My daughter is starting kindergarten this year and as bittersweet as that sentence should be right now it’s mostly sour. Starting school online was not the plan! But, here we are. I want the best experience for my daughter. You want the best experience for your students and kids – but how do we navigate an online environment while reducing stress? Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. But as I’ve been trying to process through what this year will look like I’ve been using my work as a trauma-informed counselor and applying it as a parent to establish guidelines that foster safety and connection. I want to share five strategies that are trauma supportive and help reduce stress for kids, teachers, and parents. If trauma supportive is a new idea for you, think of it as best supporting kids who have had a lot of stress in their lives. When kids have experienced a lot of stress, they have a lower stress tolerance. This means events or experiences that might seem okay to one kid can feel overwhelming to another because they don’t have the built-in capacity to handle the stress. We want to increase kid’s resiliency so they can overcome adversity. These strategies benefit all families and classrooms and can be applied whether you are online, in-person, or just doing something different this year.
Strategy #1 – Check Yourself
When we are anxious or frustrated, we cannot connect to others. If you notice someone else is angry, upset, or frustrated and you are unable to approach them with calm curiosity, that is a recipe for disaster. So, we start with ourselves. This strategy boils down to checking your emotional state, regulating to get calm, and improving self-care to maintain calm. What is your current emotional state? Are you feeling unsafe (fight, flight or freeze)? Are you feeling disconnected (disrespected, annoyed, embarrassed)? How you start this school year will set the stage for the children in your life, whether you teach kids, care for kids, or raise them.
If you realize your emotional state is taking you on a trajectory headed for disaster, regulate to get calm. Don't know how to do that? Learn some grounding techniques or deep breathing exercises to get started. There are some great apps for centering prayer and meditation focused on God’s Word. The One Minute Pause app
and Abide app
are two great resources. Anxiety overload? Go see a counselor
or join a support group
, moms group
, or women’s bible study
. We all need some validation right now - talking to someone about it can help lower your anxiety and build your own resiliency skills.
Improve your own self-care. Put yourself on the list. Are you eating breakfast and lunch? What is one thing you can do each day that you enjoy? Where you focus your energy matters - focus on what you can control, like self-care. If you aren't taking care of yourself, you won't be your best for others. Jesus often went off by himself to pray and reflect. He took care of his own needs to daily connect with God so he could best love others. Go be like Jesus, and schedule in self-care.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Mark 6:30-1
Strategy #2 – Create Positive Experiences
One of my favorite stories about creating positive experiences involves a school bus driver. This bus driver took over a route that had the most weekly behavior referrals in his district. Within a month he turned that statistic around with zero behavior referrals. Know how he did it? He learned the names of the kids on his bus. Yup, that was it. Kids that had previously felt unsafe and disconnected were able to feel safe. Behaviors that had been markers of unmet needs for safety and connection faded away as this bus driver sought to create a positive experience while riding the bus.⠀
What you focus on matters. A lot can feel out of our control right now and one way you can focus on creating positive experiences is by celebrating the small things. Let kids know you SEE them. One tip for implementing this strategy online is to come up with a classroom celebration gesture. Maybe it's an air "high 5", a "round" of applause, or "snaps". A visual gesture helps when everyone is muted to show appreciation together. Get creative and have your class brainstorm with you how they want to show celebration. Three seconds is all it takes to celebrate someone volunteering for a role play, reading out loud to the class, or collectively finishing a timed task. Kids love to be seen and this is an easy way to show them that. I also want to note that we should celebrate all kids, not just kids who exemplify the expectations of a "good student". Every child deserves to be celebrated. Find something to celebrate about each student, their presence, attitude, and effort should be appreciated.
Cultivating gratitude is another example of creating positive experiences. Start a family tradition of saying each day one thing you are grateful for. Create a gratitude board, gratitude journal, or another creative way to document all the good God is doing in your lives. Focusing on these things will keep you thinking positively instead of being bogged down by all that feels different right now.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:6-8
Strategy #3 – Communicate Expectations
A common phrase my work team uses is "clear is kind". All kids want to do well. Having clear, consistent expectations helps kids stay in their learning network so they can problem solve and know what to do. For example, I use the same phrase every time I need my kids to listen. To get their attention I say, "I have something important to tell you, are you ready to listen?” Once I have their attention, then I tell them what they need to know - and guess what? It is way more effective than me asking them five million times. Because the expectation is clear they can listen and then know what to do. When kids are in a safe relationship with a trusted adult and expectations are clear they are less likely to violate those expectations.
What are the expectations for online learning for your child or student? You want to keep things simple and predictable. Does your child need to sit for 45 mins of class instruction online? Go buy a visual timer and set it up so they can see time passing. This is a clear communication of how long you expect them to sit and listen. Use it the same way every day. When kids can predict what will happen, they are less likely to feel threatened and more likely to stay calm and regulated. This might seem simple, but often as adults we don't slow things down enough for kids to catch the expectation.
“An unreliable messenger stumbles into trouble, but a reliable messenger brings healing.” Proverbs 13:17
Strategy #4 – Calm the Chaos
What does it take for you to get calm? Do you go for a walk? Take some deep breaths? We all need to build coping skills to get calm and stay calm. In fact, building in routines to regulate our emotions helps us build resiliency by increasing our stress tolerance. There are so many ways you can do this for yourself and others. Creating a calm down corner, scheduling in regular movement breaks, and teaching grounding techniques are great places to start. The important thing to remember is that kids need help developing strategies to get calm, and often those strategies involve the ability to move their bodies.
One of our greatest parenting finds is a book about a peaceful spot. Having this tool has changed the way our kids ask for space to get calm. If they are feeling really upset, I can ask them, "do you need to find your peaceful spot?" and they usually take the hint and go find an activity to calm themselves down. We are at the point now that my 6-year-old can identify when she’s upset and ask for space to find her peaceful spot. It will take time to teach the skills needed, like deep breathing and counting backwards from ten, but the investment in building this skill is worth it for them and for you.
“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32
Strategy #5 – Coach, Don’t Control
When we talk about trauma and stress, an element that is common in all traumatic experiences is the loss of control. This happens because the loss of control leads to stress; and prolonged, unregulated stress results in a traumatic experience. Therefore, just the fear of loss of control is enough to take a calm, engaged learner and send them over the edge as they start attempting to regain safety and connection. We are all wired to do this when faced with the fear of loss of control. It is a skill we all have, not always a helpful skill, but a survival skill. Coaching kids with choices that empower them and allow for autonomy takes away the fear of loss of control.
Coaching kids to make good choices is a form of empowerment. When we try to control others, we are often met with resistance and frustration. However, when we lead others from a place of empowerment and believe that they can make the right choice, then we have given them a feeling of control that builds trust and deepens connection. We have to be flexible to allow children a sense of control in order to build trust. Forced choices are not choices. Learning to give good choices takes practice but is achievable.
If your student is learning from home this season, how can you help provide choices for what they wear while on video calls, when they complete their coursework for the day, or how they engage online? If you are teaching online, how are you coaching kids to participate by providing options for engagement without policing them in their own spaces? Decision making is an important executive function, and helping children exercise this skill through coaching builds resiliency!
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5
Whether you are a teacher or parent in this new season of virtual learning, you have the opportunity to create a safe space for your student, and yourself, to learn lifelong habits.
Jessica is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate in Washington State, a trauma educator, and the “on-staff counselor” at Bethel Church. She adapted this article from an Instagram series she authored titled “5 Strategies for Trauma-Supportive Learning”. You can find Jessica online on Instagram or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org