As administrators, teachers, and students prepare to return to school, many questions remain. Will students learn virtually, in person, or in a hybrid format? What safety precautions will schools take? Will these precautions be realistic? And will they be enough? No matter how school looks in the fall, the basic needs of children don’t change. In this article, we’ll share four key tips for meeting student needs as schools reopen.
4 Essential Tips for Meeting Student Needs as Schools Reopen
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our academic, social, and overall lives in ways we never could have imagined. Many students (and adults) will return to school with some degree of stress, anxiety, or trauma. These feelings impact physical and mental health, and they impede learning.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) points out that social and emotional learning (SEL) will be critical as students return to school. SEL practices can help schools re-engage students and create supportive learning environments. In these environments, students can heal, thrive, and learn.
Based on recommendations from CASEL and other experts, here are some tips to keep in mind as schools reopen.
1. Create a Sense of Safety
Students need to feel safe in order to learn. When students feel unsafe, they aren’t able to focus on learning or academic tasks.
Wearing masks, practicing social distancing at school, or other safety precautions might feel scary to children. For students who are learning virtually, this disruption to their normal routine may also feel unsettling. Emphasize that these procedures are meant to keep them healthy and safe.
Introduce new procedures by discussing safety, modeling, and practicing as a group. It’s also helpful to add visuals. As much as possible, create a new routine and stick to it. Predictability feels stable and safe for children.
Creating safety also means allowing children to express their concerns and ask questions. Students should know that they are important and that they belong in your classroom.
2. Foster Connection
Similarly, students need to feel connected in order to learn. Before frantically rushing to “catch up,” take the time to build community in your classroom. Talk about what you want to accomplish this year as a class, and write a list of shared agreements. Discuss how you’d like to treat one another, and post a list of shared guidelines on classroom communication and collaboration.
Every student should have at least one supportive adult at the school who checks in with them regularly. This adult should be someone the student feels comfortable talking to if they have a problem or feel upset.
When possible, incorporate partner and group work in every classroom. (Yes, this may look different, but that’s OK.) Review your assignments and your daily schedule, and see where you can include meaningful student-teacher connection. If you’re teaching virtually, can you have small group meetings or quick, individual check-ins to deepen connections? Write positive notes on your whiteboard each day, or send students personalized emails when you think they need some extra encouragement.
Remember that even now—perhaps especially now—there is room for play, laughter, and exploration. Incorporate these elements into your classroom. Focus on relationships, and engagement and learning will naturally grow.
3. Promote Student SEL Skills
SEL skills help students manage stress, practice empathy, and handle challenges. They also help students accept and process their feelings, managing emotions like grief and loss.
As students return to school, open the conversation about what they’re feeling. Younger children can talk about how big changes make them feel. Elementary and middle school students may appreciate some closure from the previous school year, like writing letters to former teachers or classmates. And high school students can document their experiences and lessons learned during the pandemic. Allow students to express themselves through journaling, music, or artwork.
Throughout the first few weeks, talk to students about stress management, listening skills and communication, and regulating their emotions. Talk about how all feelings—even “negative” ones—are normal and acceptable to feel. Provide age-appropriate strategies children can use when they feel upset, like deep breathing, looking at a photo of a family member, drawing or journaling, or hugging a stuffed animal.
These are very basic SEL strategies, and you can visit CASEL’s website to learn more. Incorporating an SEL program into your school is a great strategy for meeting student needs as schools reopen.
4. Identify and Support Struggling Students
One of the most vital tasks in transitioning to the new school year will be supporting all students. Some students may have experienced trauma, grief, and/or chronic stress that will shape their behavior and interactions upon returning to school. Identify students who are disengaged, not attending classes, misbehaving, and/or struggling academically.
Students who are misbehaving will likely benefit from more connection and more safety. “Big behaviors” often indicate the student feels unsafe or disconnected. Since traditional punishments feel threatening and often involve ostracization, they can make matters worse. For older children, the question, “How can I help you ________?” is sometimes very effective (e.g., “How can I help you focus more in class?” or, “How can I help you stay in your seat?”).
CASEL also recommends, “Work with family and community partners to create a comprehensive plan, which may include providing additional mental health and trauma supports, or connections to food, shelter, technology, transportation, or other resources. Monitor the response to ensure needs are met.”
Final Thoughts: Meeting Student Needs as Schools Reopen
The upcoming school year is full of uncertainty, but you can meet it head-on by focusing on student needs. You’re likely stressed about what the school year will look like, how safety precautions will work, and what new responsibilities and challenges you’ll be tasked with. Build a support system, practice self-care, and work on managing your own feelings and meeting your needs first.
Then, turn your attention to safety, connection, promoting SEL skills, and supporting your students who are struggling the most. Meeting student needs as schools reopen is an essential foundation for learning. Follow these steps, and you’ll set the stage for a school year of resilience and academic achievement.