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How a Solution Focused Mindset Can Help Teachers and Students Prepare for Going Back to School

Posted on: June 15, 2021

As students in some areas prepare to return to school post Covid-19, how can teachers prepare for re-entry? Linda Metcalf, M.Ed., Ph.D., author of Counseling Toward Solutions, offers faculty a solution focused mindset to engage students and help them deal with their students’ emotional trauma.

What do depression, anxiety, trauma, and school refusing all have in common? They are the results of Covid-19 linked to an estimated 40% of our students. 

After a year of being taken out of the structured processes of education, and thrown into chaos at home with siblings, working parents and new learning platforms, many students have been traumatized. They can no longer hear from well-intentioned teachers or leaders:

• “You have to complete this or you will fail the class.”
• “You must engage in your work.”
• “I can’t help you if you don’t pay attention and ask for help.”

Such sentiments won’t make a difference. Students will stare at teachers with glazed over eyes. And, if teachers push too hard, too early, they risk traumatizing them again. Then, it’s game over.
“Emerging research from other countries, as well as long-term data on the effect of other community disasters and prior epidemics, "suggest that the mental health toll of COVID-19 and its associated burdens on youth will be significant and long lasting,” said Sharon Hoover, professor of child adolescent psychiatry and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We anticipate increases in depression, anxiety, trauma and grief, and more demand for an array of mental health services and supports for children and families”.

The Need for a New Mindset

The good news is that there is a new mindset to consider. It is a solution focused mindset that school counselors can use immediately to ease the stress of the past seventeen months and welcome back students, along with faculty colleagues. It starts with sharing the ideas of the solution focused approach in faculty meetings prior to school beginning. In this case, it means looking beyond the problem of gaps in learning and instead, seeing students as people who have been lost, in a sense, to a climate of uncertainty, trying to find their way back.  Such a mindset is like what caring adults do for each other when someone they love gets hurt or suffers loss or tragedy. They use the human touch of understanding, engagement, compassion, and kindness to engage and support their loved one.

I believe that inside each of our students is a hero, desperately waiting for an invigorating school climate to rescue them from a year of challenges. To reach them, teachers must literally and emotionally step into the lives of their students and earn their cooperation through their interactions. The solution focused school counselor can lead teachers into classrooms with such a mindset. Now, more than ever, when this starts to occur, our students will begin to heal. And, here’s the best part: our educators will begin to heal as well. 

Opening the Door to Engagement

I have come to notice more, over the past decade, that, due to the constraints and expectations of school administration, educators have often forgotten what I consider an integral idea of teaching: “teachers work for students,” rather than, “students work for teachers.” The resistance that seems prevalent in many of our schools today is a result of a problem focused mindset. It’s a scary thought to some to embrace a solution focused mindset, a fact I learned years ago while training a school district. The school was having real issues with disruptive classes, resistant and misbehaving students and had tried a variety of strategies to regain control. After punishments did not work, and suspended students came back to misbehave, again, the district was reaching for answers.  As I began talking on the first day of training with the teachers, I asked them how they wanted their classes to go. I heard words like peaceful, calm, cooperative. I praised their vision and then talked about what they might be doing to help achieve such classrooms. That led to discussions of new mannerisms and approaches, such as the solution focused mindset.

A brave teacher, who was taken aback by the discussion, stood up in front of her colleagues and principal and said, “But if I do that, I will become a victim to my students.” I thought I had to have control.

I looked at the principal after catching my breath and asked her, “Would it be okay, for your teachers to engage with students and try to connect with them, using this mindset, as they start their day?” The principal was as shocked as I was and said, “Of course.” He stared at his faculty for a while after his answer.  He then stood up and talked to them about listening to a new way of engaging students. Taking on such a mindset made all the difference for the school climate in that school. Soon, teachers began talking to students first, before sending them to the office. As a result, relationships changed and so did students.

It’s Re-Entry Time - Prepare the Atmosphere

We are going back to school this fall, to a very different type of student - one we have never encountered. Those students who are experiencing depression, anxiety, and school refusal desperately need an environment where they can step out of a year-long quarantine into a new chapter of re-entry. It might be helpful for us to see their re-entry as one like that of astronauts who re-enter the atmosphere from space. They are acclimatized on board before they go through the perils of the burning atmosphere. It is traumatic, so when they splash down in the ocean, we are cautious and wait for a while to open the hatch. We are patient for their emergence into the air that they have been deprived. We know, physiologically that they will need to get used to breathing again on earth. And as they slowly breathe in the familiar air, that they know gives them life, they soon rest and are at ease. Their community, earth, welcomes them back, as heroes, sometimes with news conferences or other kind greetings. The astronauts know they are cherished, and others are happy to see them. That makes the bodily adjustments manageable. They rejoin their communities with a zest for success.

Students will go through a similar re-entry. We too, must greet students back as heroes, with accolades, slowing down any tendencies to push too hard at first.  To do so may be harmful and may perpetuate a climate of emotional unsafety.  It is one thing to make sure our schools are safe from the virus. It’s another thing to make sure our schools are safe emotionally.

It’s rather simple to grasp the solution focused mindset that I am writing about here. Think of it like this:

Suppose someone you truly cared for went on a long, long trip. During that trip, you heard that there were situations that threatened the livelihood and emotionality of the person you cared for. You worried about them a lot, and at times, could not reach them. Then, one day, you hear that the person is coming back, although slightly altered emotionally from their trip. When that person walks up to you, what will you do that will show that person you are happy to see them? What will you say? How will that person know they are cherished and valued in your life? What do you hope they realize about themselves as a result when you do all these things?  

The answer to these questions probably came to you easily. They will also come easily to the teachers and administrators. Let this scenario guide you as you create a re-entry plan for your students as the new school year arrives. Just use the prompt above in a faculty meeting as the inspiration for the student plan. You can do it. Then brainstorm how to greet students and talk about their experiences with them, without giving anything but support and be amazed that they survived what they did. 

Then, take it one step further - ask the teachers, parent, and administrators what they will need. You will then have solutions for the start of school.

Students will recall your impact on them twenty or thirty years from now. Your power and the power of teachers is unwavering in the lives of students. A new mindset will result in classrooms being safe and education can resume with gusto. And, here’s something else: your life will be invigorated again with the passion that drove you to the profession. 

Re-entry is coming. Be there, human to human, to welcome back our travelers.

Is adopting a solution focused mindset relevant to your course and teaching? Request an inspection copy of, Counseling Toward Solutions, by Linda Metcalf, M.Ed., Ph.D. This book provides a solution-focused approach to working alongside students, parents, and teachers that decreases misbehaviors, and encourages mental health and growth mindset in students.