It has been some time since I last blogged – it was a whirlwind start up to the school year as I find myself in two new roles in education, at the high school and university level. One of these roles involves counselling within a virtual high school. It has been fascinating to observe the long-term norms that have become established in virtual learning – both teachers and students have become adept at providing and completing courses completely online, and students who need to learn from home for a myriad of reasons are getting that full experience.
What worries me, not only for my virtual students, but for all students as we emerge from the pandemic, is their ability to connect with their communities after almost 3 years of intermittent isolation. What I am observing in both the high school and university settings are students experiencing a ramped up stress response to simply returning to normal. We cannot blame them – our current grade 12 students have not experienced a normal year of high school, and our undergrads have done the majority of their higher education online. From complete isolation, to masks and distancing, how can they know how to connect when they have been conditioned to do the very opposite? This must be top of mind for us educators, as the effects on our young people are becoming more and more apparent and the impact on collective wellbeing is significant.
What does the research tell us? The research on the positive impacts of social connection for mental health is vast and convincing. Social connection is closely related to the feeling of belonging and feeling close to others, and it is a core psychological need that is mandatory for life satisfaction – it is also a key component of good learning. We know that students who do not feel welcome in the classroom will not perform in the same ways as students who feel seen and heard – who feel like they belong. Connection is also closely related to resiliency; positive social interactions contribute to our meaning and purpose in life, and those with a deeper purpose tend to be able to handle the small inconveniences of life much better than those who do not. Social connection is also good for our health – it lowers our risk of anxiety and depression, reduces inflammation, and increases our immunity – seriously!
So, we know that social connection is important for our health and wellbeing. What I am observing, anecdotally, is students who need a bit of extra support with connection and overall wellbeing as we stumble, slightly haphazardly, back into the ‘normal’ world – but this world has changed and so have the kids who have experienced an event we couldn’t have fathomed in our developmental years. Our social connections might look a bit different now, like for my online students, but it doesn’t mean we can’t re-connect and benefit from this powerful wellbeing tool.
What can we do about it? Guiding students towards a life that contains community and connection needs to be individualized – no two persons internalization of community will be the same. Introverts may only need several human connections in a day to feel filled up, while extroverts like myself, need a whole whack of them. A start is to simply raise awareness about the powerful connections of community and wellbeing with our students. We might consider asking them to create a mind map of the people in their lives who contribute to their social networks – those people who support, energize and enrich them. These people can be their family and friends, their colleagues and their online connections. They should make it a point to keep in touch with these people, especially when times get tough. Also, if there are people who didn’t make it onto their lists because their interactions with those people are draining or negative, they should consider dropping those people from their life – this is not community.
To extend this exercise – you can have your child/student list 3-5 specific and positive things they could say to these wonderful people in their lives. It doesn’t need to be in person – students can connect with their people through text or phone. Showing interest in others lives and taking the focus off the self can contribute to wellbeing in powerful ways, and help strengthen our student’s social webs.
In the Classroom – For all those educators out there, it is well worth the break in curriculum to plan weekly ‘community meetings’ with your classes just to take a temperature and let the class connect over anything and everything. Have students share a ‘rose and thorn’ from the week, share gratitude in class for one another (this is a powerful one), work towards a shared goal like a pizza party, or give daily shout outs or compliments in class. These small strategies can go a long way in establishing a sense of community within the classroom.
Most importantly, as we support our students in the new normal, let’s give them voice. Let them tell us about the triumphs and letdowns of the past few tumultuous years, let’s give them ownership over their learning and wellbeing, and let’s support them so they can take on whatever the world has to throw at them this year.
They (and you) have got this.