By Amy Ament
During a global pandemic, the lines between home, school, and work are blurred and our boundaries with the outside world are constricted. Juggling multiple roles, with worries about the health of family and friends, we are understandably feeling stress and fatigue. As we struggle to develop a new normal our focus has tended to be on the logistics of managing online learning. As a Jewish day school principal who has been actively engaged with students, parents, and teachers, I’m beginning to see some patterns emerge, lessons we’re learning beyond the content of the online classes we’ve worked so hard to launch and teach. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned from these remarkable weeks.
Lesson #1: Learning, Failure and Self-Compassion
Every one of us is learning how to do things for the first time. There is no playbook for this because none of us has ever been in this situation before. All teachers are in a sense first-year teachers, and have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain stability, consistency and structure for their students while getting used to unfamiliar platforms. Used to being well-versed in their craft, they find themselves in unfamiliar territory, and as a result, they will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way. Children are watching and observing every move we make, especially how we react to our mistakes. They watch us stumble, recover, try again, fail again, adjust mid-course, celebrate successes, and not give up. They see us pause, breathe, reflect, and most importantly, persist when faced with a challenge. In the best case scenario, they watch the adults around them respond to frustration with self compassion and forgiveness, with curiosity, not judgment. Instead of saying “I’m such an idiot” when something doesn’t work, we say “That did not happen the way I expected. I wonder why. Let me try something else and see if that works.” Furthermore, acknowledging our imperfections with humor and laughter allows children to accept their own mistakes and gives them permission to practice forgiveness – of themselves and and others.
Lesson #2: Slower pace and boredom
Children (and adults) appreciate the slower pace of life that’s been forced upon them. Instead of rushing through school, appointments, tutors, sports and after-school activities, followed by hours of homework, they enjoy being in the moment. Some are realizing the benefits of downtime and of bonding with siblings and parents over family games, movie nights, and having everyone home to eat meals together, although, understandably, for some families, it isn’t as smooth and could take time. Learning to be bored – and feeling OK with it – is a process. Your children may fail at this at first (see lesson #1). According to author Dr. Brene Brown, “It will take hours of complaining… before they settle into that strange place that’s rarely visited by today’s children – their imagination. We don’t need to entertain them…Boredom is sacred. We shouldn’t deny our children this holy experience.”
Lesson #3: Life skills
Just by being home all day children are learning practical skills from cooking and planning meals to cleaning and organizing different areas of the house. These are authentic, teachable moments.
Lesson #4: Compassion for others and perspective
Being egotistical is a developmental hallmark, in varying degrees, for all children at different ages. Most children are learning from this situation that as hard as it is for them, there are others who are suffering more. An outgrowth of that is their innate desire to help others who have it worse. As a family, talking about how you can actively help others, or even lamenting the fact that you are frustrated because you wish you could do more, demonstrates your family’s values in concrete ways.
Lesson #5: Self–care
Children are learning that sleep and exercise are important for mental health, growth, “headspace,” mindfulness, physical wellbeing, and strengthening their immune systems. They are also becoming self-aware of what they need as individuals in order to recharge, be it having a few quiet minutes to themselves, going out for a walk, Facetiming a friend, meditating, having a dance party, playing or listening to music, jumping on a trampoline, reading a book, drawing, taking a shower or bath, etc. They also report they need a break from screens.
Lesson #6: Making a difference
The message that an individual’s behavior can impact others is powerful. Children are beginning to understand that their small, seemingly inconsequential actions – like staying at home – are helping other people they don’t know stay well. Calling or Facetiming older relatives or people at shul who might be lonely, or writing thank you notes for medical professionals on the front lines, or drawing positive messages on chalk on the sidewalk for passersby to read, gives children something to do to feel like they are making a difference.
Lesson # 7: Resilience
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. The American Psychological Association, long before the emergence of COVID 19, defined resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and even significant sources of stress.”
Human beings are adaptable – more than we thought possible. Had someone told us four weeks ago that we would have to get 375 students in our Early Childhood – 8th grade school up and running on a digital platform within one week, we would have laughed. Or cried. Either reaction would have emerged from the thought that it would be totally unrealistic and completely not feasible to do that in the given time frame. And yet, look at what we accomplished! Things we didn’t think were possible are happening, and though they may not be perfect, we are managing, and so are our children.
Resilience is not something you either have or you don’t. It can be strengthened and built upon. How can we help children become more resilient? We start by modeling it ourselves, by listening, and by encouraging persistence and flexibility. It can also be helpful to point out when a child has accomplished something – “hey, did you know you could do that?”
Lesson # 8: Feeling solidarity and connection with others
One of the most important messages our children are getting is that we are all in this together. It’s quite remarkable and unique that everyone in the world is experiencing the same [thing] at the same time. Children feel connected with multiple people in their concentric circles of family, school, shul and community, towns and cities, states, around the country and around the world because we all have a common bond. Humans are neurologically wired to need connection to others. So while we maintain physical distance, we feel more together than ever.
What can I do?
To counteract the helplessness and hopelessness we all undoubtedly feel at times, ask yourself – and your children – the following questions (adapted from Brooke Anderson’s Facebook post) every day:
- Who am I going to connect with or check in with today?
- What positives can I acknowledge and appreciate today?
- What expectations of “normal” can I let go of today?
- How will I move my body today?
- What am I grateful for today?
- How can I find opportunities to laugh today?
- How can I get outside today?
- How will I give myself permission to be less than perfect today?
Forty to fifty years from now, our children will be asked by their grandchildren to answer the question “What was it like when you were in quarantine?” What will our children remember about this surreal experience? Maybe they will reference the inconvenience, fear and uncertainty, which, of course, are all real and valid. But I think they will also remember that human beings are capable of adapting rather quickly to strange, unforeseen circumstances; that we are each responsible for the health and wellbeing of the entire population; that positive spirits and attitudes can and do prevail, and most significantly, that we can rise above our circumstances and come out on the other side even more closely knit and resilient than before.
Amy Ament is the Middle School principal at Westchester Day School. She can be reached at [email protected]