By Jennifer L. Anderson, Director of Professional Learning and Organizational Development, School Climate Level 2 Regional Coordinator and Safe Schools Regional Coordinator with Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Pennsylvania
As educators and leaders, we’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time and effort over these past few months becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable in learning new ways to teach. Throughout these efforts of constant crisis management, our primary focus has been on only a portion of the full learning and developmental needs of our learners. The tireless efforts of our educational professionals have certainly not gone unnoticed with the constant flow of virtual meetings and facilitation of virtual learning; not to mention the need to quickly gain access to and learn how to use various learning tools, communication tools, learning platforms, and learning management systems all while recalibrating to our own new realities of working from home and all that that brings.
So, what are we missing?
With the intense focus on the “doing of learning”, it is just as important that we intensely focus on the “why of learning” and the health and wellbeing of our young learners and that of our entire learning ecosystem. Here is the why...
“With shelter in-place measures and widespread organizational closures related to Covid-19 likely to continue for an extended period of time, stress and associated risk factors for family violence such as unemployment, reduced income, limited resources, and limited social support are likely to be further compounded.” (Campbell, 2020)
So, when the declaration for school closures and social distancing were announced and everyone retreated into their homes, for some this was comforting and safe, while for others, it might have felt like a prison sentence.
While many children can retreat to the comforts of loving families and warm and supporting home environments, other children on the other hand, will experience a stark contrast resulting in violence, abuse, addiction, and neglect.
According to a May 21, 2020 news report by the New York Times, jobless claims reached 38.6 million in just these past nine weeks.
The socio-economic strain on American families inevitably impacts our children as an echoing effect from the lack of financial and social stability within our personal lives and within the communities that we live. There is no reprieve. There is no release. There are no faith-based communities to lean on, no gyms to work-out our stress, and no social gatherings to share our common experiences.
In a recent NPR interview with Suzanne Dubus, CEO of The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center - near Boston, reports of domestic violence have risen in recent weeks. “And when they are reaching out, the domestic violence has been escalating or they are in really kind of severe states of trauma and stress and fear. And so it takes a lot to try to figure out what's the next best step.” (Simon, 2020)
However, despite the increasing reports of domestic violence, many child welfare organizations are noting a significant decrease in reports of child abuse or neglect.
“Unfortunately, this decrease may be a result of fewer opportunities for detection as opposed to an actual decrease in incidence. The closures of schools and other critical community organizations has limited key community partners in their ability to detect and report abuse. In the United States, 67% of substantiated child abuse or neglect reports come from victim-serving professionals and 19% of these reports come from education personnel.” (Campbell, 2020)
This alarming call to action is only further illustrated by the dramatic increase in pediatric mental health visits to emergency rooms as a recently published study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (AAP, 2020) The study reports that from 2007 - 2016, “the percentage of children who showed up in hospital emergency rooms for mental health disorders rose by 60% and visits for self-harm increased by 329%.” We have a moral and ethical responsibility to be the caretakers, advocates and guardians in the virtual space just as we do in our brick and mortar spaces.
It is through the observation and responsiveness to the social, emotional and physical experiences of our learners that academic instruction can most effectively be facilitated. So, how might we ground our learning experiences in relationship and connection?
SOME PRACTICAL IDEAS:
Provide Safety and Opportunities to Connect with Learners Each Day...
Co-create routines for learning in the home with learners and their parents;
Check in and connect with your learners every day;
Use the polling feature in Zoom to gauge how your learners are feeling that day;
Use a check the temperature activity at the beginning of the day’s lesson. Pinterest has great ideas;
Send your learners a postcard in the postal mail or an e-card.
Hold a virtual spirit week;
Surprise your learners with a brain break by posting an assignment disguised as a personal message or recognition for their persistence on a project;
Acknowledge feelings of lose during milestones such as graduation, plays, birthdays, and also highlight what they are gaining; help them see the positives;
Provide Ample Avenues and Regular Opportunities for Conversations...
Set-up quick check-in calls or video chats with your learners;
Send personalized videos to each of your learners saying hello;
Post virtual office hours.
Be a Source of Calm...
Model, coach and practice mindfulness activities;
Provide space and time for deep breathing Check out YouTube for short videos.
Provide flexibility in when assignments are due;
Be empathic to the unique circumstances of your learners.
The coronavirus pandemic has abruptly jarred and disrupted school communities through constant waves of challenges that are single-handedly dismantling our well-established educational system. The newness and uncertainty keeps coming without solace; no respite...for any of us. Not for students. Not for teachers. Not for families. Not for businesses. Not for communities. We cannot simply leave it on the desk at night and return to it tomorrow because it’s in our homes too. We can’t even block out some days on the calendar for a much-needed vacation and just leave on a jet plane for a few days. We are in constant survival mode; and with that brings feelings of fear, confusion, skepticism, hesitation, uncertainty, loneliness and hopelessness that consistently swirl in our hearts and in our minds. As a community of learners, from our youngest children to the most senior leader, how we respond ultimately shapes or reshapes what we know of and how we “do” learning. And I would bet for the majority of us, it feels like we are stepping straight out of college and into the “classroom” again for the very first time. Just remember, with the intense focus on the “doing of learning”, it is just as important that we intensely focus on the “why of learning” and the health and wellbeing of our young learners and that of our entire learning ecosystem.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (May 11, 2020). Study: Dramatic increase in pediatric mental health visits to emergency rooms signals need for preparedness. https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/pediatrics2/2020/study-dramatic-increase-in-pediatric-mental-health-visits-to-emergency-rooms-signals-need-for-preparedness/
Campbell, A.M. (2020). An increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic: Strengthening community collaborations to save lives. Forensic Science International: Reports. Volume 2, December 2020, 100089.
NY Times. (May 21, 2020). Jobless claims reach 38.6 million in nine weeks. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/business/coronavirus-stock-market-today.html#link-5635d863
Simon, S. (April 18, 2020). Reports of domestic violence rise in recent weeks amid coronavirus lockdowns. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/18/837855166/reports-of-domestic-violence-rise-in-recent-weeks-amid-coronavirus-lockdowns