5 Tips for School Leaders To Emotionally Support Students Returning to School

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Elizabeth Janca is a licensed professional counselor for children and young adults. She is also a reporting specialist on the Possip reporting team. In this blog, she shares five ways to emotionally support students returning to school.

For the last year we have become adept at changes, going with the flow, and figuring out what we can do differently to adjust to new expectations. After a year of challenges and making adjustments, many people are preparing for another change: returning to on campus learning. This change may be met with excitement about returning to normality, apprehension of what adjustments need to still be made, anxiety for the health and safety of loved ones, and hope that things will continue to move forward.

Change is hard, knowing how to emotionally support students through change can make it a little easier.


Here are some tips for school leaders to emotionally support students returning to campus:


1. Communicate

The saying knowledge is power is true, but knowledge also holds the power of comfort. For many people, the more information they have, the better equipped they feel to take on something difficult or unknown. Communicate with families what procedures will be in place, the expectations of staff and students, and plans for exposure.

Allow for enough information to give students an idea of what the day to day will look like. Consider creating a video that shows what entry to school will look like, how classrooms are set up, how lunch will run, and what dismissal will look like.

Provide information that indicates what expectations students and staff are required to maintain for safety purposes and how individuals will be held accountable. Be detailed in the expectations so that there are no surprises for individuals when things come up.

Share with families the plans for exposure. Again, be detailed and provide as much information as you can so that families and students will know what to expect in the event of exposure.

Here are our 6 Tips on How to Communicate So Parents Listen and Hear.


2. Practice

Consider allowing parents whose students are very anxious to return to visit campus to practice what the day will look like. Exposure to campus in a controlled setting may help ease nerves and allow the student to plan what their day will look like. 


3. Listen

Allow students a space to figure out what they are experiencing by listening to what they have to say. Often when students verbalize how they are feeling and let it out, it can be helpful to process feelings and identify why and what they feel. Empathize with what they are saying and reflect to them what you are hearing.  Sentence stems such as “It sounds like you’re feeling __ because __” and “What I’m hearing is that you’re __ because __” are useful in showing that you are listening and helping students gain vocabulary to identify their feelings.


4. Use Tools

An important step after labeling and expressing an emotion is to identify if the student is okay with the emotion they’re experiencing, or if it would be beneficial for them to use a regulating tool to cope with the feeling or even move slightly into another feeling. Below are some tools:


  • 5-4-3-2-1 – Using descriptive full sentences
    • Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. … “I see the falling brown leaves from the tree”
    • Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. … “I can feel the scratchiness of my wool sweater”
    • Acknowledge THREE things you hear. … “I can hear the hum of the heater warming the house”
    • Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. … “I can smell the pine candle I lit”
    • Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. … “I can taste the hot chocolate I drank”
  • Breathing Exercises
    • Deep breath – in through nose, slow exhale through mouth.
    • Box breathing – inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds.
  • Encourage students to journal their thoughts when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious
  • Guided Meditation – apps like MyLife offer a variety of guided meditations that can be selected based on how the individual is feeling


5. Refer

If you recognize that a student needs more support or is continuously anxious day after day, make a referral to the counselor.

Follow the Possip blog for more tips about classroom management, student support and leadership.

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