Supporting the Social-Emotional Needs of Students in a Virtual Environment
At Chesapeake Bay Academy (CBA), we often say that we get to do education the way it should be done. We understand the importance of addressing the needs of the whole child – academic, social, and emotional. As a certified instructor of mindfulness (K-12) through Mindful Schools, I have worked with the entire middle school team to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into everything that we do. Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with a sense of curiosity and openness. For many years, we have begun every school day with a few moments of mindfulness practice, which entails some deep breathing and an opportunity to be still and quiet. During our practice time together, we are able to notice – without judgment – our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Additionally, we included direct instruction of mindfulness weekly in Health lessons.
The benefits of the practice include greater self-awareness and empathy, increased attention and focus, and reduced anxiety, especially as it relates to academic stress and peer relationships. Educators, parents, and students are certainly aware of the stresses that already existed around school prior to the pandemic, and unfortunately, the pandemic has only compounded these stresses on everyone. The overnight transition into full-time digital learning presented many new challenges, including how best to continue supporting the need that we all have for social interaction and human connection.
Healthy, trusting relationships are the foundation of our work at CBA, and this foundation made our quick transition to online learning more successful. The first couple of weeks were the most challenging, as we worked tirelessly to get everyone into a workable schedule. Regardless of our challenges around building a workable schedule, we knew instinctively that we would need to build in activities that were familiar to our students so that they would feel grounded in the midst of so much uncertainty. We created a Morning Meeting and Mindfulness gathering via Zoom so that we could continue with the daily practice that we already had in place within our building. We consistently hosted about 50 people in that Zoom room every day at 8:30 a.m. It warmed our hearts to be together virtually and see that we were all safe and still managing to smile through this whole experience. The students were encouraged to share with each other, things like, “We went hiking last weekend as a family,” or “We rode bikes together,” or “My siblings and I camped out in our fort last night.” And we laughed a lot! Additionally, we set up virtual Lunchtime Gatherings in which students ate together in a Zoom room and chat with each other about anything and everything. Their conversations were hilarious, and this proved to be a wonderful outlet for them socially.
We have also learned that by supporting parents, we are supporting our students. Now, more than ever before, we are true partners with parents, and parents are feeling the additional stresses, too! Each situation was unique, with some parents serving as essential workers, needing to continue working outside the home, while others were attempting to continue their work virtually. Regardless of the situation, parents were now needing to be more involved with the academic work of their children. When we helped reduce the anxiety that parents were feeling, we were indirectly helping reduce the anxiety of our students. We offered weekly Parent Coffee & Conversation Zoom meetings, and every week, at least a handful of parents showed up. They expressed their own desire for connection and their desire to know that they were supporting their children in the most appropriate ways. Some additional supports we offered parents were more logistical, like digital schedules and a centralized location for all Zoom meeting links. We asked for parent-feedback through direct conversations as well as online anonymous surveys. Time and time again the feedback is mostly, “Thank you.” Thank you for knowing how my child learns best and meeting them where they are.
The big take-away is that when students feel safe, they are most available for learning reading, math, science, and social studies. There are so many anecdotal stories about the ways in which our students demonstrated the benefits of a mindfulness practice. One example happened earlier in the year, when a mother shared with me that her son noticed her anxiety in traffic and invited her to breathe with him in order to support her. Another set of parents shared with me that they walked into a room at home one day and saw their three young daughters sitting at the feet of their son as he taught them how to practice mindfulness. Another student who has mild depression and trouble sleeping, reported to me that practicing mindfulness, including body scans, at bedtime, has helped her with her insomnia. The stories are endless, and the work that we do is so meaningful.
As we look forward to next year and the future, whether in brick-and-mortar classrooms or in online platforms, we all need to know that we are in this together!
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