If a friend came to you and said they were overwhelmed,
what advice would you give them?
This school year is nothing anyone could have expected or predicted. COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a stressful and even traumatic event that requires educators to make sense of the new situation and choose appropriate coping actions. Tens of millions of students are dealing with massive changes to their education.
Teachers are expected to know how to adjust to virtual environments and significant changes to their lesson plans. All these emotions – fear, anxiety, uncertainty – are understandable. After all, there is no manual for dealing with a sudden pandemic. But even before COVID-19, teachers reported that their most frequent emotions throughout the day were fear, stress, and anxiety (Moeller, J., Ivcevic, Z., White, A. E., Menges, J. I., & Brackett, M. A. (2018). Social-emotional learning aims to highlight and foster self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making. Adults and children benefit from social emotional learning.
Educators may have stress-related feelings that could encompass a variety of topics. It may be personal, including a general fear that they or someone in their family may contract COVID-19. There also could be stress around managing their own and their families’ needs while simultaneously working full-time from home and adapting to new technologies for teaching.
Here is a powerful strategy great educator like you can use for yourself and for your students to develop the coping skills needed to adjust to our new realities. That “must do” is the practice of social-emotional learning and psychological distancing. According to Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale University and director of their Center for Emotional Intelligence, social-emotional learning is critical to managing the anxieties of this time.
Simple Things Teachers Can Do
Sometimes the best way to help yourself is to not think of yourself. That’s right. Stop thinking about yourself and all the questions that you have. It is a method called psychological distancing, and it is a powerful technique that adults and children can use. Psychological distance is the mental distance you create by detaching yourself from what you are experiencing. It is a process of stepping outside yourself in your mind’s eye. It is one way to relieve the stress and anxieties experienced during times of stress. Psychological distancing has been shown to help with emotional self-regulation, decision making, and problem-solving. These are critical skills that we want for ourselves and our students.
Often, we tend to “zoom in” on real or potential problems to gain a closer perspective on the task. But this mental “zooming” can end up making some problems harder to sort out because close psychological distance can also increase negative feelings.
Teachers can begin by encouraging students to stop thinking about themselves. Much like reflecting on the advice given to an overwhelmed friend, teachers can pose the right questions to their students. Encourage them to answer questions like: “What would I do to support my best friend who told me they were anxious about the coronavirus?” Students will stop thinking about themselves and think through strategies of compassion toward someone else. These same strategies can then be applied to themselves and to evaluate the quality of their own self talk.
This starting point can be beneficial for teachers as well. Ask yourself, “How do I want to feel?” and consider your answer. Better yet, a principal or group of teachers can pose that question to their staff. Then ask what they need to do better to achieve the emotional goals and needs of their staff based on their answers.
Another thing that teachers can do to get started are morning check-ins. Ask your students how they are feeling, how things are going, and about their concerns. For younger students, teachers can read books virtually and then reflect on the social-emotional skills of the characters in those books.
There is no exact method for dealing with the pandemic and no sure way to “prepare” yourself emotionally for it. But one thing remains true: everyone relies on social connections to get through the difficult times and this pandemic is no different. Continue to do the fabulous job that you do as an educator and know that you are not alone.
Commit to try out the technique of psychological distancing during morning check ins – you may be surprised by what brilliant advice you and your students have for others.