For the past 10 months, many teens have been cut off from their key sources of social support. They, like all of us, have struggled to adapt to long hours at home with few interactions outside our immediate households, and many have lived with anxiety, sadness, anger, and depression. For youth, relationships are especially important. Teens yearn for friendships, celebrate when they find acceptance and welcoming from their peers, and struggle when they feel rejected or isolated. So, for many teens – 2020 and continuing into 2021 has been traumatic. Teens who already were in crisis or who live with abuse or dysfunctional families have been particularly impacted as they long for connection.
In New England, members of the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) report that not all families are equally affected by COVID. Some families have managed to settle into routines that reduce the COVID trauma. However, others are struggling with finances, juggling work and childcare, and facing both the physical danger and mental and emotional anguish from working in-person. Most families report online learning fatigue, isolation from friends and extended family, and mental health challenges. While some families are better equipped to handle the day-to-day events that call for calm decision-making and problem solving. counselors, teachers, and school administrators are all concerned about how families are coping. They note the frustration of students who need greater support with technologies, the emotional problems and feelings of failure that arise, and the academic slide that is impacting learning and achievement.
Reach Your Teens With Creativity and Meaning!
Looking back over the past year, how has your teaching changed? As you wrestled with teaching virtually, what have you done to connect with youth? To reach children and youth during the past year, teachers, counselors, and school administrators have been creative. They have learned to use virtual meeting platforms for telehealth and counseling, scheduled time for students to connect in breakout rooms, and even donned costumes and taken on roles of super heroes, bringing children to laughter.
To connect with our students in meaningful ways has sometimes involved stepping outside our comfort zones. We have learned to show interest, empathy, and compassion in ways that are sometimes more public than a quiet one-on–one conversation. Creative educators have made YouTube videos to share schoolwide, started online community building exercises, and held drive-by parades to reach students learning from home. We invite you to think about the specific needs of your school population, gather ideas from staff and the community, and make an action plan for how to reach the teens we know are struggling with isolation and mental health challenges.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Have you stepped out of your comfort zone?
- Is there more that you need to do to support students who are most in need?
- What are some key elements you will keep in your lesson plans as youth come back to classrooms?
- Can you be the supportive ear that a teen or parent may need?
Take a Relationships Check
Here is a short survey to help you evaluate your relationships with students who may be most affected by the physical isolation and stress of the past year. The survey, which addresses factors such as caring, sharing power, and inspiring youth, can be used by parents, teachers and other educators, and even peers.
As you take the survey, reflect on what you are doing that is working well to help support youth (and yourself), what else you could initiate to strengthen relationships, and how you could further positive relationships as schools reopen. By even taking a few small steps, you can become a protective factor to help youth better handle stress and trauma.
Listen to Provide Safety & Trust
Sometimes the encouragement of an adult who listens to a concern can be one of the most vital ways to serve our youth. In being competent caring adults in our children’s lives, we are sending not only a strong message that we care and that the child is not alone, but that we understand and will be there for the child. When we do this, we increase a child’s sense of safety and security. Over time, this helps children feel that they can count on us ¾ that they can trust our availability and our actions.
Finding opportunities to connect with kids is essential to fostering trust, and these connections can be both big and small. In the C-TLC, our Fellows suggest that adults can start by greeting a child with eye contact, warmth and enthusiasm by name; creating opportunities for fun and play; spending meal-time with youth; asking about a child’s interest; and being consistently available and present. We can also co-create learning opportunities with students, leveraging their interests and furthering their sense of curiosity and adventure.
Connect With Teens & Help Them Connect
If you are truly there for your students, you will find ways to connect with them as individuals. You will go beyond teaching math and reading, and consider what they are doing for their own self-care and well–being. You will help them discover how to creatively find time for their own passions, even as they are isolated. It often helps to share about your own practices, to disclose how you have problem-solved. In so doing, you can be not only a conduit to a brighter future, but an inspiration to them, a role model for how to trudge through difficulties with courage and determination.
As you connect, you can help youth consciously connect with their feelings and emotions, and to use their own self-truths to feel a sense of peace and calm, even in the midst of these far too difficult times.
Schools can take steps to build connections with students and their families, whether they are learning in person or online. Simply asking a student how they are doing and providing a listening ear can make a huge impact. You can further students’ well–being by letting students and their families know that they can feel safe turning to their teachers and their school in times of need.