Tactics to boost teenagers’ emotional well-being in a pandemic environment

There’s no doubt that teaching is a truly rewarding and challenging career path. This year, however, the typical challenges that teachers face have been far surpassed. Educators are juggling more than ever before—and working with students who have new emotional needs in a pandemic learning environment.

For parents, too, this year brings with it a lot of uncertainty, forcing them to step into uncharted territories while trying to ensure that their children receive the same level of education that has been afforded in years prior. These are critical years—when much college prep is done. They are moments in time that deserve full hands-on-deck effort.

As we approach winter and flu season, we may all find ourselves stretched even thinner—and we’re not alone in feeling this way. A survey conducted last spring by Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) asked teachers across the U.S. to describe 3 of the emotions they felt most frequently while teaching. More than 5,000 teachers sent responses—and the results were indicative of new pressures from the pandemic. The emotions most frequently mentioned were:

·         Anxiety
·         Distress/worry
·         Sorrow
·         Overwhelmed
·         Fear/concern
Chances are, if educators across the country are experiencing these feelings—their students are, too. (Especially students at the high school level). With all of these feelings at front-and-center, how can we work together to provide a comfortable and effective learning environment for children? We focus on a few, critical steps.

Step 1: Recognizing & Understanding Burnout

According to Psychology Today, burnout is caused by experiencing chronic (day-after-day) stress that leads to conditions of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of being unaccomplished or ineffective. Understanding how to recognize the signs of burnout is a critical step to effectively coping.

Without proper recognition, burnout can go untreated and impact more than just grades. Watch teenagers carefully for specific clues that something is wrong. Early detection can help you lessen the effects and more proactively push-back before deeper issues develop. Keep an eye out for:

·         Stops in sharing: If your child used to frequently talk to you about what is going on at school—and they suddenly get quiet, take note. For some, this quietness simply comes with age. But if they seem more silent than usual—ask some questions. Observe their reactions.

·         Decreased energy: Those dealing with burnout will seem lethargic and fatigued on a regular basis. If you see your teenager’s energy decline, keep a close watch to determine if it is temporary and caused by something
understandable (like lack of sleep,) or a more consistent, non-improving issue.

·         Diminished drive: During burnout, goals and excitement are often replaced with quiet complacency (or no complacency at all). If you notice this day-after-day, it may be time to pull in some support initiatives.

·         Overly emotional responses: Students who suffer from chronic stress may respond to small stimuli in grand ways. If something minor goes wrong, it could cause a meltdown. Watch for reactions that seem out-of-the-norm.
Those who can consciously recognize burnout are one step closer to combating it effectively. After you recognize burnout signs in your teenager, support them with effective self-care tactics.

Step 2: Supporting Stress Reduction by Encouraging Self-Care

Self-care is both a mental and physical process—and one that both parents and educators should support for all students. The overall goal of it is to awaken and revive your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which fights stress and allows for relaxation. (This is the part of your body that kicks into high gear when your body is resting and/or recovering from something taxing). When it’s activated, your PNS:

Slows the heart and calms the breathing
Sends blood to your organs and away from muscles, allowing muscles to relax
Helps the body better digest food
Helps the muscles repair themselves
Activates the overall recovery process
Our goal is to expand the time that students in school have an activated PNS, making them healthier overall. But how can we best do this? We should aim to focus, collectively with parents at home, on a few things:

·        Streamlining the stressors – We can’t get rid of stress altogether (especially for high school-aged students). It’s a normal part of life—and learning to cope with it in healthy ways is a critical part of development, as well. But those who have an awareness of and focus on good health practices are more committed to removing or reducing the stressors in their lives that they can control and on re-evaluating their responses to the ones that they can’t. Don’t be afraid to talk to your teens about stress. Share encouragement for healthy coping mechanisms and ideas for removing unnecessary stress from life where and when they’re able.

·        Embracing the light – Vitamin D from the sunlight is an amazing, natural stress-reducer. Whenever they have the time, encourage your child to step outside and into the sun.

·        Getting some energy out – Life is busy, and it’s hard to find time to commit to regular, physical activity, but the rewards of making exercise a priority are plentiful. Exercise is one of the keys to properly managing stress. If your student plays sports, they may already get their heart rate up multiple times a day—but if not, try to encourage them to clear their mind and raise their energy levels…even just 20 minutes each day.

·        Being aware of breathing – When your student feels pressure or stress coming on, teach them to automatically slow their breathing. This activates PNS and is something everyone can do. When inhaling, have your teen fill their lungs as much as they can, hold that breath for a few seconds, and then exhale very slowly. They should continue this slowed breathing exercise for about one minute.

·        Focusing on balanced nutrition – The things that students put into their body can deeply impact their PNS balance. There are diets made specifically to reduce stress that are little more than a google away. They focus on providing the perfect blend of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and nutrients. In an environment where stress abounds—this is one thing we can consistently control: what we eat.

6.)    Getting serious about sleep – Students can handle stress much better if they’ve gotten a good night’s sleep. Most teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep each night, according to sleepfoundation.org. Experts recommend turning the bedroom into a “sleep sanctuary” of sorts, by keeping it dark, cool, and cozy.
When it comes to stress, much is out of our control—but the coping mechanisms listed above are tools that we can proactively employ to assist. Encourage your teenagers and students to be mindful of these healthy habits. In addition to at-home anti-stress tactics, there are several resources your students can (and should) take advantage of at school.

Step 3: Utilizing a Supportive School Culture

In today’s environment, we are more focused than ever on fostering a positive and uplifting school culture for everyone—from educators and support staff to students.  Be sure that your students are aware of the support resources provided to them at school, and encourage them to reach out to teachers, counselors or administrators at any time. Our doors are always open, and our highly trained professional staff members are here to listen as we collectively adapt to a new normal.

Feel like your student is struggling? Please contact us at any time to share your concerns. Your students mental, physical and emotional well-being is just as important to us as their education.