Educators, you’ve been waiting for this moment for the past four (or five, or six) months: the return to your classroom. Home away from home. This is the platform where you thrive. While most of you likely can’t wait to get back to being in person, it may not be the homecoming you were hoping for. Here are 5 ways to plan for the best outcome while also preparing for when things don’t go “just right”.
1. New Rules, New Routines: Expect the Unexpected
There have been countless transitions and seemingly ever-changing expectations—not only for teachers, but for students and their parents. Now that students have finally become familiar with the rules for virtual learning, they will need to adjust back to on-campus rules. Students will need to learn the schedules and routines of the physical classroom, including the added demands involved with keeping everyone’s safety in mind. Adjusting to all of this takes time; instability may feel unsafe or threatening. Despite our best-laid plans, expect the unexpected.
Try this: Allow Space to Process and Plan
At least two weeks prior to changing the teaching format, deliberately carve out time to discuss and prepare for the transition; then, leave space for the unexpected. Name the changes students have experienced this year, and help them identify how they feel about those changes. Ask questions such as: What have we liked or disliked about distance learning? What will we miss? What are we excited about when returning to campus? What can we do when things do not go according to plan? How can we support each other in those moments?
Once you’ve allowed yourself and your students space to process, clearly outline the anticipated transition plan. Will you slowly ease back to a full day? A hybrid? A dive back in? We do best when we have some idea of structure and routine, and when we know what to expect. Review the new schedule and classroom routines frequently, and allow for patience and grace if students (or you) are struggling to adjust.
2) Connection and Collaboration: Let’s Go Deeper
You started the new school year without knowing any of your students, and, while you’ve likely established some connections, relationships online are never the same as in-person. When you’re heading back to campus, you have the exciting opportunity to deepen those connections. These relationships will be beneficial in better understanding the needs of your students, helping them process the transition, and creating a safe learning environment for them.
Your students will also have the chance to connect more deeply with their peers. This means that school may feel more like a social hour (…or day…or week…or month) for many students returning to school. They have not seen each other much, if at all, for the longest period in their lives. Keep in mind that social engagement is critical for mental health, and often for regulation. Celebrating the deepening of connections and collaboration will benefit everyone.
Try this: Focus on Shared Joy and Communication
Treat the first month back like the beginning of the school year. Focus on building relationships with students through shared moments of joy, such as telling jokes, writing quick notes, commenting on strengths, validating emotions, and exchanging smiles. Take the time to ask students about themselves to learn more about their interests and families.
Additionally, designate certain times throughout the day for students to engage socially. This may be semi-structured (“Talk about one positive and one negative thing about being back at school”) or more casual (“You have 15 minutes to gather in groups for some hang-out time”). Students will need time to reconnect with their peers and to feel safe and regulated before learning. It will be better in the long run if you lean into this need rather than fight it.
3) Decreased 1:1 Support: Ease Back Into Demands
Some students may have received a larger degree of support from their caregivers than they would receive in the classroom. Sure, some of this was related to navigating technology and managing the virtual schedule, but many caregivers also found themselves supporting students in their work output and executive functioning skills (i.e., planning, organization, time management, self-monitoring). Some students will need to adjust to not having a caregiver “aide” at their side, and there will be students who needed more 1:1 support in virtual learning and never received it, resulting in them needing even more support on campus to catch up.
Try this: Scaffolding for Independence and Success
Ask students what support they received from their caregivers with virtual learning or reach out directly to caregivers to better understand the support they were providing. Explore with students what they found helpful about the support they received (or didn’t receive). You may need to scaffold support they receive in the classroom until they can meet the new demands by breaking down tasks into small steps, previewing tasks ahead of time, frequently checking for understanding, moving at a slower pace, or decreasing work output requirements. In this way, you will close the expectation gap—the distance between the classroom demands and the skills of the student—so the student can remain in a regulated state in order to more fully participate in learning.
4) Sensory Needs Shift: Pay Attention to the Environment
Gone are the days where students can eat their way through virtual class, turn off their cameras to find a regulating sensory activity within their own homes, or sit on a comfy couch while listening to a lesson plan. Gone, too, is the visual overload from online classes, stress from the din of auditory input coming from the computer, or the difficulty in accessing space for physical movement.
Additionally, many students likely have not been in stimulating environments over the past 6 months, which inherently changes their nervous system response to sensory input. Throwing them back into a stimulating place, like the physical school environment, may cause some degree of dysregulation. The bright lights, the cacophony of noise, the myriad smells, the passive touch from peers despite best efforts to maintain distancing, and the visual novelty of things hanging on the wall can all contribute to sensory overload. Things seem brighter, louder, faster. The more our nervous systems need to work in order to take in all of that sensory input and use it effectively, the more fatigued we become. It is important to attend to and care for your own and your students’ changes in sensory needs; adjusting to the shifts in sensory inputs will take time.
Try this: Manage Sensory Input
For the first several weeks, minimize the amount of stimulating sensory input in the classroom. Consider dimming the lights and relying on natural sunlight, or putting only a handful of posters on the walls. Consider allowing students to wear noise-cancelling headphones. Think about using movement breaks throughout the day to get the blood flowing, wake up the body, and refocus on learning. Set up a calm sensory nook where students can go to escape overwhelming sensory input. Allow students to spend part of recess inside when they feel overstimulated. All of these help strategies put the nervous system more at ease to help facilitate a regulated transition.
5) COVID-19 is Still a Reality: Notice Signs of Distress
Students need to be regulated to learn, yet there are still so many unknowns around COVID-19 that can result in a stress response. Pay attention to your own level of stress and that of your students, as stress can also be contagious. As you enter a new classroom, remember that stressful events can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, impeding the ability to learn or teach. Decreasing this threat response is the first goal.
Try this: Attend to Nonverbals and Focus on a Team Mentality
Notice when you or your students are overwhelmed and allow space for connection and regulation. Look out for non-verbal cues that indicate a student may be dysregulated: slouched posture, eyes darting around the room, fidgeting behaviors, avoiding eye contact, or refusal to talk. Implement the “Breathe-Body-Begin” strategy to get them (and you!) back to a state of regulation before continuing with learning. In this strategy, start with 3 deep breaths, then pay attention to the cues being sent by the body, then problem solve what can be done differently. Try to avoid “pushing through” the moment; remember that behavior is communication.
Allowing students and teachers to feel heard and understood will also help to increase a sense of safety and connection. Building a team mentality by letting students know they are not alone will support them in feeling more in control in an out-of-control situation. And, teachers, please know that you are not alone! Reach out for help at any time.
***For extended reading about moments of shared joy, scaffolding, closing the expectation gap, non-verbal cues, breathe-body-begin strategy, sensory strategies, and other brain-based learning ideas check out The “Why” Behind Classroom Behaviors, PreK-5: Integrative Strategies for Learning, Regulation, and Relationships.