How educators and parents can help students — and themselves — emotionally cope with pandemic and socio-political stress.
A pandemic. Political divisiveness. A storming of the United States Capitol.
It sounds like the makings of a political thriller, but it’s the reality Americans have been living for the past year. On a local level, families have been impacted by lockdowns, business and school closures, distance learning, working from home, job loss — and lots of anxiety.
It hasn’t been an easy time. Big, world issues are directly impacting the everyday lives of families and educators, and with that comes stress. So how can schools and parents cope with the emotional and mental health needs of their children and themselves?
“Similar to students and individuals across the nation, the cumulative impact of COVID-19 has had a significant emotional impact on some of our students, families and staff,” said Sunny Shen, director of Prevention and Intervention at Irvine Unified School District. “We have seen a wide range of individual responses from trauma responses, to emotional dysregulation, to astounding personal resiliency. In August of 2020, IUSD hosted a district-wide professional learning day for all teachers and administrators specifically focused on trauma-informed care to support the overall well-being of students and staff in our schools. The message was to acknowledge our shared experience, accept that the circumstances are stressful, create opportunities for students to share their emotions, and provide resources and strategies to help reduce the symptoms of stress.”
Private and public schools across the county have had to consider the mental and emotional needs of students — and staff — perhaps more than ever before. The format varies depending on the school, but the goal of addressing the mental and emotional needs on campus is the same.
“Emotional trauma is a concern for both students and for our staff,” said Donna Koontz, education director at LePort Montessori Irvine Spectrum North. “The ongoing and chronic stress of the pandemic and recent events have made an impact on everyone at our various schools. We are all practicing self-care and observing how the children are doing during our time with them.”
Developing Social-Emotional Learning
Social-emotional learning (SEL) — a concept that involves how children and adults can develop healthy skills for managing emotions, showing empathy, maintaining relationships, among other things — is not a new idea in education. But the recent world events is bringing this kind of learning to the forefront.
“In September of 2020, IUSD launched an SEL toolkit to support teachers and students in making connections, building self-awareness, and teaching effective coping skills,” said Shen. “In the spring of 2021, many of our schools will be piloting an SEL screening instrument that will give us more data about how to support our students’ social-emotional growth.”
Derek Walsh, COO and chief marketing officer at
OC Revive, a mental health and therapy center for teens and young adults in Lake Forest, said social-emotional learning is important because the understanding of emotions can help relieve some of the symptoms.
“The more students can understand what’s going on in their thoughts and emotions, the better equipped they will be to cope, without having to escalate to the point of seeing a therapist,” he said. “Educating students on emotions, how to deal with emotions, normalizing the experiences they are having and giving them an opportunity to be safe in what they are feeling will in the long run build resilience and strong social-emotional functioning.”
Jessie Borelli, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine, said SEL can be a useful classroom tool.
“Social-emotional learning can be a valuable way of introducing skills for promoting mental health into the classroom curriculum in a formal way,” she said. “Children respond favorably to these approaches and they have been shown to improve their mental health.”
Addressing Emotional Needs at School
The Prentice School in Tustin, a private school for students with dyslexia, ADHD and other related special needs, has a full-time marriage and family therapist (MFT) offering individual therapy for students experiencing educationally-related mental health symptoms and behaviors.
“Emotional trauma is absolutely a concern for students and the adults working at school,” said The Prentice School Marriage and Family Therapist Stephanie Ware. “Our lives changed in an instant and required a tremendous amount of flexibility. The continued pressure of uncertain times has been stressful and overwhelming.”
She said students have expressed several anxieties related to the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, social justice concerns, the presidential election and when they can look forward to the return of a “normal” life.
“Students are frequently bombarded with information they are too young to cognitively comprehend,” she said. “Oftentimes students repeat information heard outside of school, which can impact their peers and peer relations. Despite these anxieties, students report feeling much happier being physically on campus instead of participating in distance learning.”
Ware said that as social creatures, most people are drawn to others and need social contact — not just social interactions. The need for social distancing and wearing masks can take an emotional toll.
“These students are yearning for a hug from adults and peers,” she said. “They are tired of wearing a mask. They have trouble interpreting others’ motives and emotions because they cannot read facial expressions to guide their understanding. They often do not hear or understand what others are saying due to wearing masks, which can lead to conflict and misunderstandings. We might observe students needing more breaks throughout the day or pushing back against COVID-19 guidelines.”
If issues come up, teachers help work through them with the student.
“When concerns arise on campus, our teachers and staff will help to support the student by talking with them and offering choices to manage the situation,” Ware said. “If the student is experiencing more intense emotions, either the MFT or student support specialist will intervene and work with the student.”
Koontz said that at the center of LePort’s philosophy is the ability to create trusting relationships among staff and students. This helps with the emotional issues that may arise.
“These relationships allow children to speak candidly with their teachers about a variety of topics and reach out when they are in need of support,” she said.
Borelli said that just by their very existence, schools can promote the well-being of their students by signaling normalcy, introducing structure into children’s lives and exposing them to peers and teachers.
“But schools can go further by explicitly addressing the mental health needs of their students as part of the curriculum — talking about stress and the impact of stress on health and well-being, and discussing ways of effectively managing stress,” said Borelli. “Teachers, too, need extra support during this time, as they are shouldering a tremendous deal of additional stress. School administrators should be checking in individually with teachers to see how they can meet the needs of teachers as well as discussing teacher and staff wellness at faculty and staff meetings. Finding ways of introducing stress-reducing activities into the curriculum can also be helpful.”
Addressing Emotional Needs at Home
Of course, home life is also an important part of emotional and mental wellness for families. Borelli said parents can help guide the way.
“Parents can open up and share when they are having a hard time managing the stress of everything or when they are feeling sad about the things they miss — modeling this type of open expression helps show children that it’s acceptable to share these feelings with others,” she said. “Parents can also share how they handle these hard feelings — by talking about them, thinking of things they can do that help them feel better, imagining better times in the near future, distracting themselves from things that are anxiety-provoking and can’t be fixed, and working towards accepting hard things they’ve lost and can’t regain.”
Parents can also give themselves a break.
“Parents are shouldering such a large burden right now by combining additional home education duties with working and they aren’t going to get it all right all of the time. They can be forgiving of themselves when they make a mistake and they can allow themselves time to decompress, to relax, and to have fun.”
Mitch Shaffer, Ph.D., program director of Stepping Forward Counseling Center in Irvine, said there are several things parents can do at home to facilitate social-emotional learning and help their children adjust.
“Help kids explore their feelings about the changes related to the pandemic by offering them time and space to talk and helping them identify the things they have control over versus what they don’t,” he said. “If in-person school is not an option, parents can help kids to find other creative and safe ways to stay connected with their friends such as scheduled virtual hangouts or online activity-based learning like art or dance classes.”
Parents can also help their kids find a new rhythm with their schedules.
“If school schedules have shifted due to at-home learning, parents can help kids establish new routines that facilitate healthy habits, particularly around sleeping and eating,” said Shaffer. “Even if kids are quarantined at home with just their family, they can still benefit from structured social interactions like game nights, craft projects and family dinners. It is valuable for parents to increase the quality time they are spending with their kids.”
How Art Can Help
Art is more than just a form of creative expression. It can also offer therapeutic benefits in the form of stress and anxiety relief, according to Diana Shabtai, a board-certified art therapist and owner of Art Therapy OC in Newport Beach.
Here are a few of her art activity suggestions:
- Vision boards: “Vision boards are typically made with pictures and crafty items that are glued onto a board, which help depict your outlook/goals for your future. Paints, colored pencils and physical objects can be attached to the vision board as well. … Setting goals is helpful, especially aiding in anxiety that may come with the new year and healing from the pandemic. If you believe that positive things are going to happen, they usually do.”
- Gratitude journal: “Focusing on things you are grateful for can reduce anxiety. Gratitude journals tend to be most effective and beneficial when you write about three items you are grateful for at the end of each day. Your journal can be written, crafty or colorful creative art entries. A gratitude journal is a tool to keep track of the good things in life, as there is always something to feel grateful for no matter how difficult times may be.”
Mandala art: “Creating patterns is mindful and meditative, and helps reduce heightened emotions. The circle can represent a safe and contained space and creating artwork inside the circle can help silence a person’s mind and induce a calm, meditative and relaxing state. In a circle form, you may choose your favorite media — colored pencils, markers, paint, crayons, mosaics, clay, etc. — to create images you may see during meditation or filled with a pattern of shapes and colors.”
by Jessica Peralta
Photo Courtesy of The Prentice School