I am one of those people who likes to look for silver linings. While I try to be careful how much time I spend with my rose-colored glasses, I believe that it is usually more productive to focus on positives rather than negatives. I see a great benefit coming out of our current pandemic situation in that schools all over the country and the world are talking in meaningful ways about the social and emotional needs and health of our students, teachers, and family members. Yet there is some confusion as to exactly what social and emotional health is and what supporting social and emotional needs looks like in specific ways.
Typically, we talk about social-emotional learning in terms of teaching students to manage their own emotions and social interactions. This is certainly important and I’m delighted that we are shining a light on the need for more focus on social-emotional health both in and out of schools. However, school leaders also need to be aware of the social and emotional health needs of the adults in their communities- so that adults are able to effectively focus on the needs of their students. My work supports leaders of small independent schools so I will address social and emotional health and support from that perspective.
First of all, while they are often lumped together, social and emotional health are really two different things. Emotional (or mental) health is a person’s ability to regulate and manage their own emotions. It doesn’t mean they are happy all of the time, it means they feel a sense of control and ability to cope with how they are feeling. Social health is a person’s ability to connect with others and form meaningful relationships. It doesn’t mean you are an extrovert or always the “life of the party,” it is about satisfaction with relationships and the ability to adaptively engage in social interactions. School leaders who understand adult needs are able to lead in a manner that supports people in managing their own emotions and productively engaging in professional social interactions.
There are several conditions that directly affect both our emotional and social wellbeing and ways that school leaders can specifically address them to support and promote health. These conditions will be particularly important to consider as administrators plan for re-entry to schools and moving to a “next normal” of organizational functioning following emergency at-home learning.
1. Clear expectations- It is very unsettling not to know, at least in part, what the future holds- even for those of us who are not “planners.” The level of uncertainty that COVID-19 has presented over the past months has been a major problem for many. Our teachers feel (understandably) anxious and frustrated when they don’t have job security, know where or how they are expected to teach, know when and if they can return to their classrooms, etc.
Suggestions for leaders: Continue to provide regular, frequent, and clear communication. Even if it is to tell what you aren’t certain of yet, people want to know what you are considering. At this point, erring on the side of too much communication may be preferable. Nonetheless, make sure that it is clear, concise, relevant, and true in the moment. Know that people are looking for as much transparency as possible.
2. Self-efficacy and control- Similar to wanting to know about the future and expectations, people need to feel they have some impact or control over what happens in their lives. Independent school teachers, in particular, are used to a good deal of autonomy in their classrooms. Over the past months they have been forced to dramatically change the way they teach, and sometimes, what they teach. They have been asked to do something new and learn new techniques and skills- all while being evaluated by school leaders, students, and parents. Furthermore, they have been asked to do this in an extremely short period of time- which can feel overwhelming. For many, this has led to feelings of loss of control and lack of competence.
Suggestions for leaders: Understand that your teachers need ongoing support and encouragement for the work they are doing. Provide professional development whenever and wherever you can to help them develop a sense of competency. Protect them, if you can, from taking on too much in too short a time period. Include them as much as possible in the decision-making process about what and how to teach in new ways so they feel that they have an impact on the outcomes. Provide constructive feedback regarding the development of their new skills and buffer them from parent feedback that may not be well-informed or constructive.
3. Meaningful connections- Research shows that humans need social connections to maintain emotional health. While technological connections help (ie. video-conference, etc.), they are no substitute for in-person relationships. When we work from home and only communicate through our computers we lose the informal, often fun connections we typically have with others over the course of a normal, in-school day or week. Jokes, personal sharing, commiseration, etc. are lost when we only communicate for specific work-related tasks.
Suggestions for leaders: Find ways to facilitate informal connections with your faculty and staff. I’ve heard of school heads who hold bi-weekly Friday “happy hour” through video-conference where teachers can just “chit chat” and socialize. Other school heads make time to check in by phone with each teacher and staff member weekly. Encourage your teachers to do the same with their students. Have connection times with students that are just fun- and not necessarily content related. These relatively small gestures can provide meaningful connections that promote both social and emotional health.
4. Reassurance and routine- We all want to feel that our leaders know what they are doing and have things under control. School leaders who manage their own anxieties and present a sense of their own efficacy and control reassure the other adults in their schools which allows them to focus on supporting students. Maintaining some type of predictable routine promotes a sense of control that is also reassuring.
Suggestions for leaders: Acknowledge and address your own emotions in appropriate ways so that you can provide reassurance to others. Be aware of how you are presenting yourself to ensure that you come across as informed and in control. Then, develop routines for your community that maintain important traditions such as weekly assemblies, morning meetings, etc. Remember that your demeanor and focus set the tone for the entire school community.
Each of us has different strengths, challenges, and competencies when it comes to our emotional and social health. Some of us were struggling going into this pandemic and the realities of our current situation are exacerbating our mental health challenges. Others are benefiting from new routines, expectations, and social and physical distancing. Moving forward, individual responses to the “next normal” will continue to vary. School leaders need to be aware of the types of social and emotional challenges their faculty and staff are facing in order to respond well to them. Effective support of those who engage on the front lines with our students will enable them to continue their extraordinary work.
The dust seems to be starting to settle in schools as we are getting into a routine with emergency/at-home learning. Teachers and administrators are balancing synchronous and asynchronous instruction, families have developed schedules and workspaces, and everyone has become more adept at the use of various technologies. As states across the country are announcing their re-opening plans, the school leaders with whom I work are asking “when will we be back together?” and “What do I need to consider as I plan for getting everyone back together?” School administrators have numerous decisions to make about school re-entry over the next few months to be able to safely and confidently welcome students back into school buildings.
Nishant Mehta, Head of School and NAIS Board member, recently wrote an article that helped to frame the kinds of decisions confronting school leaders. In A Framework for Leading Change in a Post-COVID Environment, he reminds us of a 2002 Harvard Business Review article that suggests that an organization’s response to problems is either technical or adaptive. Integra Consulting Team defines adaptive and technical challenges this way: “Technical challenges are those that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive challenges are complex and ambiguous in nature, and may be volatile or unpredictable. Solutions to these types of challenges usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set.”
The technical challenges facing the re-entry of students into schools are many: When will faculty and students be able to return to school buildings? How many people can be in the building; in each classroom; in the lunchroom; on the playground- at a time? If and when there is a resurgence of coronavirus, how will we toggle between in-person and in-home learning? How will we toggle if some students and/or teachers can come into the building and some must stay at home? What will we do to support student and faculty/staff emotional and social needs? These technical questions must be answered in the context not only of state and local government guidelines but also in keeping with the mission, values, and culture of each community. Although this is a tall task, most schools have the capability to spend the time on focused planning needed to develop workable solutions to these questions.
In addition, schools should also be thinking about re-entry to school-based learning as an adaptive challenge. In Heifetz and Linskey’s 2002 HBR article, they state: “Responding to an adaptive challenge with a technical fix may have some short-term appeal. But to make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues—and to accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.” This pandemic has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in our educational systems and we have an opportunity to make dramatic, positive changes- if we have the courage. School leaders can decide to return to their school buildings and pick up where they left off, or they can engage in a deep, thoughtful exploration of how to fundamentally improve their programming.
In my last article, I suggested that school Boards should take an “inquiry” approach to decision-making. Adaptive change requires an inquiry thinking approach focused on creative, “out-of-the-box” ideas and solutions. When thinking about how to adapt, schools can consider lessons learned over the past two months.
The good news is that some small schools have a leg up on adaptive decision-making. Small schools typically have quicker and smoother chains of communication as they have fewer people with whom to communicate. Because of their small size, they are nimble and can make and implement decisions quickly. Many small schools are already educational innovators and have a culture of creativity and responsiveness. It behooves small schools to use this unique opportunity to make programmatic changes that will enhance their ability to meet the needs of students and families.
Nonetheless, the challenges for small schools (and all schools) in the next few months are huge. I am hearing from school leaders that they are at various stages of coping and responding to the pandemic- some are feeling relatively stable and are able to move onto more adaptive planning while others are still in survival mode. Each school community needs to proceed first by addressing the technical challenges directly facing them. Yet to overlook the opportunity to consider adaptive changes, even though this requires time, experimentation, change, and courage seems short-sighted. In this historic moment in time- which schools will return and which will be re-born?