Strong emotional reactions and increased social discomfort are predictable responses as youngsters emerge from more than a year of isolation and altered routines caused by the pandemic. Anxiety is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to uncertainty. While in-person activities may be billed as a “return to normal,” it also brings with it the tensions of social interactions with which children have been out of practice. As a result, children’s bodies are kind of primed to feel really more uncomfortable than ever before in going towards those things.
To ease the adjustment, parents and teachers must listen and observe, help children shift their focus, reestablish routines and communicate with each other. This won’t be an ideal transition but if we stick to those basics, we will get there.
What Parents Can Do
For parents, it is recommended to learn the signs of anxiety and simply paying attention. Checking in every day, like, ‘How’s your anxiety? How’s your depression?’ can be a little bit much for a kid. So, it’s about observing their behaviors, observing what they’re struggling with and then sort of having an open-ended conversation with them.
While problems such as bullying or severe depression may require help from school leaders or a psychologist, anxiety usually comes from the “what ifs.” The fastest way to get out of that spiral is to help children ask different questions and plan action. Planning that action actually creates a lot of relief. It’s like you’ve just given your body the signal that you’re OK because you’ve just planned to do something.
Shifting the focus doesn’t mean pretending everything is OK and it doesn’t mean children won’t experience discomfort when they get back on the bus or in the classroom. However, it can guide children to strategies for making themselves feel better in challenging moments.
What Teachers Can Do
Rather than waiting to respond to warning signs, schools should proactively help students process what’s happened in their lives since March 2020 so that kids don’t feel like they’re supposed to pretend to be normal.
Affirming children’s emotions is one of the best things adults can do as kids cope with stressful changes. Our job is to demonstrate confidence and calm and that they’re going to be OK. Another role that teachers, in particular, can play is creating predictability. That can include taking tours of the school and classroom, setting behavioral expectations, breaking down tasks into individual steps and providing an agenda. Every time we consistently do something, our body learns and it resets and it will get better.
With amplified stress this year, kids might need more practice with routines and teachers might need more patience. Making time right away for students to build relationships is a lesson teachers can take from summer camps. And getting outside and being active is a great way to do that. Kinetic and experiential is precisely what kids need after they’ve been isolated and sheltered for 18 months.”
It is recommended to start with small steps and building up to manage the tension between social anxiety and the need to connect. For example, instead of jumping into round-robin reading, a teacher can have pairs read aloud to each other, then to a group of five, then to the whole class.
When tolerable anxiety morphs into a breakdown or acting out, removing the student from the classroom or stressor isn’t the best idea. It’s a short-term solution because the relief from the fight-or-flight reaction actually came in the form of leaving the problem and now you’re probably going to have it come up again. Instead, it’s better to find a small task that allows the student to regain a sense of control — that planned action idea again. Ideally, the task will include an avenue for rejoining the group when the student is ready. For instance, a teacher might ask if the student wants to organize the classroom bookshelf for a few minutes and then pick one book that the class can read together.
Let us know in the comments below how you help students re-adjust to social settings.