Supporting “Social Stamina” as In-Person Learning Returns
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2021 Issue
By Adam Stone
As schools prepare for a return to in-person learning in the fall, Dr. Tere Linzey has been thinking about what she calls “social stamina.”
“That is the bandwidth that we have to be socially aware and to get out there in society,” says Linzey, an education psychologist and founder of the learning program BrainMatterZ. Social stamina is a way to talk about kids’ resilience, the emotional tools they have available in their encounters with others.
Those tools may be a little rusty after a year of remote education. “For some students, this will be the first time they step foot in the school building in 18 months,” says Katy Fattaleh, senior program director at the inclusivity advocacy group The Nora Project.
“Social dynamics may have shifted without them being aware of it,” she says. “Not only will students need to navigate what it’s like to interact with peers on a more regular, in-person basis again. They’ll also have to manage those nuanced social interactions without knowing what they may have missed or what changed.”
Signs of Stress
With the return to in-classroom learning, teachers will need to watch for signs of stress. They must be attuned to the cues that let them know when students may be suffering from diminished social stamina. “They’re going to see the lack of concentration. They’re going to see kids who can’t finish a test,” Linzey says. “Just like an athlete who doesn’t practice for an entire year, kids’ fundamental skills are going to be lacking.”
Many kids will be excited about getting back to normal, “but others will be very anxious about returning to the school building,” says James Walsh, a professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Students “may experience a sense of being ‘judged’ by peers or adults when they go back to school. They may have a longing to stay in the relative comfort and safety of home.”
Some may be especially hard-pressed to adapt. For those who struggle with social anxiety or difficulties with attention and self-regulation, for example, “the return to physical schooling presents more of a challenge,” says Mara Koffmann, a learning specialist and co-founder of Braintrust Tutors.
“For these students, remote schooling offered a relief from the difficulties and frustrations of in-person learning. Accordingly, a return to school means a return to familiar challenges,” she says.
While some students will show overt signs if they are having social difficulties, “even children who do not exhibit serious symptoms… may still experience some degree of emotional distress,” says Yamila Lezcano, assistant professor in the Undergraduate Psychology and Education Program at Albizu University Miami Campus.
She points to a number of areas where social stress may manifest, including:
- Challenges adjusting to the school routines structures, and rules.
- Exhibiting anxiety and depression-related symptoms due to separation from parents and caregivers.
- Behavioral issues related to the traumatic stress of the pandemic, such as anger outbursts and attentional issues.
- Irritability with friends, teachers, and events.
In general, the social pressures of in-person learning create potential complications for kids who have been out of their usual social routines for a year or more. Their social stamina—the ability to navigate a complicated interpersonal landscape—may have diminished through disuse.
Experts say teachers and administrators can play a pivotal role in ensuring that students are able to adapt to in-person learning. Classroom educators have a unique influence in helping students navigate not just the academic but also the social challenges of post-pandemic education.
The Teacher’s Role
Sophia Arnold is a Special Education teacher at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago. She recommends that teachers take explicit steps to guide their students through this period of social adjustment. “Transitioning back inside the building can be a bit overwhelming, especially if students have been staying inside and not interacting a lot with others,” she says. “I would encourage teachers to conduct frequent emotional check-ins with students.”
Teachers can initiate these conversations, or even deliver mini-lessons where they model the sharing of feelings. The teacher might say: “I have not been around so many people in such a long time. I feel a bit nervous.” She could then ask students whether they feel the same way. “The lesson will continue with similar thoughts being modeled out loud,” says Arnold.
A licensed therapist specializing in academic challenges, Sally Berkowitz describes these as “turn and talk” or “table talk” activities. She encourages such sharing time at the beginning of the day or period.
Education consultant Keith L. Brown says conversations like these will be needed before teachers can effectively reengage kids in the educational processes. Even before tackling academics, “school districts must emphasize taking mental and emotional pulse checks, to make sure our kids know they’re in safe, loving environments,” he says.
“I’ve been giving schools nationally and globally eight affirmations to assist students with building their social stamina: I Love Myself! I Believe in Myself! I’m Proud of Myself! I’m a Genius! I Can! I Will! I Must! I’ve Got This! When recited daily [along with] classroom discussions on resilience and empathy, these affirmations will be very relevant and help enhance students’ inner fortitude,” he says.
Others point to physical wellness as a key component of emotional wellness, and they urge teachers to take this into account. “One of the best things you can do is to encourage good health behaviors for the students. This includes opportunities for breaks and exercise during the day and the ability to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated,” Walsh says. “People who take good care of themselves are less drained by the tasks of the day.”
While open conversations can support the entire group’s efforts to re-adjust, teachers also will need to pay individual attention to those who don’t seem to be fully engaged.
When students appear to be having difficulty navigating the social challenges of an in-person classroom, Linzey says, a one-on-one approach is key to helping them reorient. “You can stay after class to talk with them alone, or just have them step outside in the hall to have a private conversation: How can we handle this better next time? What could we do instead?” she says. “By keeping it private, you give them the opportunity to grow and to not feel criticized or judged. That’s really what teaching is about: allowing students opportunities to grow and guiding them in that growth.”
Teachers can also structure their classroom efforts in such a way as to give students opportunities to practice and potentially strengthen their social skills. “Younger children will need social opportunities within the school day. Middle school and high school students need opportunities to socialize inside and outside of the classroom,” Berkowitz says. To that end, “group work, partner work, and whole-class learning should be integral to the new class environment.”
In addition to structuring classroom time with social outcomes in mind, teachers can also be looking for informal opportunities to help students bolster their (possibly rusty) interpersonal skills. “Do everything you can to help students connect not only with you, but with one another,” says Fattaleh.
“Whenever possible, help students understand what it means to be a good friend,” she says. “While you’re teaching lessons, try to choose books with characters that demonstrate empathy and make time to talk about what students notice about those interactions.”
Educators also can leverage their relationships with parents in order to get a feel for where students are at as they come into the school year, and also to track students’ efforts to readjust over time.
“Teachers should ask parents directly about struggles their children faced socially over the past fourteen months,” says Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP, a board-certified, practicing pediatrician and the creator of Modern Mommy Doc. They can also do more regular check-ins with parents than in prior years.
Koffman meanwhile offers three practical tips for those looking to strengthen kids’ social stamina:
- “Start the year simple and then slowly but surely build more rigorous expectations for student behavior and performance. This will create more opportunities for kids to experience success as they return to the classroom, which will help to build their confidence.”
- “Make positive reinforcement a goal. By creating clear and consistent structure in the classroom, kids will be better positioned to do well. Highlight and celebrate each and every effort and achievement to help kids build a more positive relationship with school and learning.”
- “Create a supportive environment with an emphasis on communication and relationships. Kids have been largely living in isolation for over a year, and they’ll need some practice as they learn to communicate with people in the real world once again.”
Overall, she says, it’s important to recognize that it may take some time for kids to reestablish their social abilities after a long period of disuse. “The most important thing teachers can do as students return to physical schooling is to be patient,” she says. “Thankfully, it is also one of the things that we teachers do best!”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.