4 Ways to Support Students in Crisis

Hint: It starts with creating a nurturing, supportive environment for teachers.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Pandemic Leadership, Health and Wellness, School Culture and Climate

No one would argue that teaching during a pandemic has brought a new level of difficulty to helping students learn. This is especially true when implementing trauma-informed practices imbedded in a multi-tiered system of support for student behavior—all while navigating a world in which virtual learning is the new normal.

It is a lot of work to put together meaningful research-informed and curriculum-aligned lesson plans, to build in empowering and engaging activities for students, and to continually monitor their progress—and that is just a fraction of what teachers need to do every day. So how can teachers support each other to feel strong and confident enough to take on the challenge without feeling drained and insecure?

We know that nurturing, supportive adults can serve as a buffer so that trauma doesn’t have to be traumatic for children. Could the same be true for colleagues? Let’s hold a mirror to ourselves for a moment. When you are going through an overwhelming challenge—eh hem, COVID-19, we’re talking about you—and doubt how you are handling the situation because it does not seem to be getting better, whom do you turn to for support?

We look for someone who does these four things:

1. Validate feelings

When we are struggling, we look for people who will help us know that our feelings are normal. It is so important to listen to understand, not listen to respond or listen to solve the problem. Ask questions and paraphrase what someone is telling you to make sure you are accurately hearing what they are saying and so your colleague knows that they are truly being heard.

2. Empathize

Here are helpful “don’ts” for empathizing, and each “don’t” hits on an important differentiation between empathizing and sympathizing.

  • Don’t put yourself in others’ shoes because you will end up with more than just stinky feet. You will end up with an inaccurate perception of the problem. It is not about how you would feel or handle the problem; rather, it is about how they feel and how they might best handle the problem. I did not have the exact same experiences as my colleague, so I could not simply put myself in his shoes and expect to understand how he feels.
  • Don’t kick people when they are down by making a judgement. Accurate or not, they just don’t need your judgement. They need your love and support.
  • Don’t assume you know how to help. Instead, ask four very important words, “How can I help?”

3. Keep the problem as small as possible

Sometimes we think empathizing sounds like this, “Yes, students these days are so different and so difficult. I don’t know how they expect us to teach and handle these students.” Or, we might think empathizing sounds like this, “Yes, you have one of the worst classes I have ever seen. I don’t know how you do it.” Sound familiar? We say these things with all of the best intentions, but they do not help us keep the problem as small as possible. They make the problem HUGE, and there is no way we can fix “students these days” or “the worst class I have ever seen.” Instead, let’s help our colleagues focus on the main problem with questions like, “If you could fix just one specific thing right now, what would that be?”

4. Separate emotions from the problem

It is helpful to think of problems in two parts—how we feel about the problem and what the problem actually is. They really are separate, yet intricately tied, problems. When I am talking with someone who helps me take my emotions out of the problem, it literally cuts the problem in half. When we are supporting a student in crisis, or dealing with an angry parent, or any other emotionally charged problem, we are feeling overwhelmed, we are feeling insecure, and we are feeling very vulnerable. But the actual problem typically is not about us at all. Layering our emotions on top of the problem is normal, but it becomes helpful when we recognize it and work to solve them as two separate issues.

When in doubt, when we have no idea how to help, a random act of kindness ALWAYS helps. Send flowers to a colleague, surprise them with a virtual check-in, text them the silliest joke you can find, or write them a little note of encouragement. Those simple acts can make a load feel a million times lighter.

Student needs are ever-changing and as we adapt our strategies and environment to meet their needs, it is important to consider how we might support teachers differently as well. We know that teachers recognize the load their colleagues are bearing and they desperately want to help. By modeling and coaching teachers to support each other, principals can help them create need-satisfying environment for each other.

Allyson Apsey is principal of Quincy Elementary in Zeeland, Michigan. She is also the author of The Path to SerendipityThrough the Lens of SerendipityThe Princes of Serendip, and The Serendipity Journal.