Supporting the Social and Emotional Lives of our Students
I can’t help but feel a combination of relief, institutional pride, and pure joy when I arrive at Head-Royce each day. Our campus is filled to the brim with the everyday energy of school: Lower School students climbing on the Big Toy and visiting the chickens; Middle Schoolers conducting science experiments and suiting up for fall sports; and Upper Schoolers studying on the patio and rehearsing the fall play. Teachers and staff are similarly engaged––planning and working closely with their students. It all looks and feels like the healthy and happy school year we’ve been longing for...and it is also important to note that this is not all that’s going on.
We are still recovering from a long and turbulent period of disruption. Eighteen full months worth. I recently came across photos from this time last fall and felt waves of emotion—including grief—as I recalled how difficult it was to return to school before vaccinations. While we were technically “in person” at various points of the year, we were also far from the typical day-to-day school. Even now, as we settle into our “new normal,” we continue to recover from loss—personally, socially, and academically. So as we revel in the beauty—yes, beauty—of being back together, we must also name and tend to the very real challenges of returning to campus and re-entering community. We are not alone in this work.
In a recent article for KQED’s Mindshift, “Stress and Short Tempers: Schools Struggle with Behavior as Students Return,” Kaylen Belsha writes: “Schools across the country say they’re seeing an uptick in disruptive behaviors. Some are obvious and visible...others are quieter calls for help.” We are aware that many of our students are struggling with social anxiety and insecurity, as they adjust to an increased academic pace and workload, acclimate to new routines, and cope with the overwhelm that comes from so much welcome stimulation. And with reduced social distancing and full days, students must relearn how to navigate the school landscape...not always in productive ways. We’ve seen behaviors like playing rough, mistreating property, and posting unkind messages on social media––which we believe are surely outcroppings of these many stressors. Teachers, too, are tired and a little rusty on the interpersonal front, which means that these bumps are felt across the board.
Undoubtedly, you have had similar experiences at home, ranging from the mundane—your teenager rolling their eyes or retreating behind a screen for hours on end—to more serious mental health concerns. It’s understandable that children want to take back some of the control they feel they’ve lost during an extended period of isolation, but it’s imperative that we help them interrupt negative thoughts and behaviors and adopt healthier, prosocial coping strategies.
Dr. Tim Bono, our upcoming CommunityEd speaker, is a Washington University psychology professor who specializes in building resilience. He reminds us to help our students regulate their emotions by setting realistic expectations and finding ways to acknowledge, yet not overly focus on their struggles. Healthy expectations normalize setbacks and ultimately make us feel more connected. At the same time, it is important to put these issues into context and to frame the moment as just that—a challenging stretch that they (and we!) will get through.
Here on campus, we are working to strengthen our connections and community through social-emotional curriculum, life skills, advising, and grade-level activities. On Friday, for example, our Middle and Upper School students will spend the afternoon in grade-specific programs that invite open, honest dialogue about the shared need for support, recognition, meaning, and connection. Our 9th and 10th graders will be working with Ashanti Branch, M.Ed., the Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward. Mr. Branch’s experiential workshop “Taking off the Mask” will help our students close the gap between who they are on the inside and how they show up at school. In the Lower School, our faculty continues to use Responsive Classroom, which offers evidence-based practices to create safe, joyful, and engaging classrooms, and the Toolbox Curriculum, which empowers students to harness their emotions and build resilience. Our Lower School is also in the middle of their 21 Days of Kindness Challenge. From the library’s kindness bookshelf to daily gratitude prompts, we’re doing our best to smile through difficult times.
When incidents or infractions do occur, our teachers and deans initiate conversations along with consequences, to address the impetus, educate about the impact, and ultimately equip students with stronger pathways for self-advocacy and action in the future. This work is connected to our larger effort to advance more inclusive and restorative practices and to promote student well-being.
I hope you will join our webinar with Dr. Bono on October 20 (register here!) at 6 p.m. In advance of his talk, I invite you to share examples of how you’re supporting the emotional well-being of your Head-Royce student, so I can send your insights to Tim as he finalizes his remarks. Please send your thoughts or reflections to communications by Monday, October 18. You’ll also have the opportunity to ask Dr. Bono questions after he presents on Wednesday evening.
Thank you, as always, for your partnership throughout these past two years. We are turning a corner to greater interconnectedness and well-being.
Head of School