Creating an Environment in Which Stressed Kids Can Learn

By The Brookline Center for Community Mental Health’s BRYT program

Guest Blog Post: We’ve asked the team at The Brookline Center for Community Mental Health’s BRYT program to weigh in on how schools and educators can support mental health during this challenging back-to-school period.

In the past couple of months the look and feel of education have drastically shifted for educators, students, and families. These changes have been unexpected and unwanted, and to many they still feel unresolved. Students, educators, and families are finding themselves chronically holding the unknown, while trying to make the future somewhat predictable. The unpredictability of change, the chronic holding of the unknown, and the magnitude of change have increased stress levels for everyone involved in education.

Our team at Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) believes in the core messages found in the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, beginning with the simple but profound recognition that stressed kids can’t learn. That is, if we are to work with students in a way that fosters their ability to reason and reflect (critical for internalizing, retaining, and applying new knowledge), we first need to make sure that they are emotionally regulated (they have received any and all calming support needed to get out of a dysregulated “fight or flight” state) and able to relate to their teachers and each other.

With this understanding in mind, and with all credit to Dr. Perry, we have proposed a 2020 BRYT Educator Mantra to help guide educator practice:

     a. Practice self and collective care

     b. Foster connection

     c. Ensure predictability

     d. Model moderation

     e. Enable predictability/agency

This mantra has multiple implications. To begin with self and collective care, it is clear to us that this year more than any other, educators need to remember (and get the message from their leaders) that they themselves are important, and are dealing with multiple challenges and stressors (personal and professional—and political, as our communities and country continue to face the historical and contemporary realities associated with institutional racism). It can sound trite, but we cannot expect to work effectively and sustainably with students over the course of this school year if we are not taking care of ourselves and each other. However, self and collective care don’t just happen by themselves—they depend on leaders and educators alike to set and sustain intention, making it not just okay, but an integral part of a systematic culture of care among school staff that is ultimately extended to students and their families.

As we think about applying this mantra to student mental health, we believe that all educators think of themselves as, and develop the knowledge and skills to be, educational first responders. This does not mean that teachers are expected to become therapists, but rather involves a subtle role enhancement—in addition to being a teacher and caring adult (historically familiar territory), we think that it makes sense for educators to assume a simple but clearly articulated role as assessors of student well-being.

Ideally this assessment happens via consistent, semi-structured non-academic check-ins with all students. These might happen in rotating small groups during morning meetings in an elementary setting, within the context of advisory programs at the secondary level, or via a school’s assigning each professional adult a small cohort of students with the expectation of a brief weekly call. Based on what they observe, educators can provide some basic supports to students facing mild challenges—but it’s especially critical for every educator to understand their school’s mental health infrastructure and referral process, so that if they observe a significant change in a student’s affect that causes concern, they know exactly to whom to reach out and how.

We think educators should think about supporting student mental health during the instructional process. Recognizing that many students are likely to be significantly disoriented upon returning to instruction this fall—especially those entering buildings that are very different from those they left in March due to physical safety requirements—we think that focused attention on orienting students to people, places, routines/use of time, and the overall new situation in which they find themselves will be more important than ever before. We recommend that educators take ample time over the first few weeks for this orientation process—even if this means pushing back against pressure (whether real or internalized) about the need to rapidly catch students up academically. Additionally, we believe that this is the time for all educators to expand their tactics for helping students regulate emotionally in relation to stressors through consistent rituals and routines, movement breaks, mindfulness activities, intentional transitions between activities, and the like.

There is a lot more to talk and think about as educators prepare to effectively support students, parents, and colleagues through fall 2020 and beyond. Thankfully, there are many resources, and many partners, available to districts and schools to help with this work. We believe that, with support, our state’s and nation’s educators are up to the challenge. The Brookline Center for Community Mental Health’s BRYT team is committed to help in any way we can.