Entering year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a cascade of crises in our schools. Students and educators are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, despondent—and, too often, isolated and unheard. The crisis is most acute in hard-hit communities of color.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared the state of children’s mental health to be a “national emergency.” In addition to social isolation, it notes that more than 140,000 children—1 in 500—have lost a caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. Suspected suicide attempts by adolescents have jumped 31 percent, the CDC reports.
Teachers tell us that their students are behaving in ways they’ve never seen before. Two out of 3 educators say students are “misbehaving” more than they did in 2019. After all the blows that families have sustained, this is a signal that children need help. We must act now and we must act boldly to mitigate the negative impact of the devastation or risk a spiraling crisis for years to come.
Teachers say they know why their students are acting out. Nothing in teacher education programs has prepared them for the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual demands they now face. An EdWeek survey found teachers were “sacrificing their lunch periods to cover unsupervised classrooms, monitor lunch lines, and get behind the wheel of school buses.” They often can’t do the work they went into the profession to do. A principal told us that his teachers would love to dive into rich explorations during Black History Month, but “there’s absolutely no bandwidth for that.”
Principals themselves are feeling besieged. A National Association of Secondary School Principals survey found that 42 percent of principals had accelerated their plans to leave the profession. With teachers, students, and families in crisis, some principals find their jobs have become unrecognizable. One assistant principal told us that all he did in December and January was COVID contact tracing.
Addressing these crises requires new priorities. We need to make school a place that prioritizes connection, community, and joy. It’s time to adopt what Shawn Ginwright calls a “healing-centered” approach. Rather than viewing trauma as an isolated experience, a healing-centered approach is holistic and collective: It calls on us to work together to address harms and make positive change. Moments of crisis can also be moments of opportunity when properly seized. The pandemic, while affecting us each differently, is a uniquely shared experience. This is a teachable moment: We can bow our heads and submit to the devastation or we can honor those who have been lost by using this as a moment to double down on teaching our children what our society is most in need of: generative connection, deep empathy, and skill building around collective action and mutual aid.
Prioritizing community and healing is a necessary prerequisite for academic learning. This crisis has demonstrated that the mental health—and academic progress—of young people depends on the caring relationships they build at school. We humans are evolved to be part of a community, to be interdependent and interconnected. Without community, we cannot thrive.
Building community begins with the clear intention and action of district and school leaders.
Here are eight strategies district and school leaders can use to build community and facilitate healing.
- Offer school staff structured opportunities at least once a week to connect with each other, share thoughts and feelings, collaboratively problem solve, practice strategies to bolster their mental health, and find joy. Just like students, teachers need to be seen, heard, and cared for.
- Support teachers in creating a caring classroom. Teachers need time to connect with students. Listening, being present, and naming and normalizing students’ feelings can help them process. A caring classroom also includes creating community agreements and values, making time for play, and using culturally sustaining practices so that every child belongs.
- Ensure that every student participates in a community-building circle once a week—at least. Here, students can listen to each other and reflect on what is happening for them. They can practice strategies that can sustain them over their lives, such as mindfulness and feelings identification.
- Let students lead the way. Encourage students to facilitate their own structured gatherings where they and their classmates can share, problem solve, affirm each others’ cultures and lived experiences, and practice skills they find helpful. In the process, students can gain a sense of agency within the school community.
- Bring healing and joy through art. Dancing, singing, drama, painting, woodworking … The evidence shows that engaging in the arts—simply for the experience and pleasure of it—is therapeutic. Yet many schools, especially in underresourced communities, have extinguished this opportunity. Make art a regular part of every child’s school experience.
- Train all school staff in social and emotional learning and restorative approaches. SEL skills like active listening, empathy, and conflict resolution are helpful in interactions among students, families, and colleagues as we collectively cope with loss and uncertainty.
- District and school leaders need support, too. Make it a priority to care for yourself. Gather regularly with a few colleagues with the explicit purpose of mutual support. This community can become a source of inspiration and rejuvenation for you.
- Look ahead. The hardship we are experiencing—and our disconnection from each other—obviously goes far beyond the school walls. Support staff, students, and fellow school leaders in looking at the big picture—and envisioning the life, the community, the world, that you would like to see. As Ginwright notes, the ability to dream and imagine are key in maintaining our hope and sense of well-being. Hope enables us to take urgently needed action. “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.“This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”