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Coping with the Return to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Melissa A. Callen, MA, LPC, ACS, Effective School Solutions

As school districts across the county begin the new school year, they are faced with the increase in mental health challenges students are experiencing due to the global pandemic. Many students have been struggling for months with a toxic combination of social isolation, environmental stress, and increased anxiety- in short, a collective trauma shared by a whole generation of young people.

The Impact of Traumatic Stress on Children & Adolescents

Childhood traumatic stress occurs when violent or dangerous events overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope. Examples of traumatic events include neglect, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, racism, discrimination, natural disasters, terrorism, school violence, commercial sexual exploitation, serious accidents, life-threatening illness, or sudden or violent loss of a loved one. (SAMHSA)

Like adults, children are experiencing new or intensified stressors as a result of the pandemic, including the loss of routine, separation from friends and extended family, and increased anxiety and frustration. Families may also be experiencing:

· Food insecurity

· Caregiver job loss

· Loss of parent or loved one

· Not being able to engage in rituals

· Extreme illness in the household

· Exposure to abuse

The first step to healing trauma is to identify the signs that trauma has occurred. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. How you respond to the outbreak can depend on your background, the things that make you different from other people, and the community you live in.

Educators, aids and caregivers need to know the signs of traumatic stress that students may exhibit. Below are a few examples that students may show:

In Preschool

• Fearing separation from parents or caregivers

• Frequently crying and/or screaming

• Eating poorly and losing weight

• Having nightmares

In Elementary School

  • Becoming anxious or fearful
  • Feeling guilt or shame
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Having difficulty sleeping

In Middle School & High School

  • Feeling depressed or alone
  • Developing eating disorders and self-harming behaviors
  • Beginning to abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Becoming sexually active

If trauma is left untreated, students may develop a number of challenges including:

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions
  • Difficulty regulating their emotions and focusing on learning
  • Lack the skills necessary to regulate their behaviors and recognize their own actions
  • Inflexibility and outbursts for no apparent reason
  • Increased use of health services, including mental health services
  • Increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
  • Long term health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease

When trauma is identified, the conversation needs to center around “What happened to you” and not “What’s wrong with you?”

Tips on How to Support Students in the Classroom

The return to school will look different not only across the country, but also within each state. Teachers need to be prepared to support students in person and or virtually.

Patience, Tolerance and Reassurance

  • Remember the classroom starts with you
  • Remain calm and deal with your own worry and anxiety
  • Use coping skills to calm yourself
  • Children will follow both verbal and non-verbal reactions
  • Incorporate SEL into your lesson plans
  • Plan for how to manage students who refuse to wear masks
  • Don’t complain in front of students

Misbehavior is a Symptom

  • Behavior is communication
  • Behavior has function
  • Behavior occurs in patterns
  • Behavior can be changed

Teach Social Emotional Learning

  • The goal is self-awareness and self-regulation
  • Model emotional regulation
  • Recognize and validate emotions
  • Have strategies in place for de-escalating
  • Use those strategies for yourself
  • Teach brain health
  • Incorporate mindfulness practices
  • Teach and model empathy and active listening skills
  • Normalize emotions
  • Practices such as check-ins, circles, greetings, and sharing will help to create a sense of security and routine

Classroom Strategies

  • Provide consistency and structure
  • Create new classroom rules or contracts
  • Reframe discipline problems into teachable moments
  • Timely interventions in conflicts and hurtful exchanges
  • Support families by relaying positive information and resources
  • Teaching and modeling of empathy and active listening skills
  • Explore stress-management strategies to diffuse tense situations and help students process feelings in the moment
  • Give students opportunities to demonstrate their strengths

Connecting Language

  • “Good morning, Charlie! It’s great to see you today.”
  • “Charlie, you’ve made my day by coming to my class.”
  • “Charlie, just checking in with you to see how it’s going. Anything I can help you with?”
  • “Charlie, I have to tell you…I am so appreciative of your positive attitude. You’ve really changed things around. I am so proud of you.”

Remember Your Nonverbal Cues

  • Paralleling
  • Proximity
  • Posture
  • Pace of response
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Gestures
  • Extended exhales
  • Length of sentences


  • Taped pacing area
  • Gallery walks
  • Face covering breaks
  • a great source for movement and mindfulness videos
  • Think-Mix-Pair-Share activities
  • Walk and Talk

Connect to Parents/Caregivers

Don’t underestimate the power of positive phone call home!

  • Identify yourself
  • Immediately assure the parent you are not calling for a negative reason
  • Tell them the good news
  • Resist the temptation to talk about challenges
  • Do not energize negative behaviors. Even if you are dealing with negative behavior from this student, this is not the time to address it.
  • Thank them for their time

Transition Time Interventions

  • Play soft music
  • Be present in the hallways during passing time
  • Connect with student during passing time
  • Ring a singing bowl to stop activities
  • Keep students informed of changes to the schedule
  • Post daily schedules
  • Greet students at the door using names
  • Leave a note on the student’s desk
  • Assign mentor to student

Environmental Interventions

  • Warm lighting
  • Increase natural lighting if possible
  • Reduction of florescent lights
  • Sound machines
  • Decrease wall hangings (be mindful of what is hung)
  • Temperature regulation

Self-Care for Teachers & Students

Educators are feeling the pressure of the ongoing pandemic. They are stressed, worried, frustrated, nervous, the list goes on and on. Students feel the same way. It is important that teachers and students take care of themselves. Teachers, you need to model this behavior. Most importantly, be kind to yourself, in turn your students will be kind to themselves and each other.

In summary, all districts can make a meaningful difference in the mental health and wellness of their students not only during the back to school period, but the whole school year.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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