What will happen in our schools when physical distancing and face covering are enforced?

Updated: Jul 7




Parents, teachers and administrators are hard at work imagining Covid-19 friendly classroom settings, extra safe playgrounds and making sure that everybody’s body is safeguarded when school restarts in a couple of months. Physical distancing and face coverings are on top of the list, and with them, a giant, dangerous side effect: disconnection.


You’ve probably heard this statement at least once in your life: “human beings are social beings.” We are biologically wired to search for physical and emotional connection. We depend on them to survive and yet with the need for face covering and physical distancing we are being asked to act exactly in the opposite way. Against our natural instincts.


With Covid-19 and this connection off limits, we will see an increase in emotional and behavioral challenges as well as a decrease in the quality of the school atmosphere.


In this document I will explain why there will be such challenges, what will they look like, and how to work around them using simple, efficient, easy to apply strategies.




The challenge

Facts like:

  • the permanent need to abide by and/or enforce physical distancing, and the use of face coverings, 

  • the need to deal with students not complying with these measures, 

  • the lack of touch and consequent release of oxytocin, 

  • the constriction of available teaching modalities due to physical distancing,

  • the feeling of powerlessness and fear surrounding all things Covid-19, 

  • the physical discomfort of wearing face coverings,

  • the inability to lip read and read facial cues,

  • and the need to effectively manage parents’ concerns around Covid-19 challenges,

will with no doubt increase the levels of stress, anxiety and frustration among students, teachers and administrators at schools. They will feel less safe, more irritable and be less tolerant with one another. Relationships will suffer and deteriorate. There will be more individualism, competition, inadequate expression of feelings and misbehavior. This will generate a decrease in the general quality of the school atmosphere which could ultimately impact retention and enrollment, especially in private settings. 

There will also be a higher rate of emotional burnout and therefore less compromise with teaching and learning. This will possibly cause an increase in absenteeism and teacher retention will be more challenging.

Teachers and students will need to find ways to emotionally recharge more often, possibly needing more breaks and different resources from which to recharge. 

Kindergarten teachers and students may have a less challenging time since these students don’t have a pre-established pattern of behavior. They don’t know what school looked like pre Covid-19. For returning students, physical distancing and face coverings will involve redefining the behavioral contract and resetting expectations. This will take time, effort, patience, consistency, empathy and compassion.

In regards to students with a history of misbehavior, the challenge will probably be even greater than pre Covid-19. 

There will be an increase in the feeling of loneliness (comfort and safety are enabled by touch and the reading of facial cues) which will directly affect and magnify anxiety levels, reduce the availability to learn, cooperation and compromise from all parts. Loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being separated and is processed by the nervous system as potentially lethal.

All of the above will have a deep impact in behavior, since behavior is the expression of the soul. Stress, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, insecurity and physical discomfort always show through the actions of the body. 




The workaround

Increasing the feeling of belonging, has historically proven to effectively solve the challenges of loneliness, disconnection, disengagement, friction and misbehavior, and is therefore the workaround suggested for the case.

It is crucial to notice that there is an important difference between belonging to a group and feeling that we belong to that group. The difference resides in our ability to feel loved, capable and taken into consideration by the group and not just be a number or a name in it. It is only when we feel that we belong to the group that we are a part of, that our levels of engagement and commitment rise, our happiness improves, and our behavior tends to favor the cause of the group. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic and due to the restrictions in physical contact and challenges in the reading of facial cues, physical connection and interaction find themselves thwarted, the development of a strong feeling of belonging challenged, and therefore the success of the students and teachers in the educational setting challenged as well.

To counteract for the lack of connection and interaction and develop a strong feeling of belonging,  the use of the following strategies is suggested: 

  • Play and engagement

  • Empathy 

  • Encouragement 

  • Talking feelings

  • Development of meaning

  • Boundary setting

  • Use substitute sources of Oxytocin

Specific examples:

Play and engagement


Play. Play can present itself in the commonly known shape of games, and it can also take the shape of dancing, sports, yoga, physical education, listening to music, singing, laughing, screaming (for fun), a pleasant conversation, or happily accepting an invitation to help. Play is all about doing together for the fun of it. So instead of having a typical break for example, next time you can have a games break, a communications break or a project break. 

Present the new reality (physical distancing and face covering) with empathy. Talk with the students, parents and teachers and not to them.

Humor. The use of humor creates connection and bonding, reduces stress and anxiety and helps solve difficult situations. Humor is also a great tool for de-escalation and redirection of undesirable behavior. 


Share information with the students too. Talk with the students, not only with their parents. When children feel taken into consideration, respected and seen, they feel that they belong, compromise with the cause and fight for it, not against it. 

Involve students and teachers in the search for creative solutions for the different challenges. Children have amazing ideas that grown ups don’t even dream of, and making them a part of the team reduces opposition and improves commitment to the cause by providing a feeling of control.


Come up as a class/school with commonly accepted words and/or lyrics to indicate “remember to keep your distance” and “please, make sure your mask/shield is in place” as a way to minimize these uncomfortable instances, get the students involved and take responsibility in the journey, and help avoid mask and personal space shaming and bullying. 

Invite students to create a dance/movement as a greeting to be used by children and staff when they arrive in the classroom (virtual or real) as a substitute for hugs, fist bumps, etc. A suggestion box may be set at the school, where students drop in their video ideas (this is not a competition!) for the school’s greeting. This is a great way to create identity and a sense of unity and belonging to the school. 



Empathy

Be empathetic. Empathy is crucial in helping a person feel understood and not alone, it reduces frustration, anxiety and stress. Being empathic does not equal agreeing. One can profoundly disagree with someone and still be empathetic to the person.


Encouragement


Encourage. Encouragement is fuel for the soul. Is showing the person that they can. Show the half glass full. “You are doing great. Physical distancing is difficult and I see your effort and also your achievements!” “Look how far you’ve come! Let’s take one more step. I know you can do this.”


Talk feelings


Listen. Really listen. To listen means to understand the other person’s feelings. As a general rule, to really listen, we empty our minds, close our mouths and open our ears. Listening implies drawing in the empty canvas of our brains, the exact picture that the other person is sharing with no added details on our side. Good listening includes paraphrasing and asking open ended questions. Listening helps tremendously with stress, anxiety, frustration and loneliness, and is very powerful in creating a feeling of belonging.

Generate “warm and fuzzy feelings”. There will be a great need to compensate for the lack of touch and connection, and the use of books that talk about positive feelings and experiences for example, can be an efficient way to “fill the children’s emotional buckets”. This same objective may be reached by “warm and fuzzy” conversations during circle time or giving warm and fuzzy compliments to peers and teachers. 

Use guided imagery. Guided imagery is an excellent alternative for reality. When done correctly, the feelings that are normally generated in a specific real situation will also be generated through guided imagery and will produce the same effects. Guided imagery may be used to help calm a child (or teacher) down, encourage them, reduce the feeling of loneliness, anxiety, frustration, stress and to substitute reality whenever reality is unreachable (like the need for a hug).

Talk feelings. Talking feelings is much more effective than reading many books about feelings. When we talk feelings, we walk the walk, the learning is direct, clear and very effective. 

Teachers should have regular opportunities to make their frustrations, anxiety and challenges heard. They could have a weekly get together expressly designed for this. This should be done in a very relaxed and informal way to allow for free expression. No judgment allowed, and solutions allowed only by express consent of the teacher who’s sharing. This should be an instance to listen and be listened to. 


Development of meaning


Propose activities and projects where the students/teachers feel meaningful. “The antidote for loneliness is a sense of mission and purpose in life.” Steve Cole, PhD. “The human being searches for meaning”, Viktor Frankl.


Boundary setting


Set and enforce boundaries. Rules and boundaries regarding expected behavior allow for safety and freedom. They therefore should be set, be clear, be communicated, and consistently enforced. When boundaries are not respected, listening, empathy, encouragement and if necessary logical consequences should be used. 

Students who struggle complying with the new rules should always be approached with patience, and empathy. Remember that being empathetic does not necessarily mean agreeing. It means seeing the other. 


Use substitute sources of Ocytocin.


Substitutes for Oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a key role in feeling safe. It creates intimacy, trust, and strengthens relationships, inspires positive thinking (optimism), promotes bonding between people, trust and compassion. Oxytocin is released upon touch and the reading of facial cues. When these are not accessible, the following substitutes may be used:

  • Dancing, exercise, sports, physical education, yoga

  • Listening to exciting music

  • Singing and screaming (outside, physically distanced, and for the fun of it)

  • Exposure to sunlight

  • Playing 

  • Social bonding through personal conversations

  • Volunteering 

  • Being trusted 

Creating a “human friendly” environment to counteract the restrictions during Covid-19 is definitely possible, and our students, teachers and administrators deserve it. If you have any questions regarding how to implement this workaround, I'm happy to help you.