
  • frequent complaints of headaches and stomachaches
  • frequent requests to use the bathroom
  • reporting new worries that seem ungrounded to you
  • responding with “No!” during routine activities
  • not completing course tests within given time limits
  • tears
  • throwing away homework they consider imperfect
  • taking things that don’t belong to them
  • “deer in headlights” facial expression
  • more squirming or fidgeting than usual
  • falling asleep in class
  • not eating their lunch
  • clinging to parents at the beginning of the day or frequent calls home
  • withdrawing from peers

In the following paragraphs, we will discuss a few concepts and strategies to consider while supporting our anxious students and building resilience, both in individuals and in our educational community, in an effort to improve and sustain our emotional wellness. Many of us have already had a taste of distance learning, as we have worked with students online, and it may be helpful to know that these strategies work even from that distance.

Develop and maintain rapport. Even if you know your students well, have taught their sisters and brothers in the past, or have attended the same church as them for years, this is a truly new year. Your students are different than they were at the beginning of the past school year, and so are you. Warm rapport will help you know your students in relevant ways and will help them feel comfortable with you, both of which are important in a new way this year. Rapport can be maintained through verbal and written communication, eye contact and facial expressions, participation in nonacademic conversation and activities, and using the art of listening. This year especially, it is important to listen to and observe your students rather than talk at and direct them. While there are numerous things we don’t know about what is happening in the world, near and far, efforts to establish and maintain rapport allow your students to know one thing for certain: you are there for them. That knowledge goes a long way toward quelling anxiety.

Practice prevention and build resilience. This is the year to implement whole group strategies as a matter of routine, in advance of seeing distinctive signs of stress and anxiety among individual students. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Sheryl Rozema (PhD, NCSP) has enjoyed working for All Belong as a school psychologist for the past sixteen years (following sixteen years working in public schools). She also has a private practice in Grand Rapids where she completes evaluations and works with children and adolescents in individual behavior therapy. She is happy to report that she is as strongly committed to providing thoughtful and relevant evaluation and treatment services to students, in consultation with their teachers and parents, as she was when she began her career more than thirty years ago.