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5 Strategies to Build Your and Students’ Resilience

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Stress and unpredictability are not foreign concepts for most educators and other school personnel far from it. But the kind of stress the K-12 education community faces now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, differs in many ways from the norm. As stated in a recent EdWeek article, the scramble to provide remote student support has caused many educators to feel exhausted and uncertain. Meanwhile, on the other side of the virtual classroom, students and their families are feeling much the same way.

So, how can those working on the front lines of education help students, families, and each other navigate this uncertain and unprecedented time? We asked Dr. Kenya Coleman, LICSW, LCSW-C, Senior Director of School Mental Health at District of Columbia Public Schools, for guidance on how to build resilience. Here is what she shared.

We are resilient. Most of us have endured several significant challenges and have overcome them. For example, two decades ago the world looked on in horror as the events of the Columbine Massacre unfolded. We had never before witnessed a mass shooting inside of a school, and the unfamiliarity initially led most to feel overwhelmed. The Washington Post estimates that the United States now averages 11 incidents of mass gun violence at K through 12 schools each year. Are we no longer concerned? No! These incidents continue to be disheartening, but we now have policies and procedures in place that detail how to respond effectively, and they help us to feel more secure.

We’re currently “alone together” as we respond to a pandemic as an international community. This, too, is a new experience that has given us pause. Nevertheless, we adapt with each passing day. We continue to engage in as many normal day-to-day activities as possible, and our efforts help us gain a sense of control during what could easily be described as a traumatic experience. Our resilience is demonstrated when we participate in our standard routines in the aftermath of a situation that is out of our control. Our rigidity is revolutionary in the face of chaos. Strictly adhering to our daily schedule plays a pivotal role in our ability to obtain a sense of normalcy and allows us to return to our baseline functioning.

Adhering to a schedule is not the only strategy available to us though. Here are five additional strategies you and your students can use to cope with anxiety and other challenges during uncertain times:

1. Move

Physical activity in almost any form can act as a stress reliever. Walking up the stairs, using resistance bands, doing pushups or squats, taking virtual yoga or HIIT classes, stretching, et cetera will boost your endorphins, your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters, and help improve your mood.

2. Create healthy distraction

Laughter is a good thing! Search social media sites to find memes and videos that make you chuckle as you enjoy the spontaneity of others. You may also want to consider attending a virtual concert, participating in video chats with family and friends, and/or preparing a new recipe. Whatever healthy distraction you chose, try to make sure it adds value to your day.

3. Be mindful

“Mindfulness” is the ability to pay careful attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and sensing without judging those thoughts and feelings as good or bad. Countless studies link mindfulness to better health, lower anxiety, and greater resilience to stress. Mindful breathing in particular is helpful because it gives you an anchor — your breath — on which you can focus when you find yourself carried away by a stressful thought. Mindful breathing can build your resilience to sudden and expected change.

4. Manage your environment

Incorporate wellness into your environment. Place an image, picture, or other memento in your room or on your desk that creates the thoughts or energy that you know you will need. For example, a succulent next to your computer could remind you to give life to yourself. Environments that mimic nature have a big effect on minimizing stress and improving overall health. Even viewing representations of nature helps reduce stress. I’ve read that some hospitals often put fake skylights above beds to create calming environments. Use what you have to create the same effect in your space, or just look out of the window and take in the natural landscape.

5. Journal

Journaling can be a fun way of engaging in self-care while tapping into your creativity, and it has many benefits. For example, research suggests that journaling stimulates an area of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS), which filters and brings clearly to the forefront the information you are focusing on. Journaling also strengthens T-lymphocytes, is associated with reduction in depression and anxiety, and increases positive mood, social engagement, and the quality of close relationships. It provides you with some health benefits such as reducing heart rate, increasing serotonin flow, and decreasing stress responses. Most important, journaling is free of judgment. You should not edit your words, poems, or pictures. Instead, use them as a reminder that it’s OK to make “mistakes.”

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All of these strategies foster a sense of gratitude. We absolutely do not celebrate our circumstance. We’d much rather live in a predictable world. But when we are faced with a crisis, we learn to appreciate the small things that we may have taken for granted before we experienced a crisis. Our long walks may include a family member with whom we may have spent very little time in the past, giving us an opportunity to reconnect and rekindle stale relationships. Attending a virtual concert gives us a chance to dance, laugh, and be silly when we’d previously been bogged down with work and feeling very serious as a result. Ultimately, our newfound appreciation of what we already have is what I would call the quintessential cherry on top. It reminds us that all is not lost.

I have no desire to downplay the seriousness or the severity of the difficulty we are currently facing or the difficulties we have faced in the past. The health and welfare of many people have been compromised, and the situation is scary given its unpredictability. My goal is to remind you that you have the capacity to cope with crises. You have the psychological resources you need to keep moving forward despite the myriad of feelings that are undoubtedly surging through your body at this very moment. Trust yourself and do what comes naturally. Utilize the strategies that have helped you effectively overcome difficulty in the past. YOU and your students are resilient!