With the coronavirus mounting a resurgence in areas across the U.S., schools not already using a hybrid schedule to teach students may look to begin virtual learning in their districts. But by moving lessons online, teachers will lose the in-person connection they have with some students, which could make it difficult to pick up on cues regarding mental health.
“Teachers are translators of emotion,” Dr. Isaiah Pickens, a clinical psychologist who works with teachers and educators to identify and address racial inequality issues and mental health problems in students, told Fox News. “They are able to see students as an individual and in the context of the classroom.”
Losing the physical classroom, however, doesn’t mean teachers have to lose the connection with their students. Pickens said teachers will still have plenty of information coming their way from students that could signal a larger issue is going on.
“If there’s a change in mood, there’s less engagement, hearing things as the student learns from home like arguments, etc., these allow educators to perk their ears up,” he said.
And while the safety of the physical classroom may be gone, there are many ways educators can provide support to their students virtually that might even be more helpful than before.
“The virtual world gives multiple modes for communicating, so there are multiple ways you can communicate something that you are experiencing,” Pickens said, adding that a chatroom, an email, or a video chat might actually make it easier for a student to approach a teacher with an issue rather than doing so in-person.
Others, however, may feel at a disadvantage to teaching their students remotely, especially those who never had the chance to meet their students in person to establish a baseline for their mood, demeanor or work habits. For those teachers, Pickens recommends looking for the universal signs that could mean emotional distress such as feelings of hopeless, incomplete assignments, low levels of engagement, or not participating in class activities online, or being a disruption like arguing with students in online chats.
“Teachers don’t need to be social workers, but what [recognizing these emotions] does is it normalizes that one, we’re all going through something right now and two, it’s OK to share parts of ourselves in virtual space to use that foundation to continue to connect and open up in many ways,” he said.
Being direct when communicating with the student can help bolster their emotional being or let them know there is help available. Teachers should reach out directly to the student to let them know they notice a change in attitude, Pickens said.
“Being direct allows students to feel seen,” Pickens said. “Communicating that they are not a burden, whether virtual or in a private chat, saying ‘I’m wondering what it is that has you feeling whatever feeling they are feeling,’ it helps the kids have language to communicate. Think about who is the best ongoing support for the child, it might be a parent, or it might be a peer who can help make the kid feel less lonely – and sometimes it might be professional support.”
On the flip side, Pickens said virtual learning has helped teachers notice students who may have previously slipped through the cracks due to shyness or lack of confidence in the classroom, and those students are starting to blossom through online platforms. It’s also helping to identify students who might need more academic support.
“One of the things teachers have been really praising is multiple ways to engage in class – students are engaging a lot more and it’s very easy to be a student by just participating in the chat,” he said.