How to promote students’ perceived sense of control

Students who have had anxiety and depression even pre-pandemic, particularly those with autism and other disabilities, may feel safer when they are given opportunities to feel in control.
By: | January 26, 2021
Getty Images, Francesco Carta fotografoGetty Images, Francesco Carta fotografo

Living in the time of a global pandemic has been difficult on everyone, but especially on students with disabilities. Students with preexisting anxiety or depression might find their most common struggles amplified and exacerbated, says Timothy J. Callahan, director of mental health services at Greene County Educational Service Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

For example, students with autism might be obsessing over the COVID-19 numbers and constant media updates. “We recommend parents be very careful with media exposure, which is challenging because it’s everywhere,” he says.

Students feel safer when they have a perceived sense of control. Here are a few ways Callahan suggests you can give this to them.

  1. Enforce Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols. Wearing a mask, social distancing, handwashing—these aren’t just rules to comply with. Making students wear masks, for example, gives them a clear way to protect themselves as well as a perceived sense of control.
  2. Invite students to participate in the enhanced cleaning protocols. Saying, “Let’s clean our room,” can help them feel in control.
  3. Present facts. Depending on the ages of the students, going over the facts can make them feel better, Callahan says. “Keep to the science. This uncontrollable thing—understanding what it is … what it does, makes it feel less scary.”
  4. Discuss it with the students and dispel respectfully, as you can, any rumors and myths. Don’t allow the conversation to go down the path of politics. Help students understand the facts.
  5. Let students complain. We naturally try to feel better about things we can’t control by complaining. The weather is just one example. Complaining is very natural, he says. “Talking is the essence [of] why psychotherapy works “Most of the work happens because you’re talking with a safe person about things. You often feel you have control. Even if you can’t change it, you feel better.”
  6. Give students the opportunity to talk with their friends and peers. “Talking about it makes us feel better, gets us back to some normalcy,” he says.
  7. Help students manage stress. Model, teach, practice and promote stress management. Students hold a lot of anxiety in their bodies. Deep breathing exercises are one technique that can help them alleviate their stress and anxiety, as they recalibrate the brain. Try block breathing, which is a strategy used by athletes and Navy SEALS. “It’s one thing you can do in the moment to redistribute stress hormones,” he says. To do it, have students breathe in for four seconds, hold their breath for four seconds, and then breathe out for four seconds. “You can immediately notice the change, even if you do it for a couple of seconds,” he says. “This … works every time. You might go back to worrying and start over, but it does work.” Incorporate this exercise in the morning before starting classes.
  8. Have a classroom discussion. Ask questions such as, “What are you worried about? What concerns you about what’s happening?” Let the students drive the conversation to a degree but stay on topic. Acknowledge feelings and talk about facts and what they can do. Doing this in a classroom discussion can be very helpful. “Teaching them how to manage stress, stay mindful, [and] let things go will be something they can use their entire lives,” he says.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.