The 21st century has brought to our schools many new variables: high stakes, standardized testing; skills-based collaboration; ed-tech tools; increased anxiety; and now, a pandemic.
Anxiety has become a major concern in our classrooms, but as mental illness has gone from an illness of silence and stigma to one of voice and presence, educators struggle to accommodate it in classrooms filled with other expectations. Group work, testing anxiety and new technologies are anxiety-inducing enough for our students. But what about the anxiety of pandemics and school closings?
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March, governors across the country began closing schools. For some states, the closings began as two to three week stints at home, only to be increased to six-week or full-year closings shortly thereafter.
Many district leaders began by implementing distance learning opportunities for students—without grades. But as closings were extended, expectations of students were increased. Distance learning opportunities became remote learning requirements. Students were suddenly tasked with digesting the loss of school as they knew it, and getting used to meeting new expectations at home. For some, these expectations are met with many other variables.
While school is a place of academic learning and expectations of the schoolhouse environment can riddle students with anxiety, it’s also a place of certainty and familiarity for many; students can always count on it being there. Although a loss of academics is a concern for all, even more concerning is the emotional impact this is having on our most vulnerable students: those with anxiety and depression.
Although a loss of academics is a concern for all, even more concerning is the emotional impact this is having on our most vulnerable students: those with anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is a disease that feeds on control. When a student has control, anxiety is often quieted. It’s why many students are labeled as inflexible, high-strung or perfectionists. When control is lost, however, anxiety builds; it’s fueled by the fears that set in when an outcome cannot be predetermined. It’s during these times when students are likely to panic and/or shutdown—and avoid what is triggering their anxiety.
As a sufferer of anxiety, I am not sure I have ever lived through a more uncertain time. The seemingly never-ending list of “what ifs,” has become an uncontrolled nightly narrative. I need answers, but I am afraid to hear them. It’s become difficult to determine a valid source from an invalid one. COVID-19 is omnipresent—from TV, social media and newspapers to sports outlets. The number of cases and deaths change daily.
Yes, we need to find ways to provide students with continued learning, but even more important, we need to find ways for school to remain a provider of stability and routine for our students.
Helping students and families cope
So what is the emotional impact of these uncharted waters on our students? Here are six strategies that educators can encourage now to help students with anxiety and their parents during these extended school closures.
- Focus on what you can control
An anxious person wants to control as much of their world as possible—from other people’s reactions and grades to knowing when we can return to “normal.” But much of what the anxious mind tries to control is not within its power. Remind students that as much as they want to know the answers to all the unknowns, they must focus on what they can control. Provide students with small, attainable goals, such a one assignment at a time. Rather than looking at whole days or weeks at a time, have students chunk their days into traditional segments: morning, afternoon and evening. Refocusing students, and reminding families to do the same, will make them realize how much they actually still can control.
- Establish a routine
Routines are essential for students with anxiety. The predictability of a day not only gives them a sense of control, it also reduces the downtime that will allow their minds to run wild. A day without question is a day with reduced anxiety. Educators can assist students and parents with establishing a routine not only by communicating its importance, but also by being consistent with remote learning. Release your assignments on the same day and at the same time every week. Only assign the same number of graded assignments each week. Give due dates that provide students with the same amount of time to complete each assignment. Provide feedback to students by the same day each week. Being consistent in your remote coursework will help a student establish a routine at home.
- Be authentic
Authenticity in the classroom is the foundation of building positive relationships with students and getting them to trust you. In the classroom, students need to see patience, honesty, humility, positivity and compassion; the very things they need now. We have no idea the specifics of each student’s circumstances. Maybe someone has to share one device with three or four siblings. Maybe one has a parent who is an essential worker, and they struggle daily with the reality of the disease making its way into their lives. And maybe another has lost a loved one to COVID-19. Our students need compassion and care. They need to know their teachers are more to them right now than just a teacher or dean or principal. Students need to hear from educators not just because work is due, but because you are someone they can count on today.
There is an aspect of anxiety that can be considered creative to a nonsufferer. When the mind is unoccupied, it can come up with some of the most vivid—more often than not, irrational—ideas imaginable. It’s what an anxious mind must do to stay occupied. An irrational solution is better than no solution at all. Take advantage of the imagination of an anxiety sufferer and get creative. Assign work that lets students make things: videos, artwork, photographs, profiles. Help students see what they are capable of when they have the time to tap into the creative parts of their mind; their anxiety will thank you for it.
- Prioritize physical well-being
Through my own journey of anxiety, I have learned many lessons that I wouldn’t have otherwise. One of the most important aspects of my illness is the connection between my mind and body. Anxiety is exacerbated when your physical well-being takes a back seat. Hunger and tiredness are two catalysts to anxiety. When the body is not prioritized, it cannot be expected to control the mind. While academics must not be forgotten, there may never be another time where we can rest our bodies and minds as much as we can now. Encourage students to rest, to get outside, to walk within the social distancing guidelines, and to eat as best they can. Taking care of their bodies will reduce the likelihood that their anxiety will worsen.
- Ask questions
Self-advocacy is a necessary life skill for all. Some students are less likely to advocate for themselves than others. When you speak up, you put yourself at risk of judgment—an anxiety sufferer’s worst nightmare. So how can we get those who are most in need of self-advocating, but the least likely to do so, to speak up? Ask questions. Assumptions can be dangerous in any situation, but they can be dire for students with anxiety. Asking them questions about their work, how they are, or where they are with the curriculum, will get them to talk, and talking is self-advocating. Don’t box your communication into the routine you’ve established for your class; surprise your students by reaching out just because you can. You will be displaying authenticity when you do so, and if you ask some questions, you’re teaching students the most valuable lesson they could possibly learn right now: how to communicate when they need to the most.
Anxiety is difficult in normal circumstances. It’s a fight that some of our students are battling constantly, even on the best of days. So what does it mean for these students when one of the most consistent, reliable and fundamental parts of their world is gone? It can mean anxiety that is crippling and uncontrollable.
As educators, our roles in student lives do not stop just because the schoolhouse doors have closed. It is more important than ever to be present for our anxious students. Establish a routine with your remote learning. Be compassionate and honest. Assign work that encourages creativity. Remind students of the importance of the basic necessities in life: food, exercise and rest. Give them small, attainable goals to meet. And finally, ask them to talk about how and where they are.
Each one of these strategies might seem obvious, but sometimes when there is a computer screen between us, it can feel like a mountain. But remember, every mountain can be climbed—one small, attainable goal at a time.
Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts. She is the author of Anxious (Times 10, 2020).
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.