Teachers, your job is BIG this year. EXTRA BIG. You are being asked to get children to go against their instincts—instincts that drive them to be close to one another (and you), to explore their world through touch, and to feel free and comfortable (not confined by face coverings). Many of these kids have not yet developed the skills (ahem, impulse control) to do what is being asked of them. And, you are being asked to consider their emotional well being and mental health, in addition to physical safety and academics.
This may seem an impossible combination of tasks, and at first I thought it was. But then I remembered who my kids’ teachers are. We are very lucky because my children attend a small school with a strong sense of community and amazing teachers. Teachers who end up all over the media for creating petitions and advocating for a safe school environment. Teachers who attend a non-mandatory training on the evening of their birthday to learn more about child development and education through relationship. So to any teachers who are doubting themselves, please remember that many parents and kids trust that you have what it takes to do a great job this year. And please accept my suggestions for how to make your classroom safe, without shaming students who forget or refuse to comply with expectations. Please know that I offer these with the utmost humility and respect for what you do.
I can see how easily teachers could end up repeatedly calling out the same handful of students who are not distancing or not wearing their masks. I can see how stressed a teacher could get over this and how that stress could inadvertently land on a child. Unfortunately, it is very easy to cause kids to feel shame. Shame triggers the same sympathetic nervous system response as fear, triggering the fight or flight response in which they can’t learn or change their behaviours. When we cause kids shame, not only does it damage their self-esteem, it can also reduce their compliance, leading to more frustration for teachers and a less safe school environment. So, here are some suggestions to help you set the stage for good compliance with public health expectations AND promote good mental health and well-being in students at the same time.
Take The Lead
These suggestions are designed to take the responsibility and anxiety of following these practices off of children and build you up as the quiet authority children desperately need. The more you see yourself as in charge of creating an atmosphere that makes these practices easy to maintain, the easier your job will be. This is because children respond to that feeling in you of “I’ve got this” which allows them to settle in and become more compliant.
If outside is where kids can have fewer restrictions, that’s where they need to be. There are many benefits to being outside for teachers and kids, including decreased stress, improved behaviour, and better academic achievement.
Don’t Single Anyone Out
In addition to setting up your space in a way that encourages distancing, devise a way of reminding kids of the new expectations that doesn’t call out individual kids or shame anyone. For example, rhymes like “Hands on top; That means stop!” can be created for the class. Something as simple as teaching the kids that when you call out “Mask check, mouth and nose!” every student checks that their mask is on, covering their mouth and nose, and puts their hands on their head when they have confirmed their mask is on properly. There are so many ways to have fun with this in age appropriate ways. Build these callouts into your routine so that the callout doesn’t automatically mean that something is wrong—treat is as a check-in. In fact, try to do the call out when all masks are on sometimes so that the class can see that they can be successful at it.
Create a Fun and Playful Atmosphere In Your Classroom
If you weren’t already doing this, now is the time to start. Kids NEED fun, and I would argue that teachers need it too.
Make It a Game—Even for the Older Kids
Play “two steppin’ cowboy” and get the kids to check on their social distancing—do they need to take a step to the left? To the right? Forward? Back? OR Have a repeat-after-me rhythm where you bang on your desk and the kids have to get to their desks to echo back the rhythm. This way you are getting them to their desks, where they are distanced without even asking. And by the way, you don’t need to explain why you do these things, you just tell them it’s a game.
Focus on What They Can Do Instead of What They Can’t
Often fear is used to motivate compliance: “If you don’t wear your mask, you could get your friends very sick.” Instead, focus on what kids are being empowered to do—protect each other. For example, maybe this year your class can be full of germ fighting heroes whose weapons (or tools) are their masks and invisible bubbles.
Have the class come up with ways to show affection and positivity toward each other while maintaining distancing. Have a visual for this in the class that you can discreetly direct them to when they forget or are driven by their instincts to be close to someone. Remember to validate that need before directing them to solutions: “You really love your friend and want to show her that. Which of the ways on our list would be your favourite way to show her?”
When Things Get Tough, Validate and Inspire
Tell kids that what is being asked of them can be really hard and uncomfortable. Then tell them how impressed you’ve been with how well they have done so far (even if they haven’t—focus on what has gone well). Tell them that you have seen them do hard things before. Then put your confidence in them and trust that they will get back on track.
Adjust Your Expectations
Slow down and treat this like what it is—a freaking pandemic. You are allowed to use your good judgement and change course when needed. If you’re trying to teach a lesson and your students are overheating and getting dysregulated, go outside with them. Being flexible is the only way to come anywhere near checking off all of your to dos—and I know you have a lot of them!
Look After You
Lean on your colleagues and your support systems and remember to do the things that help you come to school with a full heart. And remember how important you are.
So please accept these suggestions, expand on them, and carry the spirit of them into your classroom this year. I know that you don’t need anything else asked of you. I also know that you are looking for ways to do the best you can for our kids. I’m offering these tips because it’s one little thing I can do to help. This pandemic will either make kids more resilient, or cause significant trauma—and in my opinion, the line between trauma and resilience here is quite thin.
You are very often your students’ secondary attachment figure, which gives you the power to help shape this generation of students to come out the other side of this thing more resilient, instead of traumatized. I had teachers growing up who were absolutely pivotal in my development. I have worked with teachers, students, and families for many years, and I have heard from countless kids about their teachers’ power to lift them up or knock them down. Never forget how important you are to your students.
Finally, to any parents reading this, or anyone who knows a teacher— let’s find ways to lift up our teachers this year, and every year. They deserve it. And by lifting up our teachers, we are lifting up our kids. Thank you in advance, teachers, you’ve got this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Swaigen MSW, RSW is the Director of Attuned Families. She consults with schools and families on the social, emotional, and neuropsychological sides of caregiving, teaching, and learning. She has also been quoted in The New York Times and Celebrity Parents Magazine.
This article appears in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.