As children across the country return to more in-person learning, experts caution that the stress of the pandemic might be showing up in unexpected ways, and that we need to appropriately support both children and teachers.
In a recent webinar, leaders of the Miss Kendra Program, a preventative evidence-based approach to addressing trauma, offered educators, school leaders, and community members a look into what the stress response can look like and how we can help children reacclimate.
Miss Kendra Programs’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Hadar Lubin said the stress hormone cortisol is designed to help us manage short periods of stress and allows us to survive stressful situations. After a period of intense stress, cortisol dips before returning to its normal levels.
When stress is prolonged, however, cortisol can start to cause harmful side effects, such as suppressing the immune system and causing metabolism changes, depression, high anxiety, irritability, sleep trouble, high blood pressure, headaches, and chronic fatigue.
“During the pandemic, all of us have been asked to juggle many, many things,” Lubin said. She added that teachers have been told they need to engage students in the classroom while interacting with other students virtually all while being concerned about the threat of a sometimes fatal virus.
“It’s not surprising that after a year of constant stress, many of us may have experienced some of the detrimental effects of high cortisol,” Lubin concluded.
Even though everyone has gone through a stressful year living through a pandemic, people have different levels of stress at different times, and can display the effects of stress differently, she explained.
“When they feel the dip in cortisol teachers may feel fatigued and depleted, while their students may present with a lot of stress from home or other places, but are high energy, irritable, and agitated—and you get this mismatch of energy levels.”
She said that misunderstanding the effects of long-term high cortisol levels can lead teachers to erroneous conclusions such as, “I’m too weak for this job,” or to someone telling a teacher, “You should feel better now—you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Schools need to adjust their expectations for both teachers and students, Lubin said. “There’s a wide range of ways as far as how students and teachers are experiencing stress one year into the pandemic. Having the same level of expectations is definitely going to create a discrepancy as to what is possible.”
Some educators have experienced students acting more calmly and quietly than in previous years, but Lubin and her colleagues cautioned that docile behavior could be camouflage for what’s really going on. They said we could be experiencing a calm before the storm.
Dr. David Johnson, CEO of Miss Kendra Programs, said schools were chaotic places before the pandemic, and it may be that cortisol is now containing some of the behaviors educators were previously accustomed to seeing.
Any change requires adjustment, he said, adding that both positive and negative changes are stressful.
“If I’m a kid in an unhappy home, now coming back to school, that’s a positive thing as school is a more benign environment than home,” Johnson said. “Maybe I was being neglected at home, but there were no rules. Now I come back in, but I have to follow all these rules.”
In response to a question about how to help a student experiencing stress, Johnson recommended finding out what life has been like for that student during the pandemic and designing a gradual approach to what the student is expected to do. “What are the demands of the school setting that might be pushing him or her over? Maybe see if you can mitigate those demands a little bit.”
He added, “We have this idea that all these kids are behind where they should have been. So we push even harder, and that’s probably an error. Stress and disasters are not over when they’re over. Accommodations need to be made for a much longer period.”
Lubin said that the pandemic has provided an important lesson for anyone who was not previously convinced about the importance of emotional health. “We’ve all had a very close taste of the need to manage it daily.”
She continued, “I really hope that this is an opportunity for everyone to be convinced that social emotional learning and trauma-focused instruction are an integral need for a good education.”
To illustrate the absurdity of ignoring children’s social and emotional health during the school day, Lubin asked, “Can you imagine anyone debating that there needs to be a lunch break, that kids need to eat to perform better? You need to feed the inner world of the child, address the worries and the distress with things that will calm them down every day.”
Johnson said, “It’s about setting up a system in your classroom, and the Miss Kendra Program is one way to do it, of checking in with your kids, each and every day. Finding out if they’re worried about something and then dealing with it. It sounds overwhelming and doesn’t seem like what teachers are supposed to be dealing with, but all of us on this panel believe 21st century teaching has to expand to include the whole child and the whole teacher.”
Cat Davis, chief programs officer for Miss Kendra Programs, said it’s important to not only have an opportunity for students to individually share experiences, but for it to also happen in group settings, such as during a classroom morning meeting.
“If it happens in a group, it becomes the norm that we do it every day,” Lubin said.
“We also need to provide for that community, sharing, and collective healing among teaching staff too,” Davis added.
Lubin concluded, “This past year has been a sea change, and we should not take it lightly. It’s going to take a very long time to recover.”
The next webinar in the Ask Every Child series, The Whole Child and the Whole Teacher, is scheduled for Tuesday, April 20, at 4:00 pm. You can register here.