Returning to School: Supporting the Social, Emotional and Behavioral Health of Students and Staff

Returning to School: Supporting the Social, Emotional and Behavioral Health of Students and Staff

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic school closure, Ohioans were asked to follow safety requirements that resulted in significant adjustments for children and families. Adults and children faced notable challenges and barriers including, but not limited to:  
 
  • Changes in daily routines;
  • Lack of predictability;
  • Increased fears about their safety and the safety of loved ones; and
  • Extended periods of isolation.
And, in some cases:
 
  • Loss of a loved one;
  • Limited access to food and safe shelter; and
  • Ongoing safety and security concerns (abuse, neglect, exposure to violence).
Districts and schools will need to consider the impact of these experiences when developing their plans for supporting students and staff upon returning to school and throughout the year. 

While faced with the multitude of challenges mentioned above, there is hope for recovery and growth. Schools have the opportunity to provide a variety of protective factors in the lives of students. This toolbox is designed to explore the social, emotional and behavioral considerations districts and schools may reflect upon while planning for the return to school. The following topics are included in the toolbox:  

Building and Sustaining Relationships

As students and staff return to school in the fall, whether it is in the building or through remote learning, attention to school climate is needed now more than ever. Positive school climate starts with positive relationships. Maintaining connectedness during times of disruption helps students feel safe and supported. As districts prepare for the return to school, there will be differences in how teachers and students can interact with each other. It is important to explore innovative ways to maintain school connectedness, build relationships and cultivate a positive climate within the new safety guidelines.

The following are ways schools can maintain connectedness and a positive school climate over the summer and for school restart in the fall.
 
  • Sense of Community: Create a school and classroom community no matter where instruction is taking place. Maintain connections virtually and based on social distancing guidelines with students, families and community partners. 
  • Positivity: Prioritize uplifting staff and students by sharing positive actions and behaviors through announcements, social media posts, newsletters and/or bulletin boards.
  • Summer Contact: Offer virtual connection opportunities during the summer months so students can connect with peers and staff.
  • Build Familiarity: Help young children get familiar with their new environment with pictures, social stories, videos of the building, or meet and greets with teachers.
  • Belonging Routines: Create a classroom motto, song or chant that is repeated at the beginning or end of class every day.
  • Relationship Building; Personal Sharing: Provide an outlet for staff and students to share about their personal lives through show and tell, pictures, stories or virtual tours.
  • Mask Comfort: If schools choose to use masks, add drawings of smiles to them when possible. Create hand gestures or teach/use American Sign Language to express feelings that can’t be expressed when wearing a mask (thumbs up, sign for smile, etc.).
  • Shared Project: Complete a class project together, whether virtually or in the school building. Assign different sections of the project that can be pulled together for a final project.


Fostering Connections Resources

The following are additional resources that support the establishment of trusting relationships:
 

Adult Self-Care During COVID 19 and Beyond

School personnel may have struggled with the fact that school buildings were closed and may continue to be anxious about the uncertainty of what school will look like in the fall. They may find it difficult to adapt to new schedules and different ways of teaching or connecting with students. They may worry about their students’ well-being and educational progress. On top of it all, many may be trying to keep up with the needs of their own children, families and friends. Feeling overwhelmed is understandable and normal.

As districts and schools focus on supporting students, it is equally important for the adults to focus on their own self-care and well-being. As school personnel prioritize their own self-care and healthy reactions to uncertain situations, students may observe and follow this lead. Districts and schools can ensure school personnel have regularly scheduled time for networking, social connections and support. School personnel cannot effectively support students if they are stressed or burned out from these times of uncertainty and transition. Because of this, included here are ideas on how to practice self-care; find time to practice self-care; and suggested resources to support school personnel.   

To start, here are some ideas for self-care:  

  • Set boundaries by creating and sticking to a schedule, saying “no” when feeling overburdened and asking for space or help when needed.
  • Recognize and acknowledge feelings.
  • Recognize what is and is not within one’s control.
  • Focus on the positive. Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Practice self-care throughout the day by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, drinking plenty of water and having movement breaks.
  • Use coping strategies such as mindfulness to help reduce stress.
  • Ask for support from coworkers and administration.
  • Complete personal pulse checks. Regularly stop and take stock of what is working and what isn’t, then make adjustments.


Adult Self-Care Resources

The following are additional resources that support adult self-care.


Building Resiliency through Social and Emotional Learning  

Social and emotional skills allow staff and students to support each other during this challenging time and grow from the experience. Facing a challenging experience and moving through it increases confidence and builds resiliency. School personnel play an important role in helping children recover from the difficult stressors of COVID-19 and becoming more resilient.

Social and emotional learning teaches students skills such as self-awareness, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, relationship building and responsible decision-making. Developing these skills is an important part of meeting the needs of the whole child and supports their abilities to adapt during uncertain times. Many schools in Ohio are implementing social and emotional programs and curricula to teach these skills to students. As schools prepare for the return to school, it can be helpful to review and strengthen implementation of these programs and curricula to ensure application. Ohio’s Birth through Kindergarten Entry Learning and Developmental Standards and K-12 Social and Emotional Learning Standards provide helpful information and resources for schools that wish to improve their existing efforts or those just starting the process.

Social and emotional learning and resiliency-building initiatives are supported by Ohio’s Prevention Education and Student Well-being Supports. Districts have been partnering with their local educational service centers and alcohol, drug, and mental health boards to assess prevention needs and provide evidence-informed prevention education services for all students in all grades. Prevention education aims to build resiliency and reduce risky behaviors, including substance abuse, suicide, bullying and other harmful behaviors. Social and emotional learning and prevention education initiatives will help students develop coping skills and make healthy decisions. Information on Ohio’s prevention education initiatives can be found here.

The following social skill activities can help students overcome existing stressors:
  • Allow students to talk about and share their feelings connected to what happened at the end of last school year and what is happening with the new school year. Younger students may need help labeling feelings and may express their feelings through activities such as play, art and music.
  • Coping skills: Teach, model and practice coping skills to support self-regulation (deep breathing, progressive relaxation, physical activity, drawing or writing).   
  • Reframe and empower: Assist students with reframing negative thoughts into empowering statements. First, validate the child’s feelings, then offer a different perspective. For example, a student may say, “I can’t play football with my friends at recess. This is the worst. I hate school.” Staff validate the feeling and reframe. “It sounds like you miss playing football with your friends. That’s frustrating. This is a great opportunity to learn a new game or hobby. I wonder what else you would really like?” Keep in mind, some children will express negative feelings through behavior and may not be able to verbally express their feelings.
  • Show gratitude: Create gratitude journals, jars or collages where students identify the positive things in their lives. This can be done as a classwide project or as individual projects.  
  • Relationship building: Build relationships and connections with students.
  • Reflection on past experiences: Have students identify a previous challenge and how they overcame it. Point out the skills they used to persevere.
  • Teachable moments: For young children, identify challenges in the moment as “teachable moments.” For example, a child exhibits frustration and the teacher acknowledges and validates the child’s feeling in the moment and supports the child in problem-solving.
  • Book reflection: Use book character(s) to discuss challenges and how the character(s) overcame the challenges.
  • Examples in history: Facilitate class activities that research historical times of challenge and crisis. Discuss how people during that time may have felt and how they overcame the situation. Facilitate comparisons with the current situation.


Social and Emotional Learning Resources

The following are additional resources that support social emotional learning:


Supporting Behavior

In response to the stress related to COVID-19, as well as the extended time outside of the school environment, staff can expect to see significant changes in student behavior. Young children do not have the cognitive ability or verbal skills to understand and articulate strong emotions. Early childhood staff may see behaviors such as crying, aggression, helplessness and difficulty with separation. Similarly, older children and teenagers may struggle to identify, express and manage the complex emotions they are feeling.

During times of uncertainty, it is common for individuals to compensate by demonstrating behaviors that provide an increased sense of control. For some students, this may be demonstrated through externalizing behaviors such as refusal to attend and participate in school, defiance or verbal and physical outbursts. Social isolation can increase anxiety and depression. Students may demonstrate internalizing behaviors such as withdrawal, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and increased physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches). Teachers may see changes in students’ abilities to focus and remain on task.

Compared to previous years, changes in student behavior may continue for a longer period of time and take longer to respond to interventions. Schools will need to provide additional time for teaching and reviewing behavior expectations and will need efficient and effective systems in place to provide tiered supports to meet the varying needs of students upon the return to school.

 The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework provides the foundation for planning and implementing these activities. Schools implementing PBIS demonstrate improved relationships and school climate, as well as reductions in behavior disruptions, office discipline referrals and out-of-school discipline.  Ohio recognizes high-quality implementation through the Ohio PBIS Recognition System. Schools are eligible to receive awards at the bronze, silver or gold level of distinction. Further information about the PBIS Recognition System and award-winning schools that are available for networking can be found here.

Districts and schools can receive PBIS training through state support teams (SST) or educational service centers (ESC). These entities will continue to expand their current PBIS training menus as a part of Ohio’s School Climate Transformation Grant.


Teaching Behavior Expectations

At the start of the school year, school staff use the first few weeks to teach, model and practice the schoolwide expectations, rules and routines. These practices and routines then become habits throughout the year. This practice is needed now more than ever. Students will need additional teaching and prompting to return to the more structured environment of school.  

In addition to teaching the typical behavior expectations, staff can:
  • Promote familiarity with safety requirements: Create and share videos prior to the start of school that outline the new safety requirements and how these will look in the school environment, including on the bus. This allows students and their families to prepare for the changes.
  • Prepare lesson plans that teach and model safety requirements connected to the pandemic. This may include lesson plans that explain the distancing practice of standing six feet apart, how to wash hands thoroughly and when to wear a mask (if the district elects to have students or staff wear masks). Younger grades and students with disabilities may benefit from social stories, online videos, puppets, pictures of staff or famous characters, or books demonstrating the behaviors.
  • PBIS Implementation: Schools implementing PBIS should review and update their behavior matrix to include new safety requirements, as well as additional environments including virtual environments.
  • Set clear expectations: Review expectations, such as being respectful or being kind, and how these expectations can be used for the prevention of harassment, intimidation and bullying connected to the virus and new safety precautions.  
  • Recognize good behavior: Acknowledge appropriate behavior frequently at the start of the year, and transition to intermittent acknowledgement as the year progresses. Depending on the location of school, adaptations may need to be made in how acknowledgement and reinforcement is provided. Work with parents if school is taking place remotely.  
  • School environment: Prepare the school environment with cues such as markers on the floor in the cafeteria that demonstrate six feet of space between students in the cafeteria line.


Tiers of Support to Address Student Need

Along with teaching behavior expectations, school teams will need to prepare tiered interventions and supports to help students struggling with the transition back to school, new safety expectations and increases in mental health symptoms. Providing tiered behavior and academic supports is a Multi-Tiered System of Support needed to address each child’s unique needs. School teams should consider how they will gauge the needs of all students and create decision rules for determining when additional supports are needed. As noted above, many students may demonstrate difficult behaviors as a result of the frustration and confusion connected to COVID-19 and social distancing requirements. Schools should monitor the frequency, intensity and duration of concerning behaviors. When challenging behaviors arise, looking at the “why” behind the behavior, staying proactive and addressing the student’s needs rather than immediately reacting to behaviors with a disciplinary measure are key for creating safe and supportive environments.

School staff will benefit from professional development on behavior supports, the impact of stress and trauma on behavior and learning, and how to recognize, respond and refer for mental health needs. Schools can collaborate with mental health agencies to provide services for students and consultation for staff regarding behavior supports and interventions in the classroom.


Discipline Procedures

Districts and schools should proactively plan for how they will address discipline knowing there may be increases in student behavior issues. Staff and administrators should be prepared for situations where a student does not comply with new safety requirements. There are many issues school teams must consider, such as weighing the safety of the student versus the safety of others, as well as factors that may make complying with the new safety requirements difficult for some students.

While it is important for school teams to address behavior concerns, the focus should be on helping students understand behavior missteps and reinforcing proper behaviors. A goal should be to keep students in the classroom and in school as much as possible. School teams benefit from creating a continuum of discipline practices that avoid exclusionary approaches such as suspension and expulsion. Alternatives to suspension and expulsion may include interventions such as restorative practices and mentoring programs, both of which focus on relationships and re-engaging students.

Wearing Masks: There are many examples across the world of students wearing masks without problems or challenges throughout the school day. Schools will be making local decisions about wearing masks. Wearing masks may be challenging for some students. If the school asks students to wear masks, be sure to keep the following in mind:
  • Students who have experienced abuse may be triggered by masks touching their faces, covering their mouths or restricting airflow.
  • Students with sensory issues may not be able to tolerate the elastic around their ears, material on their faces, or smell of the material.
  • Students who rely on facial expressions or lip reading to support communication may not be able to communicate while wearing masks.
  • Students who experience anxiety may be triggered by the perceived restriction of airflow.


Safety and Use of Restraint 

Teams should plan for safety concerns where a student is at risk of harming him or herself or someone else. With social distancing protocols, districts will need to create policies and practices addressing the use of physical restraint. As with any safety issue, prior to the use of restraint, staff should attempt to isolate the concern by removing other students and staff and using de-escalation techniques to limit the use of physical restraint as much as possible. Physical restraint should only be used as a last resort. School teams should consider training additional, or all staff, in de-escalation techniques at the start of the school year to prepare more staff to address unsafe behaviors. See the Ohio Department of Education’s resources on restraint and seclusion here.


Behavior Support Resources 

The following are resources that support effective behavior support practices:

Trauma-Sensitive Practices

There is no better time than the present for school personnel to expand their knowledge and implement trauma-sensitive practices, if they are not already doing so. Presently, all students and staff have experienced a traumatic event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is imperative to note that experiencing trauma does not automatically indicate there will be significant impacts. Some students will return to school emotionally and physically healthy and ready to learn, while others may return to school facing more difficult circumstances. These students may be in a physiological state that does not feel safe and consequently will not be ready to learn. Understanding that students have had various experiences, it is essential to meet students where they are. It is the responsibility of school personnel to create a building that feels safe for all students and staff.


Protective Factors and Relationships

Protective factors reduce the impact of traumatic experiences. One of the most influential protective factors in a child’s life is a supportive, healthy relationship with a trusted adult. Relationships between students and staff and among peers should be developed and nourished throughout the year. It is important to create connections through social and emotional learning activities and focus on healing through relationships early in the year to help students feel safe from the start.

Be aware that relationships that were previously associated with a child’s healing and success could have abruptly ended last school year as an outcome of the ordered school-building closure. It is important to consider if healthy relationships were ended unexpectedly and revisit these, when able, to provide a closure or re-entry activity.

Solid trauma-informed approaches incorporate a strengths-based approach. Identifying and emphasizing a student’s strengths, such as the protective factors in his or her life, will assist with addressing any needs the student may have.


Creating Safe Environments

It is important for all students to return to school in a safe and predictable environment. The PBIS Tier I practice of teaching behavior expectations can help create predictable environments (see Supporting Behavior). Providing healthy outlets for students also can assist with setting up a safe environment. For example, teachers may choose to introduce fidgets or other sensory objects within their classrooms. When doing so, it is essential to discuss procedures around usage that fit the building’s expectations and comply with new safety precautions. For example, students should have their own fidgets or calming kits rather than class-shared items.

When challenging behaviors arise, looking at the “why” behind the behavior, staying proactive and addressing the student’s need rather than immediately reacting to behaviors with a disciplinary measure are key to creating a safe, trauma-sensitive environment.


Adult Trauma

As important as it is to be sensitive to trauma in students, it is equally as important to be aware that adults — educators, school personnel and caregivers — also have been impacted by the pandemic. Adults should practice self-care (see Adult Self-Care) to provide the best care to students. As educators and school personnel work with families, it is important to consider the adults in the home also are likely having trauma responses.

Parents and caregivers likely have been under higher levels of stress than usual. Schools can find ways to support families in managing stress and providing safe environments for students everywhere, especially if any remote learning situations again arise after returning to school. Providing parents and caregivers with tips or resources to practice their own self-care and wellness, while also structuring a safe space for learning are key to helping each student.

Educators should try to maintain relationships and stay connected with students if remote learning occurs so they can best support the student and family. Educators should empower families through a strengths-based approach and take preventative measures for increasing safety even when students are not with them. The Preventing Abuse and Neglect section on the Ohio Department of Education’s website may be a helpful resource for educators to help keep students safe.  
 

Supportive Activities

Below are some ideas to consider for implementing trauma-sensitive practices in the school:
  • Professional development: Provide professional development for staff about stress and trauma before the school year begins. 
  • Self-care space: Have a staff self-care space in the break room with items for staff and a process for teachers to support each other emotionally while at work.
  • Needs survey: Conduct a needs survey for students and staff to gain a sense of what may need addressed.
  • Trauma response plan: Consult with school mental health staff or work with community partners to make a plan for how to address trauma in the school.
  • Fidgets: Create a list of budget-friendly fidgets and prepare staff and students for how these can be used effectively in the classroom. It is important to follow health and safety guidelines regarding cleaning and sharing.
  • Relationship building: Facilitate activities that nurture pre-existing relationships between students and adults and help create new trusting relationships with students.
  • Mindfulness: Facilitate activities that teach skills like mindfulness. Breathing exercises, yoga or meditation can be taught and practiced as a standalone lesson or incorporated as part of another lesson. Practice these skills and re-teach as necessary.
  • Self-calming: Facilitate lessons that teach students self-calming strategies. Practice these strategies and provide feedback to students.
  • Nutrition and exercise: Create opportunities to teach and explain how nutrition and exercise directly impact the brain and mental health.
  • Journaling: Have a journal available for each student and start the day with a journal entry. Students can have the option to share or not.
  • Family Pictures: Allow each student to bring picture of a caregiver to keep in his or her book bag for the day.
  • Group processes: Work with the school counselor on setting up groups that may address trauma needs presented by students needing additional supports (Tier II).
  • Allow breaks: Allow opportunities for students to take breaks when needed from challenging tasks. When it is time for them to start again, help the students make plans. Providing one to three “break cards” may be helpful when implementing. Students may use the break cards for water breaks, chatting with a trusted adult, or time to stretch, to name a few. Be sure to set guidelines for how break cards may be used.
  • Classroom jobs: Allow opportunities for helping and classroom jobs. Jobs can rotate between students, such as line leader or paper passer. If a child has a relationship with a trusted adult, such as a cafeteria staff member, allow the student to help that person on a regular basis.
  • Schedules: Have structure and posted schedules that create predictability and consistency. For some students, schedules should include visuals and be posted at eye level.
  • Trusted adult interaction: Allow for children to visit trusted adults if time and schedules allow. Give students opportunities to write notes to trusted adults (home or school) and have the option to deliver these notes.
  • Counseling referrals: Plan with staff to discuss any counseling referrals that may be needed. Have a shared process and plan in the building for how and when students will be referred.
  • Calm kit: Create a calm kit with children where they can have things like a fidget, putty, paper and pencil, pipe cleaners or other things they can use to calm themselves or help regulate. To support health and safety guidance, students should have their own items rather than one shared kit.  
  • Classroom environment: Set up the classroom in a manner that is aware of sensory needs, such as dimmed lighting, reducing smells, calm music, etc.


Trauma-Sensitive Practices Resources

The following are additional resources that can support trauma-sensitive practices.
 

Grief

It is possible that situations will occur where students and school personnel have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 or experienced other significant losses during the pandemic. Even if a death occurred that was not due to COVID-19, traditional bereavement practices, such as funerals or other memorial ceremonies, likely were prohibited. Students and staff may not have had the opportunity to visit with loved ones before they passed or said their goodbyes. This can complicate the grieving process.

Students and staff also may experience grief connected to sudden losses resulting from the pandemic. This can include grieving the loss of attending school in the school building, loss of connection with friends and loss of meaningful events or milestones.

School staff can create supportive environments where students are provided the opportunity to grieve. Supportive activities may include:
  • Be aware of grief reactions in children and teens and be responsive and supportive to behavior changes.
  • Allow students time and space to express their grief feelings.
  • Allow students to keep a picture of loved ones in a safe, private space like a school box or book bag.
  • Give students an opportunity to write a letter to someone they lost.
  • Facilitate an expressive activity (music, writing, art) for students to share their feelings connected to the losses they are experiencing.
  • Provide opportunities for grief and loss groups as part of Tier II supports.
  • Teach and allow students to use grounding activities to help manage feelings of distress and sadness. This could be rubbing a smooth rock, touching a feather or smelling a calming scent.
  • Schools may wish to partner with mental health agencies that can provide individual or group grief counseling.
 

Grief Resources

The following are resources that can help support responses to grief:  

Questions

Questions regarding the topics in this document can be sent to the Office of Integrated Student Supports at WholeChild@education.ohio.gov.

Visit these websites for additional resources:

 

Last Modified: 8/4/2020 9:35:14 AM