Back to School is in the air!
Many teachers and administrators have returned to school over the last few weeks to prepare and start the new year.
So many emotions are associated with the first few days of school: excitement, hopefulness, joy, nervousness, anxiety, and fear. Humans can hold more than one emotion at a time, so you can feel all sorts of emotions as the school year begins.
Imagine what a child might feel in those first few days of school.
I was one of those anxious students at the start of the school year. I felt so nervous about the start of school that I missed the first day of my 7th-grade year. Our class was moving from the elementary end of our small school to the 7-12 grade end with the big, scary high schoolers! It was a huge transition in my 7th-grade mind.
I woke up on the first day of 7th grade with an upset stomach and headache. I just couldn’t put on the new clothes I had laid out or gather up the brand-new Trapper Keeper that my mom let me buy.
The more I have learned about the mind-body connection and the nervous system, the more I now know that my 12-year-old body gave me clues about my anxiety. My parents let me stay home that first day. After school, my friends called to ask me why I wasn’t there. They told me about the schedule, the teachers, and what it was like to pass big, scary high schoolers in the hall. I went the next day feeling less nervous about the transition to the high school end of the building.
Sometimes, when I am about to experience a big transition or move in my adult life, I am right back in my 7th-grade body, feeling anxious and wanting to stay home curled up in bed. How about you? Have you ever returned to your younger self when facing a challenge or change?
However, the difference now is that I have life experiences, routines, and practices that help me deal with my anxiety and fear. Skills and techniques that I didn’t have as a 7th-grade student. Adults are the ones who create safe spaces, build trust, and help children to grow in our schools and programs. If you work with youth or staff that work with youth, to do your work well, you need to be able to model the skills to move through challenges and changes.
What are the skills needed in challenging situations to feel safe?
- Predictable – be the adult with the routine mapped out for the students or staff. When there is a meeting, make it at a specific time or date and stick with that schedule for the remainder of the school year. Changes always need to be made, and communicate those changes as soon as possible.
- Respond, not React – This skill is practicing calming your nervous system down before you respond to a student or a staff member. Practice this skill when you are not in a state of arousal. Build into your schedule time throughout the day to sit, breathe, and train your brain to calm down. The time doesn’t need to be long, 1-5 minutes, several times daily. When practiced, you can call upon this skill in challenging times.
- Be present – Stop, breathe, look at the person, and focus on listening to what they are saying. This process sounds easy, but it’s not, especially when an unending to-do list and outside distractions take us away from the moment. You can be the model for staff and students when taking the time to be fully present with them.
- Personal space – Cultures have differences in the amount of personal space needed to feel safe. Since the pandemic, the need for personal space has significantly increased. If the staff or classroom has people from different backgrounds, it is wise to discuss personal space. Remember to ask for permission before moving into someone else’s personal space.
These four skills are the key to creating a calm, focused, and safe environment for staff and students. If you are an administrator or director, practice these skills in a staff meeting. Explicitly teach your team these four keys to create a safe learning environment. When your staff or students feel safe and connected, they feel better about being in the workplace or school, and when they feel better, they do better.