Collectively Speaking while Socially Distancing

How parents and educators can help students cope with social distancing

By: Christy Tomisek, Ed.D.


While on a socially distanced walk with my husband today, we heard a cacophony of caw-caws. My husband turned to me to ask, “What do you call a group of crows? A gaggle? A flock?” Without hesitation, I responded, “It’s a murder of crows.”

I have a deep abiding love of collective nouns. A murder of crows is one of my favorites. There’s also an ambush of tigers, an intrusion of cockroaches, a mob of emus, a stench of skunks, a thunder of hippos.

As with skunks, collective nouns are often spot on. For instance, an attitude of teenagers. As I continued walking, I thought to myself that there is no other time in our lives when our collective noun is more important to us than in adolescence.

We know how important social connections are to our health and well-being, and the need for social interaction is even more pronounced for adolescents. In fact, an adolescent’s ability to make and keep at least one close friend has repercussions for at least a decade, providing some inoculation from depression and anxiety (Narr, Allen, Tan, & Lomb, 2019). Remaining mindful of this is even more important given the rising rates of mental illness amongst teens (Twenge, et al., 2019). For teens and pre-teens, their friends are their life, and this virus is really throwing a wrench in their plans.

Perhaps many of you also experienced a wide range of emotions emanating from your students or children recently. This past Friday, our last day on campus before we began our impromptu distance learning program, I saw students hugging, crying, fist-bumping, backthumping. Even the ones who had earlier in the week been begging and pleading for us to call school off seemed strangely subdued. The reality of their request hit hard.

This wasn’t like a snow day. (Really more likely a rain day for our part of the States. I’m not kidding. No school for flooding.) It meant they wouldn’t see their friends for at least a month. Suddenly school didn’t seem all that bad.

The emotional roller coaster continued when I arrived home. My daughters were anxious and furious. When would their SAT be rescheduled? Was their entire crew season cancelled? How would they be able to pass their AP tests? When would they ever see their friends? The barrage of questions provided insight into despair so many teens are feeling right now.

So, what can we do to help them cope?

Encourage their parents to allow virtual social interaction.
I know, I know. I’m a little worried about their academic progress too, and though I often comment on the amount of time my daughters devote to social media, the reality is that they really do need it now. With no other way to interact with their friends, I know they will exceed what I would normally consider a sufficient daily social media quota. We will continue to ration food (a whole bag of Oreos in one day is excessive, stress eating or not), but for us, a little more FaceTime is probably in order.

Throw them a bone. Give them an excuse to have to interact.
You know they are dying to talk to each other. Provide some assignments that encourage virtual interaction. Interview a peer, share a draft of a paper. Studies have shown, that although sometimes friends working together in a classroom can become rowdy, they often are more effective when working together (Denworth, 2020). And, even if the assignment is a flop, at least we can chalk it up to a mental health exercise!


Christy Tomisek, Ed.D is director of middle school student support at Baylor School, Chattanooga, Tennessee.

 
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