New Year, New Feeling
It’s been a hard year the world over. But 2021 will, indeed, be a better year, a happier and healthier year for all of us—personally, professionally, academically, and emotionally.
Positive change will occur. But it will likely take longer than we think. As a result, our students may feel, in the coming weeks and months, more disconnected from the nurturing social community they count on when they attend school under normal circumstances.
Your most important goal, then, for the first weeks of the new year, may involve making small adjustments to the structure of your day to promote the emotional well-being of your students.
Here are five ways you can do this. (Look for five more ideas to structure teaching to improve students’ emotional well-being in Part 2 of this blog post.)
1. Use an Agency Model
It’s tough to motivate students even when they’re sitting in front of us. Motivation via remote learning is even harder. But kids motivate themselves when they have agency.
Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently based on choice. In the classroom, this is not free choice. Instead, it’s a small range of choices, options you establish and moderate the choosing of, possibilities that are physically safe, academically responsible, and emotionally healthy.
Think about choices of topics to write, texts to read, questions to answer, problems to solve. When students do the choosing, motivation is less confusing, and accountability improves over time.
Agency also helps kids gain a greater sense of control. Our lingering negative emotions often come from the sense that we lack sufficient control over our environment.
Help students discover places in their lives, in school and out, where they can find more control via choices that are meaningful to them. Do this for yourself in your own life, too. Our sense of emotional well-being is often proportional to the degree of control we possess.
2. Zoom Through the Day
Move a little faster by asking students to work a little faster. The best way to do this is to let them set the pace.
Before you release students to complete a task, ask for estimates of how long they think it will take. Most estimates will be inaccurate, some facetious, but a few will have a strong sense of time well spent.
With an estimate from each student, find a rough average. (Median is often more useful than the mean.) If this amount of time seems reasonable to you, divide it into a small number of “check-ins”. For example, a 15-minute activity might have three 5-minute check-ins. When you set students up to begin, start a timer on the screen, and check-in at the appropriate intervals.
Pacing is crucial when teaching remotely. It is even more critical now when some students may be accustomed to the tedious pace of online learning. Others may not have adult guidance at home to keep them fully engaged.
Encourage learners to pick up the pace in small increments over time. Help them tune their estimates. Seek consensus about when and how much to speed things up more.
Moving through things quickly, especially things we regard as uninteresting, unpleasant, or unduly difficult, reduces the drag we feel during the day and the drain we feel when the day is done.
3. Nothing Succeeds Like Success (Or Does It, Really?)
Successful outcomes make students feel better. But do they succeed in making kids feel like doing more? Not always, especially when children don’t understand why doing more matters.
Progress—not performance—is a better motivator for long-term learning. We have a natural tendency to want to get better at things. Even tiny increments of growth feel good.
Learning is a journey, not a destination. Succeeding at something is an end in itself. Why continue? Especially if something we’ve just succeeded at was hard.
Over time, especially when motivation is low and work is arduous, kids who finish well may be less inclined to get better. By contrast, focusing on progress strengthens motivation, increases stamina, and promotes a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.
4. Bring the Funny (and the Cute)
Build humor into your day. If you’re not a stand-up comedian or a Hollywood sitcom writer, don’t worry. You can pull this off with minimal effort.
All over the Internet, there are hilarious student-appropriate websites, videos, and image collections you can peek in on any time you want a good-natured break in the action.
Sometimes, all you need is a Google search. Type “pug or blueberry muffin” into the search bar and see what comes up. “Parrot or guacamole” is fun, too. Visual puns like these are numerous.
Don’t forget to bring the cute, too. It’s hard to feel sad or frustrated looking at www.emergencypuppy.net.
When we’re feeling down, laughter truly is the best medicine.
5. Blow Your Cover
Normally, we cover up the harder truths of teaching and learning in order to spare children the pain we may be feeling. That’s reasonable. But these days, your learners may feel the weight of the world upon their shoulders, too. The harder things get, the more we might consider blowing our cover.
We often think we can hide the hurt behind bright eyes and sunny smiles. Often, we must. But even little children see through this over time. Better that we talk to them about what’s really going on than let their minds run with what is almost always the thought of something worse.
If appropriate, tell them how you’re feeling. Share your feelings in an age-appropriate way matched to your audience. Ask them how they’re feeling. Talk about how everyone is feeling in a patient, non-evaluative discussion.
Politely limit students to a short phrase or single sentence. Don’t worry about the “why” of things; don’t ask for the “because”. “Why” responses put us in the past. Keep kids in the present, feeling how they feel, feeling how their friends feel, feeling how you feel, so you can teach them how to help themselves feel better in the future.
Final Feelings, Final Thoughts
Go gently into this good new year. Go with compassion and with self-compassion. You are doing the best you can. So are your students. So are their parents. So are we all.
And what we are doing is enough.
Go also with hope because a new year brings with it new hope for a better year to come.
Bring these thoughts and feelings with you to school each day. Bring some of the things you have learned here as it suits you to do so.
And never forget that the very best thing you can bring is an emotionally healthy you. More than anything else, this is the key to safeguarding and strengthening the emotional well-being of your students.
Look for five more ideas to structure teaching to improve students’ emotional well-being in Part 2 >.