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Invisible Protections


How about we all just exhale deep and collectively recognize that week six of shelter in place was rough. Maybe we can just agree to be OK with letting that one roll on past. Of course this may just be my view because in the educator circles I run in this seems to be the consensus. Interestingly, one major event didn’t contribute to it being challenging — it is the constellation of many factors that formulated the challenge. The school-at-home dynamic is difficult moments for many. Then there is talk of “Zoom fatigue” and how virtual meetings on the computer can leave one replete of oxytocin (the pleasure hormone released in real-life human interaction). Never mind the endless flow of dishes that collect on the counters like leaves in autumn. I personally blame it on the cold grey Monday that kicked off the week, but Humboldt County residents aren’t fazed by a little gray — unless it’s week six of shelter in place. Then it matters. It all matters.

This weekend I had a socially distant get-together with two colleagues that involved a fire in a backyard. OK, it was campfire to hang out. The idea of being outside with people I hadn’t seen in person for weeks was very appealing and I decided to go. When I arrived one of the colleagues pronounced, “I’m so over this.” Hugs and handshakes were absent and distance was well maintained. This shift in social norms felt more natural than it would have several weeks ago as we become socialized in this new survival etiquette. What struck me about the statement was, yes, we are all over it. But it isn’t over.

What happens when we are over it and it isn’t over? We are witnessing this on various levels, regionally, as a state and nationally. While I am not here to cast judgment and weigh what is right or wrong, I think we can admit people are all over the map with this. On my daily bike rides with my daughter, it seemed like on Sunday everyone was wearing a mask, and on Monday not many people were at all. This is a simple distillation of a reality that means different things for different people. One thing is for certain — we are individuals who are well versed at doing what we think is best and when it’s hard to know what’s best, we witness many interpretations of what that may look like.

There are many definitions of resiliency and what it means to be resilient. One is that resilience is “the ability to recover from and adjust easily to misfortune or change.” When considering children, there are factors that promote and support resiliency. Meaningful relationships with adults and peers, a sense of success in an environment, and the ability to adjust and persevere. Resilience is also a combination of competence, confidence, skill, connectedness and the ability to function in a given environment. And even another definition of resiliency is self-awareness, attention (the flexibility and stability of focus), letting go (mental and physical), and accessing and sustaining positive emotion. What jumps out of these varied descriptions, is that connection, guidance and the ability to continue on, even when things are challenging, are aspects of resilience in children that adults can support.

The part of resiliency that taps directly into the connections, and essentially our love and guidance for children, is relationship and belief. There is research that supports that if we believe children can be successful then they are more likely to succeed. Positive regard and attribution combined with consistency and support fosters positive self-identify and grit as children grow. Most of us have heard an interview with someone who has accomplished something like writing a book, becoming an athlete, or another major feat, and they often recognize someone in their past who influenced their ability to succeed and persevere. “If it wasn’t for Ms. Jones my fifth grade teacher, I may not have survived, and certainly wouldn’t be where I am now. She believed in me.” Sometimes the Ms. Joneses of the world hear from their former student, but often they do not. We impact each other beyond our knowing, and by believing in a child, we can impact their life in a manner that we may never see realized.

An approach that is highlighted by trauma experts is the importance of relationship and connection. A protective factor for children that experience adversity (of course this benefits everyone) is secure attachments with adults. One of the avenues toward student wellness during this time of distance learning and shelter in place is the focus on social-emotional support. Children need time to connect with each other in a way that is not solely academic and this has been a primary focus of educators. It is essential that we do all we can as a community to pay careful and extra attention to our children — and do what we can to promote connection. Connections with peers and attachment with adults are essential supports. Allowing time for children to express their experience right now is good medicine.

As we protect each other by tangible measures such as shelter in place, wearing masks in public, social distancing and handwashing — it is also equally important to consider the invisible protections for children. These are interactional in nature. Listening, being present, promoting phone calls or computer meetings with peers and gentle guidance all require our patience and time. These actions are deliberate and are easy to overlook when we are busy and overwhelmed. Let’s support each other as we work toward becoming resilient together. There is no greater social investment of this time than keeping each other safe and protected, physically and emotionally.

Take care and be well.

Dr. Peter Stoll is a credentialed school psychologist and administrator and prefers he/him pronouns. He is a program director for the Humboldt County Office of Education and the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA.

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