2020 has been a year of transition.  Uncertainty has been the cornerstone of this season as we navigate through challenges brought on by Covid-19 this past February.  This has greatly increased anxiety related to health and stability, losses of various kinds and a general lack of ability to make concrete plans.  Restoring safety and predictability is a primary focus in the process of reopening education this fall to best support the emotional and social wellbeing of our Students.   

Common responses to stress are nearly universal.  Experiencing disruptions to sleep, difficulties with decision making, concentration and recall of learned information, fearfulness and changes to mood all challenge productivity and participation in academic environments.

There are various evidence-based strategies that improve the impact of stress but also aid our capacity to increase resiliency and participate in learning.

The following is based on recommendations informed by research and observation and reports of faculty, students and families.

Restoring Movement

If there is one thing that every doctor could agree on it would be the benefits of movement on health and wellbeing.

In his book Spark, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey presents evidence that exercise improves motivation, focus and alertness in addition to generating stem cell growth in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for consolidating memory and spatial processing.  Similarly, exercise is a protective factor against the physical and psychological impact of chronic stress.

In a study on cognitive fatigue it was found that test scores improve when preceded by a break, 20-30 minutes, to eat, play and socialize (Sievertsen, H. H., Gino, F., & Piovesan, M. (2016).  This study also recommends that breaks should be scheduled hourly in effort to support cognitive function including working memory, decision making, and motivation.

These principles of movement can be embraced as school districts push forward in optimizing the use of outdoor space, or repurposing gymnasiums for learning environments. The additional physical space between students could be utilized to easily integrate frequent body-based breaks for movement.  Many school districts have integrated yoga and mindfulness practices into their school curriculums and schedule for stress management, self-awareness and health benefits.

Breaks and movement should be given equal consideration and encouraged for the structure of remote learning.  Breaks should be taken off line.  This is especially relevant to our teens and young adults learning remotely.  It is very tempting to switch screens and spend a break streaming or on a social media platform. This does not give the body and brain the restoration it receives through movement while inadvertently fueling anxiety and fatigue.

Exercise has additional documented effects on positive physical and emotional wellbeing.  Exercise is known to increase immune function by reducing inflammation in the body cause by stress hormones.  Movement and rhythmic activities have been found to regulate the autonomic nervous system, thus supporting emotional stability, decision making and impulse control, all of which are essential for academic performance.

Considering the profound relationship between movement and self-regulation, seating that has the capacity to flex and swivel would be beneficial for any student during times of high stress and could have application in Individualized Educational Plans to support needs specific to neurodiversity.

Self-regulation is also dynamic and has a bidirectional influence on others in close proximity to also self-regulate.  Student engagement and calm alertness will benefit their peers and allow Educators to similarly feel centered and present information with clarity.

Restoring Personal Agency and Structure

During this season where information changes every 20 minutes, it is essential to develop and maintain a sense of routine.  The usual cues that assist us to track the passage of time have been greatly distorted, prohibiting our ability to make concrete plans.

Rituals function to regulate emotions, performance, and social connection (Hobson NM, et al., 2018).  Creating structure in and outside of the classroom, serves to frame expectations and helps to track and protect our time for respite.  Working remotely and participating in remote learning presents risk to routines and blurs the boundaries between work and technology.  This effects our Students, their Parents and Teachers alike. Academic work can creep into time formally designated for family, socializing or privacy.  Structuring schedules to observe these limits allow for deeper and more intentional social connections with friends and family.  Differentiating between week days and weekends, school days and evenings helps to improve focus and productivity and to anticipate the reward of leisure activities.

A structured schedule also protects sleep.  Establishing consistent bed and wake times is one of the more effective interventions to address sleep disruptions.  As we sleep, learned information from the day is consolidated into memory.  Adequate night sleep increases capacity for day time attention and benefits immune function and mental health.  Sleep should be highly prioritized.    

Structure paradoxically lends itself to an increased sense of control.  Helping Student to develop personal agency in the classroom facilitates social connectedness with others and helps them feel as if they are participating in greater solutions for their communities.  Educators can integrate personal hygiene topics into academic discussions to foster empowerment.  With mobile furniture, there may be additional opportunities for student participate in moving and wiping down their own work space.  This should of course be in addition and not an alternative to state health departments guidelines for cleaning and sterilization.

Restoring Emotional and Physical Safety

Teachers are enduring the same concerns related to personal and family health, safety and economic stability as the Students and families they are tasked to serve.  When considering how to best foster emotional and social resilience in our Students as they return to the classroom, we must outfit our Teachers with the resources needed to effectively manage the various responsibilities they are navigating in these unprecedented times.

Mobile teachers’ stations reduce contamination and increase the Teacher’s sense of safety by allowing consistency and control over their work space.  No shared supplies or cubbies will help to increase Teacher and Student’s sense of ownership and predictability in the learning environment.

Another concern voiced by Teachers and Students has been the impact on communication and dissemination of information by remote learning.  Students have been reluctant to reach out to Teachers when they are struggling due to concerns that it would be inappropriate to contact them at home.  This has created a barrier for our Teachers to accurately assess the progress and needs of their Students including reliable internet, computer access and food security. Increased isolation has similarly contributed to Student embarrassment and beliefs that “I’m the only one who is struggling.”  Strategies that will facilitate outreach to Students proactively can improve comfort and communication for both Teacher and Student. In a hybrid model, a mobile work space may also serve to increase teacher’s capacity for brief individual student contact to schedule weekly remote meetings to identify and address obstacles, and support student development.  Granting flexibility around allotted preparation time, grading, and the capacity to restructure requirements in response to changes in national climate will also serve to lessen the emotional burden for our Teachers and Students alike.  Additionally, content to foster social and emotional competency can be built into lesion plans through Educator modeling and practice using communication and group engagement.  The use of larger screens or projectors may support collaboration between Students while practicing physical distancing.

Our schools are fast paced and ever-changing environments and the return to learning during Covid-19 will be no exception. The ability to recognize areas of influence, such as structure, movement and prioritizing safety will help us to plan accordingly and to be better equipped to withstand what we cannot control.

While the pandemic brings very real concerns and challenges, there is an opportunity to be creative and unconventional, utilizing evidence-based principles to support the social and emotional needs of our Students during this time and the potential for adopting lasting meaningful change in our schools.   

Sievertsen, H. H., Gino, F., & Piovesan, M. (2016). Cognitive fatigue influences students’ performance on standardized tests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America113(10), 2621–2624. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516947113

Lavie, Peretz & Zomer, Janine & Gopher, Daniel. (1995). Ultradian Rhythms in Prolonged Human Performance. 32.

Hobson NM, Schroeder J, Risen JL, Xygalatas D, Inzlicht M. The Psychology of Rituals: An Integrative Review and Process-Based Framework. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2018;22(3):260-284. doi:10.1177/1088868317734944

About the Author
Anna Iversen, MS, LMFT is a licensed therapist with 16 years’ experience in program development, creating and facilitating trainings, and treating complex clinical diagnoses in a variety of settings with diverse populations. She is passionate about staff development, leveraging humor and enthusiasm for research and innovative technologies to support health and wellness of medical professionals as well as Educators. To learn more, contact Anna at info@annaiversen.com.


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