My 11-year-old son recently got an email from his coach, Ava Benach, on what was supposed to be his first day of baseball practice. “Hi team,” she wrote. “I wanted to send a brief link of Juan Soto that shows you what a remarkably disciplined hitter he is. This is a two-pitch sequence from Justin Verlander (no slouch) during the World Series.” The coach goes into more detail about the clip, then urges each player to toss a pop fly to themselves or to a sibling, get in some tee work, or simply hold a baseball in their hands.
Benach instinctively knew what her team needed most: to feel that all wasn’t lost, that they were still members of a team, and that they still had a coach who cared about them. The more this pandemic turns middle schoolers’ lives inside out--canceling everything from school musicals to sports to birthday parties--the more they'll crave normalcy. And without life experience or the ability to maintain much perspective, they’re going to need a lot of support.
Here are four ways educators can help.
Infuse humor into as many interactions as possible.
This isn’t about dismissing kids’ real sense of loss or isolation, or minimizing their stress about adjusting to new academic expectations--it’s about validating their feelings and lightening the mood. Everyone needs emotional relief, and it’s nearly impossible to feel stressed and to laugh at the same time. So when I want my son to go outside, I jokingly tell him his friend “Bob” wants to play with him. Bob not only isn't a person, he’s his pitching net. He's like Wilson the basketball in the movie "Cast Away," a symbol of my son's absurd and socially unsatisfying current reality.
Don’t neglect ordinary middle school concerns.
On the Friday before school shut down, a student left this note on my desk. “Hey Ms. Fagell, can you explain to seventh grade why pimples happen?” At the time, news outlets from Italy to the District were grimly covering the Corona virus 24-7, people were selling hand sanitizer on the black market, and parents were worrying about elderly relatives and job security.
Clearly, tweens process differently than adults. Even in the midst of a pandemic, they're going to worry about a mildly offensive comment someone posted on social media or a botched assignment. If you’re using video technology to teach classes or run advisories, or if you’re checking in with students over the phone or even by email, make space for them to talk about the small stuff. It's big to them. And to the extent possible, give them opportunities to engage with one another online as well. My son’s sixth grade teacher set the expectation that everyone in her class would connect by phone or via face-to-face technology with someone who doesn’t live in their household at least once every three days.
Help kids minimize drama and conflict.
Keep in mind that stressed-out kids are not at their peak. In the absence of face-to-face contact or any interpersonal normalcy, there’s a high likelihood that educators will see an uptick in drama. Students may have a shorter fuse, overshare in a group text chain, post something cruel, incorrectly assume they’re being excluded, or miss the signs that they’ve annoyed or offended someone else. Remind kids that they’ll be held accountable for bad behavior, and remind parents to stay vigilant and monitor their kids’ online interactions.
Educators also can help students pull any extreme thoughts back to the middle. If a student fixates on the idea that someone hates them, for example, you could ask, “What’s the evidence that that’s true? What’s the evidence that that’s not true? How could you manage it productively if that friend does need a break?” This also is a good time to reinforce the importance of making amends, including asking a person they offended what they can do to make it right.
Model emotion self-regulation.
Many educators’ stress levels are through the roof. They’re adjusting to sudden changes in how they deliver instruction, they’re managing their own fears amidst tremendous uncertainty, and many are tasked with teaching their students and their own children. Some are taking care of older relatives, too. Emotions are contagious, so take care of your own needs so you can be a non-anxious presence for your students.
Don’t just utilize coping strategies, share them out loud. You might tell kids, for example, that you were feeling anxious about everything going on, so you made sure you went to bed early instead of watching hours of news footage, and that helped you feel much better. While you're at it, make sure they're setting reasonable expectations for themselves, and try to lower the academic stress. There's no upside to piling on the work or excessively focusing on grades. These are not ordinary times, and everyone is going to need a little extra grace and flexibility.
An administrator asked me last week if I was worried that my students will experience a drop in social-emotional skills because they're not able to attend school. I’m not. In fact, I suspect that students will return to school with a greater sense of gratitude for all the friends and sensitive adults in their lives, and a heightened capacity for empathy, patience, forgiveness, and flexibility. I believe that educators also are likely to emerge from this period feeling stronger, more compassionate, and more self-aware.
Check out this free webinar featuring Phyllis Fagell sharing ideas for promoting student wellness during the pandemic.
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.