I have been particularly worried of late with the start of school in person in some areas that the masks and social distancing within the school building will present hurdles for many children.
For starters, the idea that they cannot sit together, they cannot touch each other, they cannot play together is hard. And, for students to sit in one place and not move around is hard too. I have read comments by students who just returned to school that go something like this:
Why am I here if I can’t connect with my friends?
I have seen photographs of classrooms where teachers have tried to ameliorate this obvious concern about distancing by making the desks into fun items — race cars, reading nooks. The point is to make the distancing easier and to make kids realize that we have not lost fun and laughter forever. And there is and should be joy in learning — which is rendered difficult by the forced set up needed for physical protection.
Stated simply, children are or will be feeling alienated and separated. Some may be wondering whether online learning is better if they can’t interact physically and are so constrained. They feel the absence of connection.
So, here’s an idea. It starts with some memories.
Remember rubber band chains? Remember exercise bands with handles on both ends? Remember oval plastic loops that can be connected? Remember weaving loops that could be made into a chain? Remember gimp? Remember jump robes that went around ankles and stretched? Remember linking paperclips of all sizes together into long long strings?
What if we made connectors of one sort or another and then they could connect students to each other and to the teacher by taping them on the tops of desks or legs of desks? I get that they cannot be shared and touched absent gloves (which could be decorated). But, imagine colorful connectors made by the children connecting them to each other and the teacher. Sure, it is not a replacement for real connection. (Pick things that could be cleaned or wiped down.)
But, you could jiggle a chain to say hi to a neighboring child. You could see the connectors around the room and know that they are real connections, even absent touch. The point is to recognize that the absence of connection feels bad and the creation of connection feels good. And the act of creating connectors has power to it. Real power to control and improve feelings.
I have seen buckets of colorful paperclips that could be used. I have seen felt strips that have buttons and holes on them that could be put together. I have seen stretchy cords that could be connected together. Pipecleaners would work.
Here’s the point. Clever fun desks are a start but they don’t replace connection. And, the data show that making connections, being connected, is an antidote to the activation of the autonomic nervous system. It’s worth a try. (See Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, TCPress 2020; www.tcpress.com/karengross)
And, I plan to buy some of these connectable items and share them at the next training I do with teachers in the hope that some of them will “see the connection” and then “make the connection” and then “create the connection” with their students as we all navigate forward in a new world.
The point of the connectors is to open the pathway to positive feelings, not just the negative feelings that come from social distancing within the school building and all the accompanying rules and requirements. And, getting feelings out and expressed is a key element to feeling better — thinking better and being more aware of one’s behavior.
With Dr. Ed Wang, we have just released The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set. (For those interested, it is a downloadable file for $4.99 available at www.karengrosseducation/thefeelingalphabet.)
The point of the Activity Set is to enable students (and adults with needed adjustments) to identify their feelings — both positive and negative) in a myriad of ways: words, images, charades, games, feeling thermometers, feeling Mad-Like Libs, stories. The point is that if you can name your feelings, you can then tame them. Feelings lead to thoughts and behaviors (it is actually a triangle that moves in all directions as explained and shown in the Activity Set.)
One group of feelings that are negative are: distant and separated and alientated and alone and disconnected. Through the classroom connection activity suggested above, you can start to develop positive feelings: connected, joined, linked…. Sure, it is not the same as physical connection but, it is better than nothing.
We are in a world that is so confusing for so many that we need ways to find some understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Bottom line: Find ways to connect.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.