After a year and a half of sitting 6 feet apart, wearing masks, and/or learning virtually, students, educators, and staff members will likely need support returning to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. In the wake of the pandemic, many have experienced trauma and loss, and those of us in schools must be prepared to respond. In order to help our students and staff self-regulate and learn to cope with anxiety and overwhelming feelings, many schools are starting the school year with lessons in social-emotional learning. To help guide us back to being connected, we contacted Melissa Sadin, director of student services for Unit Charter School in Morristown, NJ (she’s also executive director of Ducks & Lions: Trauma Sensitive Resources); Brenda Mack-Foxworth, principal of Ridge View High School in Columbia, SC; and Chris Colgren, assistant principal of LaSalle Springs Middle School in Wildwood, MO. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.

Regardless of what model of education they’re getting—virtual, hybrid, or brick and mortar—what are students saying is their biggest social-emotional concern when starting the 2021–22 school year?

Sadin: We are experiencing—and I say “mild” with great respect (it doesn’t mean it’s not important)—culturewide, a mild case of anxiety that comes from fear and lack of prediction of the environment. As a species, we need to predict our environment. So, when we can’t predict our environment, it becomes an unsafe place neurobiologically for us. I tell my teachers, if a child had more than four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) going into this pandemic and quarantine, then the pandemic becomes an additional ACE. If the child has none, then they probably have resilient factors in and around their home that hopefully kicked in, and while school might have changed, they had a parent or caregiver explaining it, making it OK, showing them how to learn from home. Those are resilient and protective factors that make the difference between whether this quarantine time was an additional ACE or not.

Because more than half of the kids that come into any of our schools any day already have three or four or more ACEs, as schools we need to recognize that they are exhausted from the constant anxiety. They have spent entirely too much time on screens, which limits and reduces their language pathways, so now they can’t express themselves. Some have developed social fears. My students are saying to me, “I don’t remember what it’s like in the cafeteria with everybody there,” because we brought them back in hybrid. We had cohorts in and cohorts out, and lunch was in the cafeteria with 30 kids spread out for a room that holds 100. Some liked this scenario and have expressed worry about the future noise of the loud cafeteria. Some of them have expressed worry about former adversaries: “I haven’t had to see this person who’s mean to me. I’m worried about going back face to face.” Children have also said they’re worried about the rigorous schedule and longer days.

When we spoke to our students, none of the children indicated that they were absolutely fine. They are happy to go back to school, but with great anxiety.

Mack-Foxworth: I’m in a high school. Our Learning Support Services (LSS) team surveyed our students and learned that they are very concerned and anxious about what school will look like when they return. We ended last year on a dual modality model, so about 500 of our students came every day, the other 1,100 are online. Currently in the building we have each grade level separated for lunch. If all of the students return to in-person learning, they want to socialize and have their one lunch period together. With that socialization that they so desperately want, students are concerned about what that will mean for the spread of COVID and their own personal health. They want to be teens and socialize and get back to the way school was prior to the pandemic, but at what cost to them personally?

Colgren: I’m in a middle school in a suburb of St. Louis. Not surprisingly, I hear the same concerns, and anxiety tops their list. The two words I hear the most are “anxiety” and “overwhelmed.” Much of it is due to the uncertainty of what lies ahead and, for many of our students, what middle school is going to look like because there has been so much deviation from what it has been. We have a group of sixth graders who came in this year who have experienced something that is completely unlike the traditional middle school experience. Now, we’re going to be transitioning them to seventh grade, which will look entirely different from this past year.

However, one thing that we know is that kids want to be here. They are glad to be at school. They are appreciative of being in the building. Last year we returned to brick and mortar in November, but we started off the school year virtually. As the year progressed, we phased in more and more kids. We anticipate that more will continue to be back, but they’re still feeling that uncertainty and that anxiety that surrounds not knowing what this year is going to look like.

What are your faculty’s main concerns for themselves and for their students?

Mack-Foxworth: Staff members are just as anxious when they think about having 1,600 students return to the building. When we went virtual for COVID, I recognized quickly that there was a need for human connection. Teachers thrive off of helping each other, and they were losing that. So, one of the things that we put in place was our social-​emotional wellness for teachers because we have to take care of our teachers so that they can be their best for teaching our students.

We also made major changes to our master schedule. We went from an eight-period day to a four-period day. That relieved pressure for both students and teachers, but they are still very anxious about both their own and students’ mental health. My district has a support program in place that allows employees to speak initially to mental health professionals at no cost. Several staff members have utilized this support. My team and I check in each week with our faculty. Sometimes my reach out is as simple as a quick email asking for a smiley face or frowny face. This provides a quick pulse on how they are doing. If any member has something going on and needs some TLC, they can come to me.

Colgren: From my staff, the biggest stressor this year has been trying to teach simultaneously virtual students and students that are in the classroom. They want to do their best, and they don’t feel that they are at their best with either group.

This fall, my staff is feeling that anxiety. One of the hardest things that they have to grapple with right now is the fact that children are going to learn through our modeling. We have to realize that we need to model what it is as far as the values, behaviors, and beliefs necessary to maintain positive, productive relationships with others during these times. If you don’t feel completely comfortable in that regard in these circumstances, it makes it more difficult to serve as an effective model for children.

Sadin: When I’m solving a problem, I look at the systems, the processes, and the people. New Jersey is back full time in the school for everybody this September. There’s great conversation about whether parents can choose to keep their children home. The governor first came out and said, no, it’s not a choice, but he may be backing off of that, so we are left wondering what to prepare for. One of the ways that I have learned to combat this mélange of fear and worry is to attack it head-on. We created systems, processes, and people-groups—not even formal committees in some cases. We needed to decide what our school would look like in September. We included our middle school kids in the discussion, which helped them to be a part of the decision making and made them feel like they have an element of control.

Self-care has been a priority all year. It’s always been a priority of mine with my staff, but I have been working with other administrators to be more specific. The administrative committee sat down last August and asked, “What is the most important thing?” So, we put off the rollout of this really exciting math program until mid-next year, because we’re certainly not going to try and roll it out this September. We prioritized self-care. We changed the school rules—they are now: 1. Take care of self; 2. Take care of others; 3. Take care of stuff. Classes start with, “What have you done for yourself lately?”

What changes have school leaders made prior to opening the school?

Colgren: In the summer of 2020, I remember sitting in a Zoom meeting that had to have lasted eight hours. We thought we had hammered out some great plans, and 40 minutes later, we got a message from the superintendent explaining that there had been a change in county guidelines that required us to revise our plans. So, one of the things that we struggle with or have been challenged with as school leaders is just the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

This fall we will look at how we can take what we have learned from this past year and then make some responsible decisions as we move forward. A lot of that is going to be driven by what the guidelines are when it comes to, say, quarantining students. We had initially been required to quarantine anyone within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes for 14 days. That has been reduced in my county at least to 10 days, and I’m sure there will be further changes. One of the biggest challenges for administrators is the same challenge we faced at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year: Not knowing exactly what they’re going to look like until we know what those expectations are going to be at the statewide, the countywide, and the district levels.

Sadin: We have to wait for our governor to decide what’s good for our state, then we have to wait for our superintendent to decide what’s good, which is why I’m taking as many things as I can and giving choices to my faculty and staff to give them a sense of ownership to their lives. We are going to keep the modified school day through the winter break this fall. We are doing 3 feet [social distance], which is the New Jersey guideline, and everybody in masks. Parents will be able to return to the building on a limited basis, but they must get screened and wear a mask. Because of plexiglass, my office staff can finally stay in their desks and allow masked-only people into the school. We are trying to go back to as much normalcy as we can within 3 feet and with the modified school day until the spring semester, hoping guidelines will be different.

Mack-Foxworth: I echo my colleagues, with the exception that our governor has already signed legislation that says parents and students can opt out of mask-wearing in schools, so we will move forward knowing that is totally up to students and parents to opt out. With that in mind, one of the things that we will continue to teach our students is taking care of themselves, and the responsibility they have to take care of their neighbor. We’re producing great global citizens, which will continue to be a focus of our social-emotional learning.

One of the unexpected benefits of virtual learning has been with our dual enrollment. The professors from the University of South Carolina (Sumter) and Midlands Technical College used to come into our school. Now our students are finding success taking courses virtually. So, I do think one of the things that we will do is offer more students the opportunity to take dual-credit classes virtually.

We will also continue with our staggered start times, staggered dismissal times, different grade levels eating in different locations until the spread of disease is lowered in our community. But some of that is out of our hands. Decisions made at the local and state levels impact school building-level decisions, which can lead to all stakeholders having some level of anxiety.

What do physical and social-emotional wellness look like now?

Sadin: Social-emotional learning is fantastic, but it should not exist without trauma-informed instruction, building resilient schools, professional development, understanding, and learning. I like to tell people that you need to teach your teachers about the science of learning, because they’re supporting the cognitive development of children. So, if your school has done that, then you are poised and in a good place for understanding how to move forward with social-​emotional learning. I created a schedule that allows for an hour of activities around, “How are you doing?” That’s what we call it. We’re using our social-emotional learning program, but there are so many other great resources.

We’ve taken a page from Responsive Classroom. The first six weeks of school is about getting to know each other, making connections. A child’s academic performance differs when they feel connected in school. Because they feel so disconnected [at the start of school], and our staff feels very disconnected, we have created a program that will take place for the first six weeks. Everybody has time where we are watching the kids. There are some activities that are developmentally appropriate, depending on age. We are also doing a big push about self-regulation.

For example, if you get a text from your daughter who lives in another state who thinks now she’s COVID-positive and you’re in the middle of class, there are techniques to help you regulate your emotions until you can get help. What will happen is I’ll come and cover your class; you need to go. We model that for the kids. We have a rollout program for creating classrooms and opportunities where kids talk about their brains. We don’t use the words “anxiety” or “trauma” with kids, but we want to talk about that. We use appropriate language to help our students understand, “Look—your brains come offline easier because of the year we’ve had, and you can get them back online.” We now have a chill-out room. Our occupational therapist allows students who feel dysregulated to go to her room, and she teaches them about their own bodies and about how to get regulated.

We had an expert come in and talk to us about the signs of depression and anxiety. For my middle schoolers, it can look like sudden love of curse words. We respond with, “How can we help you?” to all students. We’ve changed our system so that when students interfere with their own learning or the learning of others, there’s a more restorative process rather than assigning a consequence. I don’t expect our transition back to be easy, but it’s necessary. We’re not the same people we were. We need time and space to learn how to live among each other again.

Mack-Foxworth: My district superintendent is a trained school counselor. Prior to the pandemic, our school-level administrators and teachers participated in professional learning on the impact of childhood trauma. We also use restorative practices to further the belief that negative behavior from a student doesn’t mean that the child is bad. It’s a cry for help. So, we had addressed this issue prior to the pandemic.

With that said, one of the topics we looked at is what does social-emotional learning look like for our students? We have physical safe spaces and virtual safe spaces that students can go to anytime. A school counselor, school psychologist, school social worker, or the school nurse is there to meet the student. We have “brain breaks” in two of our classes. Students and teachers get to do whatever they want to reduce stress for 15 minutes. Many times, teachers use that break as an opportunity to connect with students. If you walk into a classroom you will see students listening to music, writing, or even coloring. This allows teachers and students to continue to build meaningful relationships.

Regarding how to recognize the trauma, I like what Melissa said. If a student was an A student or B student and their grades drop drastically, those indicators get teachers’ attention immediately. If students are writing something that’s dark and different from their normal style, teachers pick up on these types of behavior changes. But what about the student who transferred to South Carolina from New Jersey and they come in and they’re already depressed? Teachers have to recognize the trauma in these students as well. Brain breaks help us do that.

We also do Feel-Good Fridays for our students and faculty. Teachers can recommend or nominate a student for anything positive they have done. We tell parents we’re coming [to the house], knock on their door, surprise the students, and yell, “It’s feel-good FriYay!” Prior to the pandemic we did birthday visits in the classroom, but when the students weren’t here, we made a video and sent that out to them virtually. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, faculty can walk during lunch. They walk and talk with the LSS team, the counselors, or the psychologist. We also have advisory lessons. Every high school student goes to advisory once a week, and that adviser moves with them from ninth to 12th grade, which allows students to connect with an adult advocate during their entire high school career.

At our faculty meetings, we have what we call Power 30. Faculty have 30 minutes to learn about instructional strategies or topics, or participate in an activity that improves their mental health. This time is for them. They are on the honor system to do something fun, something that brings them joy and decreases stress. Then they report what they did. For my administrative team, because working in these conditions is hard on them as well, each week an administrator is in charge of opening the administrative meeting with a social-emotional activity. We must take time to care for our faculty and staff so they can meet the social-​emotional needs of our students.

Colgren: Both Brenda and Melissa used the word “connected,” and I think that’s the first thing that comes to my mind as well—the idea that students need this sense of belonging. They need to feel connected to school, and the current research regarding students who are disconnected is extremely concerning. We have spent years building toward a collaborative culture that is going to be centered on relationships aimed at helping students achieve this sense of belonging at school. And then, overnight, this whole idea was shaken and we moved from this collaborative culture to Zoom, which was difficult.

Therefore, I think that it comes as no surprise when people say, “I feel overwhelmed. Or, I feel like I’m not at my best.” Then there’s a glimmer of hope when we start bringing students back to the building that, “OK, now we’re starting to return to some semblance of normalcy,” but in that moment, then we find ourselves saying, “Yes, you’re going to come back, but we need to stay 6 feet apart. We need to wear masks at all times,” and the challenges persist.

We’re also trying to find those opportunities with staff to engage in activities that are aimed at promoting their social-emotional well-being. We do yoga here on a regular basis for faculty. We have opportunities to have conversation. We’ve really involved our counselors in the process of meeting with teachers in ways that we hadn’t in the past. Historically, our counselors had primarily served the needs of the students in the building. We have counselors very intentionally working with staff members as they navigate this pandemic and the current world circumstances.

I also heard conversation around the restorative approach that we have embraced. When I think about why a student would exhibit challenging behaviors, the conclusion I always reach is that their capacity to do well in that moment has been compromised. Whether intended or not, harm may come as a result of the choices that student is making in that particular moment. So, there is a need to repair it, and I think that’s where the restorative approach comes in. But at the same time, it’s this concept of separating the deed from the doer and not labeling a student as a “bad” student but recognizing that this was a poor choice in regard to circumstances that are extremely challenging right now. Again, I’m in a middle school. Students struggle with things like self-regulation outside of a pandemic year. So, I’m just making sure that we are remaining aware of the additional challenges.

What do you think is the most important aspect of social-emotional learning for our students?

Mack-Foxworth: One of the most important aspects of social-emotional learning is teaching students to use their voices and to reassure them that what they are feeling is OK, that they aren’t alone. I want them to know that what they are feeling is real, even if they don’t understand or can’t verbalize why they are feeling that way. I want to say to them, “What you’re feeling is important, and the fact that you’re brave and strong enough to share it means that you are helping other students with similar concerns. Using your voice can help us—our faculty, our students, and our community—get better at normalizing social-emotional learning, which impacts mental health.”

Colgren: I would say that regardless of circumstance, self-efficacy is what we ultimately want to cultivate in our students. I think that one of the messages that we are very intentional about promoting is how important collective efficacy among our staff is, just to simply believe in our children and in their capabilities and what they can do and what they can accomplish. I think the reason why that is so important is because the ultimate goal is to get the students to have that same belief in themselves. I lean toward self-efficacy as that cornerstone when it comes to social-emotional learning. If we can help students develop this sense of confidence, strength, empowerment that they believe in themselves, that they know that they can do whatever it is that they want to do, I believe that we have ultimately fulfilled our role as educators. Students are capable of amazing things. They’re capable of academic growth, behavioral growth, social-emotional growth, and if we can guide them in that direction and allow those opportunities to unfold before them as they see fit, then we’ve fulfilled our purpose.

Sadin: The single most important thing that all of us as educators do is build relationship. It is relationship, in fact, that is directly connected to Chris’ excellent point about self-efficacy. It is relationship that allows kids to share what they need and to be able to relate to “I’m not alone in this.” Relationships are the key. And while that is a nebulous term, because all teachers are relational, if you help kids feel safe and accepted regardless of race, religion, creed, or sexual orientation, they feel connected. Students need to name one person in the school that they feel they can go to in times of trouble. They have to learn how to regulate their emotions, and then they can learn. We must keep our learning standards high. Lowering them will tell children we don’t think they’re capable anymore. So, we need to use relationships, systems, and practices to help kids feel safe, be connected, and get regulated. Then we can get back to the business of learning and healing.