Helping students cope with change and disruption

By Lara Thibodeau and Nancy Rappaport

Our country, our schools, and our students are facing incredible adversity right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has already produced the largest disturbance our school system has ever seen. Schools shut their doors to in-person learning this spring, quickly entering the tumultuous, uncharted territory of online education. Across the nation, educators and their students grappled with the transition from in-person lessons to teaching on unfamiliar online platforms, all while facing anxiety about health, job security, and a changing nation.

Now, we are entering a new school year that will bring new uncertainties and learning formats, likely including hybrid structures that combine distance learning with part-time in-person instruction. There will also be an array of new policies, procedures, and guidelines. With an absence of unifying leadership from the federal government, districts and schools have been left with the unprecedented task of figuring out how to keep students learning while maintaining their physical and mental health in the midst of a global crisis.

It’s not exactly a recipe for calm, focused learning.

Even in the face of these daunting challenges, however, educators can continue to effectively support students and their families. Indeed, schools have a unique capacity to ease anxiety for students while serving as models of resilience during a historically challenging time. As civic leaders in whom students and families place their trust, educators can take concrete steps to reduce stress, cultivate productive coping mechanisms, and build a generation of resilient and well-adjusted children.

Be realistic

To help build students’ resilience, educators must first be realistic with them about the uncertainties we are facing.

The Stockdale Paradox can help shed light on why this is important (Collins, 2001). This theory dates back to the Vietnam War, when James Stockdale, a U.S. naval officer, was held captive and tortured as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese for seven years. Later, asked how he survived such a difficult time, he said his ability to maintain a realistic view of his situation was critical to his survival. Prisoners who were overly optimistic fared worse.

“They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart,” Stockdale said.

To educators who are used to looking at things through a highly positive lens, the Stockdale Paradox may seem counterintuitive. But though it may sound dramatic to compare COVID-19 lockdowns to prisoner-of-war experiences, the premise is the same. Initially, students were told they might be returning to school in two weeks. Then it was a month. Then graduations were canceled. Then, before they knew it, classes were out for the summer with uncertain plans for a return to school in the fall. There is no guarantee of when things will return to “normal.” And though students are certainly not being held captive, some of their most basic needs—from socializing with friends in the cafeteria to having sleepovers on the weekends—have been stripped from them.

Rather than sugar-coating the situation, teachers must help students learn to cope with a new, often disappointing, reality without losing hope for brighter days ahead. They should focus on helping students make the most out of a difficult situation and highlight the importance of maintaining their safety. At the same time, educators should caution students to limit their exposure to the news and social media (which can exacerbate worry) and encourage them to find creative ways to stay busy.

Adapting to new routines

Schools can also help students and families deal with anxiety over the continually shifting instructional-delivery plans by setting realistic expectations for blended classrooms and virtual learning. Remote learning is fundamentally different from classroom-based learning, and it should be treated as such. Whereas a typical school day is a full eight hours, elementary school kids should be reasonably expected to participate in only one to two hours of online education daily; for middle and high school students, the limit should be two to three hours and three to four hours, respectively.

Indeed, being realistic and intentional about change also means helping students adapt to new instructional routines and settings. We can’t just implement new learning formats without acknowledging the uncertainty and stress they might bring. Some additional ways to help students adjust to changing learning routines include these:

  • Recognizing that unfamiliar and new routines can be anxiety provoking. In particular, students with a history of trauma may have a range of reactions, including hypervigilance, increased irritability, or withdrawing. It is crucial for educators to validate their frustration, maintain consistency, and hold high expectations in a kind and clear way.

  • Explaining to students why these new routines are necessary. Educators can empower students by emphasizing the ways each student plays a key role in keeping everyone healthy and safe.

  • Explicitly teaching new routines and processes to students. It may be beneficial for the school to send videos to students and families so that students know what to expect. Keeping lines of communication open with families and students is also vital.

  • Infusing joy into new routines. Though safety protocols are important and serious, we can allow students the freedom to build joy into new structures. For example, students may come together to make up a class song to sing while washing their hands or decorating their desk dividers.

  • Incorporating virtual movement breaks and centering techniques (such as deep breathing exercises or activities using the five senses.) For students in a heightened, overwhelmed state, this approach can help to calm the autonomic nervous system.

  • Emphasizing students’ strengths. Because new processes can be overwhelming, teachers should ensure they are also infusing their lessons with areas for students‘ competency to shine.

Validating children’s questions and worries

This fall, students will be filled with questions and concerns, ranging from “When can I go to the playground?” to “Will I ever be able to have a normal high school experience?” to “Ms. Jones, are we all going to die?” Children may vocalize these concerns, or they may act out in ways that are seemingly inappropriate. As educators, it’s important for us to recognize that behavior is communication, which can be especially challenging in an online or blended-learning environment.

Children who act out in difficult ways are often expressing underlying emotions and anxiety (Minahan & Rappaport, 2012). As educators, we must step back and play detective: What is the child really trying to tell us? We should respond to their questions and emotions with authenticity, honesty, and empathy. Teachers can learn that it is OK to validate a child’s emotions without validating their inappropriate behavior. For example, when a student is running around the room rather than focusing on the class, a teacher might say, “It’s so hard to be looking at the screen! And it’s hard to be so far away from you! Let’s take a movement break and then we’ll figure out how to do this problem.”

Some teachers may even choose to be vulnerable (while remaining developmentally appropriate and respecting boundaries) regarding their personal struggles during COVID-19. This strategy may help build relationships and allow for open discussion. 

It may also be useful to employ a “Yes, and …” approach when validating students’ questions and emotions. A concept originally derived from improvisational theater (Moshavi, 2001), “Yes, and” is a way of taking a difficult situation, recognizing the challenge, and working productively with that struggle. It can help educators model how to hold competing emotions: “Yes, I am upset because school is not going to be the way it used to be, and I’m looking forward to seeing you and my other students and growing together.” 

Hope for the future

A colleague of ours recently sent a photo from her daughter’s fifth birthday celebration, which was celebrated during quarantine. The photo depicts a young girl in a birthday crown, sitting in a dark hallway with only a single spotlight illuminating her.

The photo was a reminder that we are indeed living through dark times. But the spotlight on this child shrouded in darkness reminds us that, as educators, we need to shine the light and find the way for our students. Even during a pandemic, there is reason to have hope. Our kids deserve that.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. London: Random House.

Minahan, J., & Rappaport, N. (2012). The behavior code: A practical guide to understanding and teaching the most challenging students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Moshavi, D. (2001). “Yes and …”: Introducing improvisational theatre techniques to the management classroom. Journal of Management Education, 25(4), 437–449. doi:10.1177/105256290102500408

This article is excerpted with permission from ASCD Express, a free email publication for K–12 educators by ASCD, in the July 9, 2020, issue, “Ready for the Restart: Supporting Students Amid Change.”


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