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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

4 Ways School Occupational Therapists can Foster Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Amidst COVID-19

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

If you are anything like me, you have trepidation about the upcoming school year. Many of us have heard vague ideas about our school’s reopening plans that include social distancing, masks and a tremendous amount of cleaning. Though we may not understand the details, we do know that our students’ social emotional health will be challenged. Neurodiverse children are already especially vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Within special education we tend to be more concerned with our students’ educational and developmental needs but this crisis reminds us that a holistic approach requires that we attend to social emotional needs as well. As school based occupational therapists we must shift our perspective and look squarely at how we will help our students to weather the storm of the big return to school after so many months at home.    

How will we be part of the solution as we all take this big leap into our new normal?

We don’t need to leave it to the psychologists or counselors. As occupational therapists we have the tools necessary to help students navigate these uncharted waters with just some simple strategies our students will be able to thrive in school again. 

1, Abandon your IEP goals for the first few weeks of school

Even if you enjoyed telehealth there were many special education students who simply did not respond and there are many anxious families that have been worried about skill regression. It is very likely that we will start September with many children who have lost skills. Though we may be eager to get right back to working on our goals we have to think about where our students have been since March and the environment that COVID 19 has created. Even if children were not expressly told, the message has been that it has been too dangerous to attend school. In September, school teachers and therapists will be wearing masks and perhaps gloves. We will be discouraged from touching children and keeping our distance behind plexiglass in some cases. What are our students to think when faced with this warped new way of being in the classroom? Brain research reminds us that safety is foundational to all other development. Simply put, if a child does not feel safe, they cannot access the parts of their brain required for learning. Occupational therapists are experts in the mind-body connection. We can be leaders in our schools by helping staff to understand that creating a sense of classroom safety must be the overarching goal for all of our students. This may require that the IEP goals take a backseat to the SEL goals of safety and belonging.  

2. Take care of your Mental Health

Fear is often at the root of many of our students' behavioral difficulties.  As therapists we often jump to teaching skills to deal with these behaviors. For many children this is a step too far if we have not considered co-regulation first. Children need caring adults to help them to regulate their energy and mood. The COVID crisis has impacted all of us. Our students need US to continuously monitor our actions and moods to help send the message that they are safe and protected in school.  

How you are feeling and managing during this pandemic matters.

For some therapists this extra time may have seemed like a blessing and it has been used to create exercise and meditation routines that have served them while facing this significant life stressor. For many others, days may seem long and frightening, with the 24 hour news cycle available to feed our fears. Our brain is primed to search for threats and will exaggerate the risks to keep us safe. In order to be of service we need to keep ourselves accountable and aware so that we can model mental health for children. This includes taking time to notice when we are succumbing to fear. There are many ways that we can approach self-care but one simple method is to go on a news fast. The news is a business that feeds off of fear in order to keep us watching. We can take the notifications off our phones and choose to limit the fearful messages at any time, but maybe it is especially important as we transition back at school.

Be honest about your own fear with your students

While we recognize the need to take care of our mental health, as humans we will succumb to fearful thoughts.  Instead of pushing these thoughts aside they can be used as a teaching tool and as a way to connect with students.  We can admit when we have gotten scared and what we did to feel better.  When we validate our own emotions, we allow others to do the same. Often adults mask their emotions because they don’t want to burden children but most of our emotions come through non-verbal communications anyway.  When we are acting one way and saying something else we just confuse children. Admitting that we are human and scared helps kids to really get to know us and this may help them to be able to open up to us as well. 

3. Provide Opportunities for Choice

When the world seems chaotic many of us choose to overly control our external environment.   We have a strong agenda and resist straying from our plans. Many special education students may also choose to create rigid routines in an attempt to feel this same sense of order.  While trying to balance our own needs and our students' needs it may be the perfect time to allow limited choices based on students’ interests and strengths.  As a therapist we can set up choices that can easily be worked into the classroom or therapy space.  Not only can we allow for choice when it comes to activities but also flexibility can be offered with the schedule.  It will take some time for children to manage their expectations within the classroom.  Allowing for extra flexibility and choice may be useful in to ease the back to school mindset. 

4. Create Welcoming Routines and Optimistic Endings

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is an organization that uses research to set the standard for SEL programs throughout the country. These SEL programs differ in various ways but two practices that many have in common is starting the day with a welcoming routine and leaving with an optimistic ending. We know that routines can be regulating for not just children but also adults. Creating a sense of order can be a wonderful way to start and end our time with students.  An example can be starting each therapy session with a special greeting and perhaps a movement break and ending with an expression of gratitude or an explanation of what the student can look forward to the next day.  There are many different ways to incorporate routines that can help to make your students feel grounded during their time in your sessions and their time in school.  

These are just a few of the ways that we can foster social emotional health when our students return to our school buildings.  If you would like to hear more please subscribe to my website and look out for the online course "Mindful Sensations Therapuetic Approach" coming in mid October. 

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