David Kessler, an author and expert on death and grieving, clarified in a presentation to teachers across the U.S. last week that grief is everywhere at this moment. We are grieving losses caused by systemic racism, by COVID-19, by economic turmoil. A loss is not always a death, he pointed out. We are grieving because we are experiencing changes we didn’t want. 

Of course, our students have also experienced loss and changes they did not ask for. They are grieving . Asked about recent events, ninth graders at Boston International Newcomers Academy last week expressed feeling “sad” and “lost” and wondering “if I will have a future.” They asked why there is still racism, why unarmed citizens get killed by police, and why there is no justice for victims of police brutality. Their comments and questions were raw, innocent, seeking, and painful.

Given the extra challenges of teaching our students at this moment, we reached out to experts. As promised, this week we will share with you the rest of our conversation with Dr. Lyndsey Moran* from the Boston Child Study Center, this time focusing on students and how we can support them through such tumultuous times . If you missed last week's newsletter, you can find it HERE .

Please note: we interviewed Dr. Moran before the response to George Floyd's murder grew into worldwide protests; although the advice still applies, perhaps even more so given these recent developments and the impact they are likely having on our students.

One thing Dr. Moran and Dr. Kessler both reinforced is that teachers play a critical role in the lives of their students. They are watching us; they are paying attention to what we say about the pandemic, what we say about the pernicious effects of racism. Beyond teaching history, English, computer science or algebra, we may very well have the opportunity to teach our students that loss happens, grief is an appropriate response to loss, and resiliency is possible.
* Lyndsey Moran, PhD, is the Associate Director of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) at the Boston Child Study Center and specializes in evidence-based behavioral treatments for adolescents and young adults. In addition to her work at the Boston Child Study Center, Dr. Moran is an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and is a research consultant and clinical supervisor at McLean Hospital.
Why is this so hard for students?
Their brains are different!
In our interview with Dr. Moran, we talked about how everyone is struggling to cope with life during this time. But why is this time so difficult for our students?

The answer has to do with our brains. Adolescent brains aren’t fully developed yet. It makes it harder to process the “ background burn ” we are all experiencing but adults are doing so with a fully developed brain. Most adults have also developed coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with stress. These are tools our students have not been able to fully develop for themselves yet. 

In the best of circumstances, students struggle with change. We all know that our students perform best in a predictable environment with set routines and expectations. 

Our students are struggling with this crisis because, as Dr. Moran pointed out, “ it’s a crisis that is completely unpredictable and ongoing.” Back in March, the ideas about how long schools would be closed were constantly changing. “Every time we gave kids an estimate it moved. And that’s worse.” Our answers to their questions were constantly shifting and we may have inadvertently added to their feelings of stress and uncertainty.

The lack of predictability is difficult for all of us, but particularly our students. Young adults have a different experience of time than we do. Dr Moran reminded us: “ Keep in mind that for a teenager two weeks is a really long time. Our perception of time is a little different. Every time someone tells them something about this pandemic it ends up not being true and they really have no concept of how long this is going to go on.“ The nebulous nature of “time” and “school” for students right now makes it hard for them to know what information is reliable, or who to trust.
Balancing Expectations
with Compassion & Flexibility
While living through the trauma of this moment in history as adults, we can feel in turns, remarkably motivated to take action in ways both big and small and, in the next moment, overwhelmed and paralyzed. This reality may lead us to question: how can we possibly expect our students to do their schoolwork at a time like this?

By now, you obviously have realized the need to shift your expectations for this moment. Dr. Moran had this to say:

“I would encourage teachers to reconsider their high expectations currently. By that I do not mean drop expectations or have no expectations. I do think we are in a very strange context and expecting kids to perform or attend in the same exact way is unreasonable.”

We do not necessarily need to expect less from students. However, what we are expecting has, by necessity, shifted significantly. In order to manage even seemingly minimal amounts of school work, students have to overcome so much more outside of the relatively equalizing force of the school building. 

Also, as Dr. Moran reminded us, not all young people are going to feel the impacts of this moment in the same way or need the same type of support from you. While school work will be a welcome mental release for some students, it may feel like an absurd and disrespectful lack of insight on your part about what they are dealing with. 

Among the young people she works with, she gave us an example of how this may play out: 

“If you look at a whole class, you have some kids that are really happy that you’re teaching about US history for an hour and you’ll have a bunch kids who think you’re insane to think that they care about this at all right now. Maybe they didn’t care that much about it to begin with. And then you add on all these stressors and it seems really silly to be talking about this stuff.”

She had one client tell her: “Thank god I signed up for a summer class. It gives me something to focus on.” And other clients, reflecting on their school work, have asked her in exasperation: “Why are we even doing these things?”

For some students, content related to current events will be motivating and for others it may fuel their anxiety. Some may depend on the students’ family context and situation. However, a lot depends on personality and other less obvious factors: how anxious the student is, how much news they consume (and how they react to that news), what coping mechanisms they have in their repertoire (or not), etc.

So, what does it look like to balance high expectations with compassionate flexibility right now (or in the fall, when things are likely to be just as challenging or possibly even more so)? 

While it seems like we are telling you there are no good options because of the variation in your students' experiences, in truth, the best way to handle this situation is how you always have: through listening to your students, getting to know their unique situations and needs during this time and responding with compassion and creativity, offering choices and flexibility in assignments and content.

In addition, from her experience as a therapist, Dr. Moran shared with us the "Power of AND.” When students share their challenges, we can say: “I know things are really hard right now, AND I still expect you to …” The word “and” is critical: you validate what is true and real. And then you name your expectations, rules, non-negotiables. The word “but” has the effect of invalidating the first part of the sentence and that isn’t showing students the compassion they deserve from us in this moment.

Keep reading for more ideas about how to support students social and emotional well-being while maintaining high expectations for their learning and growth.

A Social-Emotional Learning Perspective on the
"Five Criteria for Online Learning"
We asked Dr. Moran to take a look at the Five Criteria for Online Learning and tell us if she thought they would support students’ social emotional learning as well their content learning. 

Her answer was yes

FLEXIBILITY and various ways to assess students makes sense with assignments right now, she affirmed. It’s important to give students lots of ways to be successful. As we discussed above, she also noted that if teachers can be flexible, that is a way to balance compassion and high expectations. She advised, “ Think ahead of time about what [your] expectations are. And try to be as clear at communicating those up front. What an expectation is with a window of flexibility and what that looks like. ” For example, that might look like telling students up front that they can have “four tokens for turning in late work - no penalties, no questions asked, up to you to decide when to use them. But there’s no negotiating after they’re used up.”

She agreed that SIMPLICITY --all around--is more necessary than ever. She acknowledged that it is more work for teachers to be really clear with students up front, but she said this piece is critical. “ Their number one complaint to me about school, “ she said “ is that they can’t find information easily.”  

INTEREST and relevance are indeed important for student learning and buy-in. Motivation lags under duress; anything we can do to connect learning to students’ lives will help at this time.

Furthermore, CONSISTENCY in routines and messages, she emphasized, “ takes the burden off students’ executive functioning. ” If we can establish some predictability for students, that is one less area of stress and uncertainty for them. For example, teachers might build in five minutes for a mindfulness exercise at the start of class. If so, she said, honor that routine, so students can count on it to help them settle in and focus.

As for CONNECTION , Dr. Moran talked in particular about how disruptive it is for students to lose their social ties right now. She noted, as so many teachers have, how Zoom stifles the usual small talk and socializing that mark the beginning and end of a typical class. Students arrive on a call and sit there, not talking. “There is a missing human piece there,” she said. She suggested building in time for chat or creating incentives to work and “earn” a game, staying on after class for students or posting an open “chat time.” She also suggested creating a mechanism for students to privately communicate with the teacher--a dropbox or suggestion box for messaging what they need or share what’s on their minds. 

Secondly, for improving connection in remote spaces, she emphasized the importance of building a set of norms, an online community for learning . She described her own group therapy sessions where she continually reminds teens “ We’re responsible for each other, we’re a team. ” In her groups, for example, her teens have developed norms such as:

  • Opt for your biggest screen so you can see everyone (preferably not the phone).
  • Turn your video feed on.
  • Unmute yourself unless there is something distracting happening in your house (this acts as an invitation to participate).
  • Place your device on something stationary so others don’t get seasick watching your image move all around.
  • Respect confidentiality.

These are examples of norms for a group therapy session, of course, but the importance of developing community standards for a remote setting stands. It helps to create a pact with students for online learning: “If we can all agree on these norms, we will be a more positive and productive community of learners.”

Student Writing
Teens in Print has always existed in large part to amplify marginalized youth voices, including those of Black teens living in Boston. We believe this is more important than ever right now. As an organization, Teens in Print supports racial justice and equality. We stand in solidarity with our students and community partners fighting for a better world.