A conversation with Ondine Gross on returning to school in the fall with an SEL lens

This spring and summer are unlike any other. Staying at home during a pandemic impacted many educators as we juggled working from home with other demands.  Many of us were/are stressed and emotionally challenged as we care for our students, families, and friends. The recent events of Black Lives Matter also impact our lives. In the near future, ROE SchoolWorks plans to collect and distribute additional resources for discussions of racial justice and equity in education.

In light of the pandemic, specifically, we asked school psychologist and author of Restore the Respect: How to Mediate School Conflicts and Keep Students Learning, Ondine Gross, how educators can support their students and themselves when they return to school in the fall. 


What feelings may teachers, administrators, support staff, and other adults in school buildings have regarding returning to classrooms in the fall? How do you expect those feelings to be similar to or different from the feelings of students?

It is hard to imagine what everyone has experienced during the pandemic. Perhaps we all share some things in common:

  • Many were isolated from usual social and/or support networks.
  • Many were impacted by stressors: health, food insecurity, financial loss, domestic violence, unemployment, substance abuse, and at the worst, loss of loved ones.
  • Many were afraid and uncertain about the future.
  • Many experienced intensity of emotions never felt before such as fear, anxiety or depression.
  • Or, if we did not experience the above ourselves, many witnessed a wide range of needs/emotions of others around us including our students, our families, our community and the world.


What will educators feel returning to school in the fall?

  • ...Fear that COVID-19 may be transmitted in the school
  • ...Unease about changes and disruption to previous routines
  • ...Confusion about how to prioritize the academic and social-emotional emotional needs of children 


What might students feel?

  • Happiness and relief to be back to school with teachers and friends
  • Grief and loss
  • Ongoing fear and worry


How can adults prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for returning to school?

Know it is okay to show vulnerability. We are all human and trying our best!

Participate in discussions with the school staff to identify school supports and resources that address physical and emotional safety for all.

In order to be a calm, non-anxious presence for children, educators can start by addressing their own self-care:

  • Stay connected with supportive/positive family, friends and colleagues
  • Maintain a healthy sleep schedule
  • Eat healthy, exercise, and stay hydrated
  • Practice self-empathy and positive self-talk
  • Pause and reflect with a journal, notes, texts to oneself
  • Meditate and/or do relaxation techniques 
  • Breathe. Practice 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise: Breath in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.


How can schools support students and families in the transition to the classroom in the fall?

Provide space and time for dialogue and for questions to be answered. Be honest but reassuring. Do not discuss unknowns, dire predictions, or worst case-scenarios that could generate more fear and anxiety.

Listen to learn. Everybody will have different experiences and needs, and we do not know until we ask.

Validate the emotions people express: “It is okay to not be okay.” “This is a no-judgement zone.”

Verbally acknowledge the emotions and losses. If there is “an elephant in the room,” talk about the elephant in the room! We can role model how to show support by creating an environment where it is okay to share feelings.

Ask how others are feeling.

Validate feelings using supportive words and body language: “I see...I understand... I know this is difficult...Tell me more…”

Understand that one’s needs for support are ongoing.

Use helpful words that honor each person’s individuality:

  • “People often have strong feelings when something like this happens. Can you tell me what this has been like for you?”
  • “How is your family doing? What kinds of concerns do you have about them?”

If someone died:

“What kinds of memories do you have about _______?”               “What have you been thinking about since ________ died?”

We can be purposeful about the language we use with children with word swaps:

  • Instead of "Calm down..." say "I know this is a challenge right now..."
  • Instead of "Everything will be okay..." say "Here's what is great right now..."
  • Instead of "Don't worry about it..." say "Let's focus on ___..."
  • Instead of "You will be fine..." say "We're doing ___ to look into it."


What strategies can adults practice and share with students and families to emotionally support them when we move back into the classroom?

Create a “community of care” in the classroom and the same practices can be used at home.  Some teachers may opt to start each day with a check in or circle. Thumbs up, sideways or down? Show by fingers one-to-ten. Students point to a feelings chart.

“How can I help you today?"

“How can we help you today?”

Listen and observe.

Expect a wide range of emotions.

Reassure students you will be there with them.

Welcome back someone to the classroom and/or show grace and forgiveness when someone misbehaves.

Students will need to feel safe, connected, and cared for. Answer questions, clarify misunderstandings, and when possible, provide learning activities that give students some choice.

Predictable routines and boundaries are helpful as well as providing creative outlets including play, sensory activities, movement, music, drawing and verbal/written expression.


What are some specific classroom activities that will help students’ emotional regulation?

Mindfulness activities to bring calm. These take 5-10 minutes: 18 Amazing Mindfulness Activities for the Classroom

Create a worry box

  • Source and decorate a small box, such as a tissue box. Creating a box shows a child they can have ownership and control over their thoughts and feelings.
  • Then, perhaps each day (or night before bed) write down the child’s worries onto a piece of paper. The ritual of writing out the worries helps them acknowledge and address those feelings.
  • Have them fold the piece of paper and put it in the box.
  • The next day – take the notes out of the box and see if the child still has those worries. If they do, place them back in the box; if they don’t, have them rip up the paper and throw it away. The act of disposing of the worries helps to symbolize the release of those emotions.

Make a comfort box

  • Put a photo of something you love, a smell of something you love (essential oil), the feel of something you love (soft scarf), and the taste of something you love (chocolate) inside a box. When you feel distressed, open the box and display these items that bring you comfort.   

Use the “3 Things” technique

  • Think of 3 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 3 things you can touch, 3 things you can taste, and 3 things you can see.” Do this in a calm space with favorite music.


What resources do you recommend to administrators, teachers, support staff, and families to prepare for the upcoming school year?

There are numerous resources available, including guides, articles, webinars and videos. Below is a sampling:

National Association of School Psychologists: https://www.nasponline.org/ 

American School Counselor Association: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/

Schoolcrisiscenter.org pandemic resources: https://www.schoolcrisiscenter.org/resources/covid-19-pandemic-resources/

Supporting grieving students during a pandemic: https://schoolguide.casel.org/resource/the-casel-guide-to-schoolwide-sel-essentials/

Video: Talking to and Supporting Children and Ourselves during the Pandemic (25 min): https://vimeo.com/user109043156/review/402750151/cca89d5642

The Casel Guide to Schoolwide SEL Essentials: https://schoolguide.casel.org/resource/the-casel-guide-to-schoolwide-sel-essentials/


Ondine Gross, M.S., Ed.M., is the author of Restore the Respect: How to Mediate School Conflicts and Keep Students Learning and a nationally certified school psychologist with over 30 years of experience.